‘Road tax’ and the state of the A1

The BBC’s online “Magazine” last week published three articles about transport issues, one of them about the notion of “road tax” and how it’s commonly used as a trump card in arguments between motorists and cyclists, and two about various major road and railway projects and how likely they are to happen. One of those is a bridge or tunnel across from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, which despite being right next to three small cities on the south coast is linked to it only by ferries; another is a motorway running northwards through eastern England, such as an extension of the M11 or an upgrade of most or all of the A1 to motorway. Having been up the A1 quite recently, I can agree that parts of it badly need upgrading, but not the parts that are commonly assumed.

The article reads:

There are north-south motorways up western England - the M5, M40, M6. The M1 goes up the centre. But east of that is nothing but the A1, which is motorway only in parts. “There’s definitely a bias to motorways taking you west to go up north,” says Paul Watters, head of transport policy at the AA. One plan could be to expand the M11 up from Cambridgeshire to Lincolnshire and the North East. But building brand new motorways is out of fashion. A more realistic option would be to upgrade the A1 to motorway all the way along, Watters says. The most pressing need for improvement is the section north of Newcastle serving the east coast of Scotland, he says. It is currently a mix of single and dual carriageway. Another eastern option is taking the A14, which runs from Felixstowe to the M6, and turning that into motorway, says Jack Semple, policy director at the Road Hauliers Association. Then there’s the A12 from Brentwood to Suffolk.

The mention of the A14 and A12 at the end has nothing to do with the state of the A1: the A14 runs east to west from the Midlands to East Anglia, and carries freight traffic to Felixstowe and possibly Harwich (although the shortest route there is still via London), while the A12 serves eastern East Anglia and any improvements made there will not affect the A1 at all. The A1 currently has five stretches of motorway, three poor-quality old ones, mostly two lanes each way (in Hertfordshire, South Yorkshire and County Durham) and two high-quality stretches with three or four lanes each way (in Cambridgeshire and West and North Yorkshire). In between those it’s mostly dual carriageway with two lanes each way, but the quality of that varies: the remaining bit of non-motorway in North Yorkshire has two lanes each way with a hard shoulder, while the stretch through Bedfordshire is dire, passing through several villages and stopping at about six roundabouts. The section from Peterborough to Donacaster is generally of good quality, with all the roundabouts nowadays replaced with underpasses or flyovers.

A kink in the old A1 in West Yorkshire (now removed)On my journey up the A1 two weeks ago, by far the worst stretch was through Bedfordshire which is fairly close to London. There was a long delay approaching a roundabout near Bedford, where traffic turning right off the southbound A1 onto the A421 to Bedford and Milton Keynes blocked the northbound traffic. That road was built only recently, and the roundabout was clearly intended to cut costs, much as with a number of bad junctions in eastern England (the A14 is full of them), but the government currently only intends to install traffic lights at that roundabout rather than build a flyover. The government’s stock response to demands to upgrade that bit of road, which usually come with a reminder of its trunk road status, is to tell motorists to use the M1 instead. The M1 and A1(M) north of Leeds is entirely free-flowing from London to Newcastle; the improvements north of Peterborough also provide a free-flowing route to the north-east from the Kent ports and Dartford Tunnel via the M11 and A14. So, it’s only the “silly motorists” who insist on going from London to the north-east via the A1 when they’re “not meant to” who get stuck at the roundabouts in Bedfordshire.

The problem with the M1 is what I call the “M1 basin” issue: if you look at the M1 as a large river coming down to London from the North, with a large tributary joining it from the north-west at Rugby in the form of the M6, you will notice that the M1’s “basin” includes every major city in the UK except Bristol and Cardiff. The London-Rugby stretch will carry traffic going to Northampton, Birmingham (and every town and city round about), Stoke, Liverpool, Manchester, the Lake District, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, York, Middlesborough and Newcastle, as well as every part of Ireland except the far south. The M1 is generally a road people avoid if they can, because it’s old, because it’s often being worked on at one point or another, because parts of it (like near Luton) are narrow, and because it’s extremely busy. This is why many motorists use the M40 to get to Birmingham and even the north-west even though it is a longer way round than using the M1, even from south and west London. The A1, if you are going to Newcastle in particular, is the shortest route and has the advantage of going through no major population centre between London and Yorkshire. The government should recognise this rather than telling people to just use the M1. There isn’t a need for a motorway all the way up the A1; what is needed is for the quality of the Baldock-Huntingdon stretch to be as good as the Peterborough-Doncaster stretch.

I also noticed that on many parts of the A1, the signs need updating as they mention too many tiny places and not enough major destinations. South of Newcastle, for example, the distance signs mention Durham, Darlington and Scotch Corner, the last being not even a village but merely a junction (and not one that would interest someone coming from Newcastle, because the road that leaves the A1 there goes to places that could be more easily reached by other ways from Newcastle). Going south from there, they mention only Borougbridge and Wetherby, both tiny places — perhaps important coaching stations in years gone by, but insignificant along a major inter-city road in the 21st century. Harrogate, York and Leeds should be signposted a long way back, perhaps all the way back to Washington (where the A1(M) begins south of Newcastle). I also came to the conclusion that the speed limits should be reduced on two-lane carriageways, because the likelihood of coming up against trucks that are restricted to 56mph are that much greater; there is also less room for manoevre when people pull onto the road at junctions. I suggest it be 60mph for everyone (and 50mph for everyone on single carriageways).

As a cyclist I’ve never had the “but I pay road tax” line used on me, but I’ve heard it often used in general arguments about cyclists’ behaviour, almost always from motorists annoyed at seeing cyclists jump red lights and so on. As the BBC’s article makes clear, despite high-profile “pay your road tax!” campaigns from the government (including one where the car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang got clamped), there is actually no such thing as road tax and there hasn’t been since the 1920s; it is a vehicle tax, which goes into the Treasury, and road building and maintenance comes out of general taxation (for trunk roads and motorways it is funded centrally, for other roads by local authorities), and you pay more tax if you have a vehicle with greater emissions, which generally means older cars or those with bigger engines. Bicycles, of course, do not have engines, do not burn oil or emit exhaust fumes, cause minimal wear and tear on roads and are capable of doing vastly less damage to property and injury to people, but more to the point, cycling is a skill we mostly learn as a child and is a simple and easy thing, while driving (and car ownership and maintenance) is an expensive and complicated business that only adults are trusted with. A journey made on a bicycle is one that isn’t made by car, which could have resulted in pollution and noise, and which did not, and if you need a separate licence to cycle, many people who already own cars will not bother, and many of those who can afford one or the other and need a car will choose the car. Much as it annoys some car drivers to see a cyclist get ahead of them, making cyclists pay an equivalent of vehicle tax will be bad for everyone.

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