TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Roads

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Roads - Two thousand years ago, all roads led to Rome, but now road travel is so ubiquitous that there's one leading pretty much anywhere you could wish to go. Even if that's literally to the ends of the earth. Work recently started on a road to the South Pole, opening up one of the last great wildernesses to the wheels of progress.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Two thousand years ago, all roads led to Rome, but now road travel is so ubiquitous that there's one leading pretty much anywhere you could wish to go. Even if that's literally to the ends of the earth. Work recently started on a road to the South Pole, opening up one of the last great wildernesses to the wheels of progress.

The dollars 12 million, 1,600km ice highway is being built by the US government to service its polar research base - currently accessible by air only - and should be finished in two years. It's then hoped that the journey that killed Captain Scott and his four companions 90 years ago will take as little as 10 days one way, making the average speed across the frozen wastes of the Antarctic faster than commuting through rush-hour traffic in dear old Blighty. Maybe that's why transport secretary Alistair Darling executed a pounds 5.5 billion U-turn in December when he announced the country's biggest programme of road improvements for two decades.

THE CHALLENGE: Roads are busy because they are popular - and getting more so. Despite New Labour's best attempts to meet its election pledge of a 5% cut in traffic congestion, latest figures suggest that jams will actually be 20% worse by 2010. Our clapped-out railways won't be ready to shoulder their share of the burden for years, but even if they could, road travel offers the last word in convenience. Door-to-door with no faffing about getting passengers or freight from station to final destination. And you don't have to share your car with the hoi polloi unless you really want to.

THE SOLUTION: There are about 15,000km of trunk roads and motorways in the UK, rather less relative to our size than our economic peers in Europe. But although that's only about the same amount of road as the Romans left behind them in 410AD, new roads may not be the answer. Experience from the last highway-building binge in the 1980s suggests that extra capacity increases rather than reduces traffic congestion by encouraging journeys. Besides, apart from a few well-known bottlenecks, the worst congestion doesn't occur on major cross-country routes. It is in our town and city centres that the rush-hour now lasts all day, and jams have become a way of life. Congestion charging - first seen in Britain in Cathedral Close, Durham and, as of last month, in central London - remains hugely controversial, but there are traffic-choked cities all over the country that will rush to sign on the dotted line if it is proved to cut urban snarl-ups. If it doesn't work, perhaps they could take a leaf out of the South Polar Highway code. Travellers to 90 degrees south will be strictly scientific, tourists will be banned, and the road will be open for only 100 days a year.

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