UK motorways

Year:1958

Duration:19 months

Cost:£2.9m (£63m today)

Country: UK

What did this project achieve?

Make it quicker and easier to travel around the UK by road

Britain's first motorway, the Preston by-pass, opened in 1958. Built by civil engineer Sir James Drake – regarded as the pioneer of the UK motorway network – it's now part of the M6.

The next 10 years saw UK's network expand as hundreds of miles of motorway were built. They included:

  • the M4, also known as the Chiswick flyover
  • the M1, now connecting London to Leeds
  • the M6, linking Rugby to Manchester and Preston
  • the M50, through Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire

There have been more than 320 openings of motorways or sections of motorways since 1958. The network now covers much of England as well as parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The M90 is the most northern UK motorway. It links the Queensferry Crossing (the bridge over the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh) to Perth. The M5 runs the furthest south, finishing at Exeter.

The network is still expanding. The government's Highways Agency has outlined £15bn in spending plans for its current programme – running to 2021.

Difference the motorways have made

The motorway network has helped underpin the UK's economy for nearly 60 years. The network has several important functions.

Motorways help manufacturing and increase productivity. Motorway junctions are good locations for business parks and distribution centres. Magna Park, a distribution centre in Leicestershire built in 1988, sits between the M1, M6 and M69. Its position allows fast and reliable distribution of goods all over the UK.

Bluewater shopping centre in Kent was built near the M20 and M25 bringing millions of visitors every year. The retail centre has a catchment area of more than 10.5 million people.

Motorways can help towns and villages expand. For example, Harlow in Hertfordshire has grown from a small 'new town' in the 1950s to a population of more than 86,000 today. Harlow is linked to London by the M11, which opened in 1975. The capital is about an hour's drive away making commuting for work faster.

Motorways can give people more choice about where they live, such as moving out of congested inner cities to less populated areas. Warrington in Cheshire is in a rural area but it's close to the M62, M56 and M6. This makes several cities easy to reach by road – Manchester is about 50 minutes away by the M62.

Delivering post and supplies would be far harder without a motorway network. It's the backbone of the Royal Mail and the road haulage industry.

How the work has been done

A typical new motorway takes around 2.5 years of construction work.

This allows one summer to do the bulk earthworks and another summer to build the road. A hard winter in between can shorten this period considerably.

There will usually be environmental work before the bulk earthworks start. This includes relocating protected species and clearing trees. Engineers may also need to allow an archaeological dig before construction starts.

Other factors include whether there are any major structures on the route and any local access issues. These can mean working from one end rather than from several places along the route at the same time.

Some roads, such as the M5, are built in sections. If money is short the most urgently needed sections are built first.

"​‌

The impact of this kind of travel was huge… motorways have acted as great agents of decentralisation – allowing people to live anywhere, drive anywhere and work anywhere.

Sir Peter Hall

Professor of planning and regeneration at University College London

Fascinating facts

At 231 miles (370km), the M6 is the UK's longest motorway. It runs from Catthorpe (junction 19 on the M1) to the Scottish Border.

The M62 is the highest motorway in the UK. It reaches 1,220ft (372m) near the Pennine Way footbridge.

The steepest part of the network is between the Shore Road and Sandyknowes section of the M2 in Northern Ireland. The gradient reaches 1 in 19.5% (5.13%) in places.

The first motorway services station opened at Watford Gap on the M1 in November 1959.

People who made it happen

  • Sir James Drake built the UK's first motorway – the Preston by-pass.
  • The Preston by-pass was commissioned by the government, headed by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
  • Transport minister Harold Watkinson planned the network's early years.

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