The Fascinating Story of Britain’s Worst Highway

Congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their recent engagement! I’ll admit to having been surprised by the news, as I remember the last time an American celebrity tried to marry into the British royal family. Still, I certainly hope for the best for the new royal couple. I have to wonder what her family must think about the match, as this will mean that to see their daughter for the holidays, they will have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. And then, when they arrive, they will almost certainly have to sit for hours in traffic on the M25, the most infamous highway in the UK.

The M25 is a freeway that makes a big loop around the Greater London area. It connects London Heathrow Airport, the busiest airport in Europe by passenger traffic, to the rest of the United Kingdom’s capital city of nine million people. The M25 is by far Britain’s most infamous road, with traffic that easily rivals that of American cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It has become a punchline for many a British stand-up comedian, and such a nuisance for British travelers that some will try to avoid it at all costs.

I first learned of this highway from Top Gear, a British show about cars that I became a huge fan of a few years ago. Many a punchline was made at the M25’s expense on that show. However, I just thought the road was some ordinary highway with bad traffic. Only recently did I learn that the story of how the M25 was created, and how it ended up being such a nightmare to drive on, is actually quite the tale of how city planning can go horribly wrong.

Let’s start at the very, very beginning – the founding of London itself. The ancient Romans founded the city, which they named Londinium, in 43 A.D. For nearly a millennium and a half, the city was largely confined to the area within the walls the Romans had built, but in Tudor times the city started to experience rapid growth, particularly in Southwark, the neighborhood across the Thames River where William Shakespeare’s theater was based. In 1530, London had about 50,000 residents; by 1605, this had grown to 225,000. The city only kept growing from there.

In those days, there was no central planning commission zoning out what development went where. People just built wherever there was open land. Neighborhoods, and the roads that connected them, grew up organically. This meant that by the time the car was invented in the late 19th century, much of modern-day London had already been built up into dense urban centers. The city’s roads were built for pedestrians and horses, not for these big, bulky, newfangled machines of the modern age. This became a real problem as the car took off in popularity and everyone started demanding to own one. More and more cars were trying to use roads that were too narrow and too crowded, and traffic became a real headache.

Luckily, the Greater London Council had a plan to fix this: the London Ringways project. The brainchild of civil engineer Patrick Abercrombie, the project intended to build a set of four freeways that would form four concentric circles from London’s outermost edge to the heart of the city’s downtown (hence the project’s name). This, Abercrombie and the Council believed, would alleviate the city’s traffic problem and make the lives of every driver in London much easier. The plan was first published in 1966 and formally adopted in 1969.

There was a bit of a problem, though. Building the London Ringways, especially the inner freeways that were closer to the city center, would require clear, open space upon which an eight-lane sheet of concrete and pavement could be laid. The land chosen for this construction project was anything but clear – in fact, it included many historic neighborhoods and commercial districts. For the Ringways to be built, 100,000 people would have to be evicted from their homes. Combine this with a staggering price tag of £1.7 billion (in 1970’s pounds!), and one can see why public opposition to the project grew.

Nevertheless, the city began construction on parts of the two outermost freeways that were planned as part of the project. These were far less controversial, as they were located out in the green pastures beyond the developed parts of London. As the construction workers began the Ringways project in earnest, the city leadership continued to fight with the public over the plans, until eventually the British Parliament intervened. It was the spectacular cost of the project that ultimately doomed it – citing the exorbitant expense, Parliament cut all funding to the project in 1973, forcing its cancellation.

This still left those partial freeways that had already been built, though. Not wanting to have wasted all that time, effort, and taxpayer money, it was decided to link those bits together into a new, single freeway encircling the outer edges of London. This new highway was opened in 1986, and dubbed the M25.

This, ultimately, is what went wrong with the M25 and why it is such a congested nightmare. It is a single freeway carrying a traffic load that was meant for four!

These days, London’s city officials try to alleviate the city’s traffic problem by encouraging the use of its public transportation network instead – the famous “tube” and double-decker buses. Those who choose to drive in London are subjected to a “congestion charge” of £11.50 per day. A study in 2013 concluded that this scheme had reduced traffic congestion in London by 10%. Ultimately, though, in a city as populous and as old as London, there really is only so much one can do. So, when you go to visit your family for Christmas this year, have some sympathy for our friends across the pond who are trying to do the same.