Theme: Roads – Central France

A recent trip to La Belle France served only to remind me of just how dire are our UK roads, and to wonder at how the French can afford to keep theirs in such good condition.

Frech Road signs
During the Easter period, my family spent 10 days tooling around roads in the very centre of France. There was a real mix of roads: Autoroutes, dual-track roads, main roads (we’d call them A roads), as well as single track stuff and streets around towns and villages. All this was in a new-ish, but humble Megane 1.5dCi hire car. Our base was a pretty (but not fancy) little town called Argenton-sur-Creuse, but we ventured as far as La Rochelle, and in and around La Brenne. It’s fabulously rural (La Rochelle excepted), but the state of the roads is anything but that.

First, the roads are not busy. Not at all. Rush hour in Argenton is a relative term. So, there’s no congestion, just free flowing driving, relaxed and enjoyable. You really get chance to analyse the road, the car, the surroundings. And the quality of the tarmac, and the quality of the laying of the roads is astonishing. Truly, even on the twisty stuff around Crozant, not a pot hole was encountered; not once. Even in town. Even on single track stuff. It was like, wow, amazing.

Furthermore, I did not encounter a single reverse-camber; instead, on a bend the road tilted the car into the apex, helping it around with minimal fuss. We came across a road just outside Poitiers which was perfect, and yet it was being taken up and renewed (and I mean a whole stretch between two rondpoints) seemingly just because it was looking a little grey, rather than pitch black.

The amazing Il de Re Bridge - can you imagine something similar for the Isle of Wight?
The amazing Il de Re Bridge – can you imagine something similar for the Isle of Wight?

I came across workmen cutting back the vegetation in the central reservation of a dual-carriage way (several times). All in all, everything perfectly kept and maintained … like new. Boy, was I jealous. I kept having mini-rants under my breath which my better half could interpret. How the bloody hell do they afford this? Seriously, how do they? If I had the time I’d research it: what’s the spend-per-kilometre in France on roads vs. the UK, and where does the funding come from? Do the French really pay that much more per capita in taxation? Do they grit the roads around there? How do they do it and why can’t we have the same in the UK?

Whatever, driving was a real joy and the state of the roads an absolute marvel. British roads are crowded and, moreover, in a dire state of repair: the comparison is shocking and wonderful all at the same time.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

12 thoughts on “Theme: Roads – Central France”

  1. According to the World Bank, the UK’s government spending is about 20% of GDP and France´s is about 20%. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.CON.GOVT.ZS. The Banks says “General government final consumption expenditure (formerly general government consumption) includes all government current expenditures for purchases of goods and services (including compensation of employees). It also includes most expenditures on national defense and security, but excludes government military expenditures that are part of government capital formation.”
    At Wikipedia you will find a different measure is used. For France the figure is 56.1% and the UK is 48.5%. The US spends about 40%. Germany spends 45.4%.
    I think this goes some way towards answering your question about how the French maintain their roads.
    If countries were hotels, the French and Germans are willing to pay more for their “stay” if it means having better services outside the hotel room (or private sphere) than the USicans and the British. It´s only a metaphor.

  2. There were local elections there last month. I’m guessing budgets were used in timely fashion to help towards the incumbents re-election (didn’t work judging by the results).

    And local taxes are quite high, so that’s the answer to your question when it comes to towns and B-roads. Meanwhile motorways are partly privatised and it’s the interest of the companies involved to keep them well maintained if they don’t want to lose their title on these roads, and the toll revenue.

  3. I like taking to back roads and I’d point out that, though they might often be more picturesque, there are still D Roads in France whose surfaces can compete with the worst we have in the UK. I seem to remember some very rough ones East of Le Puy-en-Velay. Not that I’m complaining .

    And overall you’re quite right – driving in France is far more comfortable, and it’s a pleasure not to have to jostle for space on crowded motorways (slightly less of a pleasure when your Sanef toll bills come through at the end of the month). And if you don’t feel like driving you can take a nice, comfortable fast train too.

    Another point is that, French drivers seem far more observant of speed limits than UK ones. I don’t think this is down to a better spirit of public behaviour, since it only became apparent when speed cameras were introduced. It’s possibly down to the fact that French cameras aren’t painted an obliging yellow.

    All in all, we have to ask Laurent what he’s doing over here!

