The blue magic-marker fetishists

A flyover over the Adur river estuary near Brighton, southern England, from WikimediaSince I’ve been a kid I’ve been something of a road geek. I was always fascinated by roads and road signs, road numbers, street lights and so on (although the last faded when I was a child), and would read maps for pleasure (among other factual books like encyclopaedias; to this day, I read almost entirely factual material and almost no fiction, and the same applies on the rare occasion when I watch a film of my own initiative). That was one of my many Aspergian traits, and it meant much paper was spent on maps while my sister used it for imaginative drawings. It’s had the positive effect that I can claim excellent geographical knowledge, and know how to get to pretty much any town in England without needing a map (I would, of course, need one to find the actual street if it’s in a strange town). Still, my fascination for roads does not go to the logical conclusion of wanting big roads to be built all over the place, regardless of need or any environmental consequences.

England is a small, densely populated country, and much as some say that we cannot keep allowing all and sundry in (as if we actually did that), we also cannot keep covering large tracts of productive land, which could be used to produce food or house people or situate industry, in tarmac. Or stones and metal, come to that — one of the less mentioned objections to this ridiculous railway they propose to build from London to Birmingham, to provide expensive journeys that take 15 or 30 minutes less than the tilting trains out of Euston (and along a much less direct route), is that it will take up an awful lot of productive agricultural land, besides cutting straight through sites of natural beauty in the Chiltern hills.

The same would be true of some of the motorways the geeks found on some road forums propose, such as the South Coast motorway. One of the more reasonable posters on one of these forums recently called these people “blue magic-marker fetishists”, referring to the colour for motorways on signs and most British maps. Currently, the main road across the South Coast is part motorway, and in parts dual and in parts single carriageway, the motorway part being the link between Portsmouth and Southampton. That’s because both are major ports serving traffic from all over the country. The same is not true of the towns along the rest of the route, although there is a by-pass around Brighton which is dual carriageway, because it provides a fast link from London to the ferry port of Newhaven.

However, one of the major industries of that region is tourism; there are the South Downs, which (along with much of the interior of West Sussex) is to become a national park; people come to walk in the beautiful valleys, and open spaces of both parts of Sussex. Building motorways in these places would ruin places of enormous visual beauty which are the reason many people come to the area at all; the economy of much of Sussex would wither if six-lane highways were built there. Of course, having truck traffic passing through some of these villages is an inconvenience, but that could be cured with short by-passes as a motorway would just drive tourists away and close many of the small hotels and other tourist-related industry. This is quite apart from the fact that it would be terrible environmental vandalism, destroying or despoiling places of beauty, and depriving people of places they go for peace and tranquility.

Then there are the occasional questions of why bits of A-road near motorways are not themselves motorways. Cases in point are the A23 from Crawley to Brighton and the A38 from Exeter to Plymouth. The reason in the case of these two roads has much to do with the landscape, which is not conducive to building wide motorways with relatively smooth gradients but can accommodate a four-lane dual carriageway which would be half the width of a normal British motorway. To make the land suitable, it would mean levelling whole hills and constructing vast, expensive cuttings and embankments. In the case of the A38, it’s a heavily touristed area in between of Dartmoor (a national park) and the south Devon sea resorts (Torquay, Paignton, Brixham etc). Dual carriageways have more exits than motorways, making them useful to local people; a motorway would have a small number of exits, which means the locals would lose out, with direct access to property cut off and people forced to use the older two-lane roads, or make long detours, when they previously could use the dual carriageway.

Of course, big roads are sometimes built in places of great natural beauty. There are lots of motorways in the Alps, which doubtless spoil a few views and places of former tranquility. However, it’s a big mountain range and the motorways link major cities, being the major road from France (and England) to Italy, so anyone going from France or England to Milan or Turin, both major industrial cities in northern Italy, can take a reasonably direct route rather than making a detour of hundreds of miles via the Cote d’Azur. This is also true of the stretch of the M6 through eastern Cumbria: it is just not feasible to have a two-lane mountain pass (the old A6 over Shap Summit) being the main road from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. The same cannot be said of any motorway from Folkestone to Hastings. The distances involved are smaller and the environmental costs are just not worth it.

George Monbiot wrote an article for the Guardian in 2001 (available on his website) in which he described the proposed Hastings by-pass as an effort to generate traffic in order to necessitate building more roads to link up to them. As he points out, one of the major reasons to build roads at all is to generate contracts for those who build them. Still, those who look at gaps on the map and fantasise about drawing a blue line through them aren’t interested in that; they just see something apparently amiss and have the urge to fix it, and they do not have to have visited the places affected. I may have a fascination for roads and I enjoy travelling, but it doesn’t mean I want half the country bulldozed to build more of them — there would not be much to see out of the window if we did that.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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