x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

London's M25: a bad motorway breeds even worse driving

As any UAE driver will know, a bad experience on the roads can take on almost legendary significance.

Next time you're stuck in a traffic jam in the UAE, wedged impotently behind a juggernaut belching exhaust fumes as you survey the endless ribbon of stationary cars stretching far into the distance, please take a moment to count your blessings. Things could be worse; really they could. At least you don't have to suffer the ignominy of the UK's most notorious motorway, the M25.

Running for 188 kilometres, the nation's most hated stretch of tarmac around London celebrates its 25th birthday this week. The route took 11 years to build and required 3.5 million tonnes of asphalt in the process.

Dubbed by its proponents as the answer to all the capital's traffic congestion for the next 50 years, and subsequently by those who have to use it as Britain's biggest car park, the project was originally proposed as far back as 1905. But with the typical efficiency and will to win that encapsulates civic planning in the UK except in time of war, it wasn't actually completed until 1986.

When it finally opened, it was both a novelty and a destination in itself, with awestruck motorists driving around at the weekends just to marvel. And in truth, when it's working as intended, the motorway offers a chance to circumvent the nose-to-tail horrors of journeying through central London.

Driving at 70 miles per hour (about 110kph, the national speed limit), an average motorist would need an hour and 40 minutes to complete one lap of the route. But for many disenchanted motorists, the notion of achieving 70mph (or even 17) for more than a few random stretches would provoke no more than a sardonic laugh.

Nonetheless the old girl has wormed her way inextricably into the fabric of Londoners' lives. Her name is now part of our daily language, both colloquially and officially, with phrases such as "inside the M25" used as a common yardstick to assess property prices, commuting times and general affluence.

Yet the reality of actually using the route to get from A to B offers no such romance. For much of its length, the motorway is one slow-moving crocodile of crawling traffic, pollution, roadworks and processions of workmen, who seem to be rarely doing anything much more than standing about drinking cups of tea. According to the UK's biggest motoring organisation, the AA, the most frequently asked question they receive from motorists online is simply: "How can I avoid the M25?"

One urban myth has it that one foreign visitor spent two days driving around its circumference in the mistaken belief that he was actually travelling towards Newcastle, some 400 kilometres north. Recently one elderly couple even managed to drive a full 15 kilometres on the opposite carriageway before being shepherded to safety by Kent police.

Perhaps because of its reputation for causing delay and frustration, the motorway has also become a byword for bad driving. One recent survey recorded hundreds of motorists illegally conversing on their mobile phones, others directing the steering wheel with their elbows and, in one case, a lorry driver eating a bowl of breakfast cereal while doing 65mph in the fast lane.

Of course the underlying problem is one facing the entire developed world, that of overcrowding. When the M25 was designed, the average number of vehicles likely to use it on a daily basis was calculated at 100,000. The volume now exceeds twice that. No sooner are new lanes constructed than they are immediately inundated by extra traffic.

But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for the beleaguered London commuter. With petrol prices leapfrogging and many families facing severe cuts in domestic expenditures, there is evidence that daily capacity, especially at weekends, is falling. Soon it won't matter as nobody will be able to afford to drive.

So if you're going out for a spin in the relative tranquillity of Sheikh Zayed Road next weekend, please think of me as you turn your ignition, as I'm about to make a rare sortie on to the M25 myself. Like the dutiful motorist I am, I'm fully prepared, with a spare tyre, oil and water levels checked, and even a reflective hazard triangle on hand in case of breakdown. But given my route I might add a few extras such as some ready meals, a flask of hot tea and a good book.

If you don't hear from me any time soon, don't worry. I'll probably just be caught in a snarl-up somewhere, reading the complete works of Shakespeare.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London