  4. Arriving in France in the middle 80s on family holidays we marvelled at French roads and French signposts too. What makes French roads pleasant is the smoothness of the surface. This is not to say there are no dips and bulges. I am referring to the quality of the top centimetre. In Britain and Ireland a coarser grade of dressing is used. This generates more rumble than does finer a grade of dressing. Why would one choose a coarser grade? One answer is that comminution of rock is a costly business. In Ireland and parts of the UK the dressing might be a suitably fine grade of pre-sorted alluvial or glacial gravel. In France I think they have to crush freshly quarried rock and they specificied it was crushed to a smaller average size than predominates in the British Isles. Penny-pinching engineers in the UK and Ireland have resisted using this more-expensive material more commonly.

  5. I once read an interesting op-ed piece about the often, shall we say, care-worn appearance of NHS hospitals compared to their private counterparts. The author opined that the battered appearance of public areas is a necessary function of extracting maximum value from the asset. As tax payers, we should take cheer that our money is not being wasted; after all, the entire function of the NHS is to treat people’s ailments, not impress them with interior décor.

    The state of British roads falls into the same category. Some roads suffer from wilful neglect, it is true; indeed it may become an unwelcome norm when councils are facing centrally imposed cuts of up to 50%. But people complain about the odd pothole here and there as if it portends the end of civilisation. That potholes are usually fixed quickly once reported hardly gets a look in. As for the degradation of the surface over time, that again is a necessary function of extracting maximum value from the asset. I would rather put up with that (and I do, the suspension of my Civic Type R being as unrelentingly coarse as a Frankie Boyle gig) than face a tax hike in a pointless quest for billiard table smooth roads.

    1. Hi, I understand your argument and agree with it quite fundamentally. I guess my “how the …. hell do they afford this?” sentiment was/ is partly driven/ informed by over-riding social and media noise about “the age of austerity” that we are all supposed to be enduring. I was/ am both delighted and bemused by the French ability to (it appears) spend so much on their roads when we’re all supposed to be going to hell in a handcart (presumably on a badly broken piece of road). I guess I am partly wondering whether the state of roads in the two domains reflects the respective cultural/ social/ economic preferences and priorities. DIgging up a perfectly good grey road because it looks better with newer, black tarmac seemed like a perfect waste to me, but matbe not if you’re the typical French voter ….

    2. I think you may have hit the nail on the head regarding votes. A relaid road is a tangible improvement that a mayor up for re-election can point to. It is certainly easier to quantify than four years of diligent bin emptying.

  6. Investment is not necessarily pointless. Money spent doesn´t disappear. One of the key insights of economics is that the flow of money matters as much as the amount of it available. That´s why when an economy is facing contraction, state spending can step into accelerate the flow of money. Additionally, one of the values of roads is that they are smoother than non-roads. The better the road, the higher the value of that road. Poor road surfaces can be seen as a malfunction of the road and an impediment to their use.
    While a tatty wall might not affect the outcome of a case of heart surgery, a run-down environment can affect patient well-being and recovery. Actually, this is supported by peer-reviewed research. And again, the money spent has a beneficial effect on the rate of money movement in the economy,
    The reasoning that money needs to be saved works in the micro-economic sphere but does not hold in the macroeconomic sphere. Pleasant hospitals and good roads are a way to keep money moving and they have important qualitative benefits too.

  7. I ask that purely out of interest. I too would like to see better quality roads in the UK, but like everyone else when pressed, no, I don’t want to pay for them.

  8. Really? Isn´t that like asking to live a run-down hotel? I am not saying everything in Denmark is dandy (it´s a bit dull) but most of the public infrastructure is nicely maintained. Apart from finding a car rather expensive to run, I don´t feel poorer than when I lived in the UK. I think the expense is worth it.

    1. You’re taking a very binary view of my argument; I am hardly advocating that people prefer to lay in their shat out bathwater.

      Public expenditure, especially at the local level, is always a matter of priorities. Postwar expenditure in the UK shifted towards social security and the NHS, leaving less for other priorities. Alongside this, the gradual disempowerment of councils has left them less able to control spending at a local level.

      Parish councils in France however are relatively autonomous and have the ability to raise funding for local projects such as roads. Nor does the French government fund the totality of the motorway network, this being an extra cost over taxation through tolls.

      I am not saying that either position is right or wrong in a binary sense. However similar, the political settlement in one country inevitably coagulates in a different position to the other. Whether British money should be spent on infrastructure or replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent is another question, however.

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