Drivers face car ban on busy M-ways

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Private motorists could be banned from parts of Britain's motorways - including London's orbital M25 - under radical proposals being studied by ministers. At busy times, clogged lanes would be kept only for buses and lorries.

A government consultation paper, called `"What Role for Trunk Roads in England?'', says bluntly that in order to unclog the M25, which can see 200,000 cars a day on the busiest stretches, ministers are prepared to consider "limiting access to the most congested parts of the network, access control at peak periods, high-occupancy lanes, including bus or heavy-goods-vehicle-only lanes, perhaps using the hard shoulder..."

As revealed yesterday morning, similar plans are being studied for Birmingham's heavily congested M6. But this may be only the start. Options include shutting down stretches of road to through-traffic and adopting a US-style scheme under which only cars with more than two passengers are allowed to pass.

The idea will go down badly with hundreds of thousands of commuters in the Midlands and the South-east. The report states that "although the M25 accounts for only about 6 per cent of the mileage of the motorway network, it carries 14 per cent of all motorway traffic".

In order to stop cars from joining congested sections of motorway, motorists could be forced to wait on slip roads until a traffic-jam subsides. Alternatively, electronic signs could be used to tell drivers not to use bus or lorry- only lanes.

More complicated systems use video technology to spot cars with only one occupant and fine drivers who persist in using multi-occupancy lanes.

The plans were attacked by motoring organisations. "These plans need careful consideration. If you restrict access to motorways people will just drive on to local roads - which are not designed to carry these loads," said Edmund King, a spokesman for the RAC.

"As for using the hard shoulder - that could be extremely dangerous. We would not want to see those lanes blocked off when the emergency services need to get to stranded motorists," added Mr King.

Other roads in the Midlands may also face Draconian measures in order to restrain traffic.

Ministers have noted that "the M40, and parts of the M42, which it feeds, has experienced growth of 50 per cent between 1991 and 1996, compared with a national rate of 12 per cent."

The most congested stretch of motorway lies on the M6 - where daily flows can top 150,000 vehicles a day. The motorway already uses a complicated "ramp-metering" system - which prevents traffic joining the M6 if the traffic flow is not "smooth". This means that when a jam looms, a traffic- light stops vehicles from joining the motorway.

But with an ever-increasing number of cars using the motorway, the consultation document states that "consideration could also be given to limiting access to the most congested parts of the motorway network..."

Ministers are aware that the restrictions will not please big business and have made it clear that the measures will not drastically affect "strategic, commercial and industrial traffic passing through the region".

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions said that none of the options outlined were "new".

"We are not ruling anything in or out at present," he added.

The Government is anxious to reconcile two competing aims: that of the motorist's freedom and the need to prioritise public transport.

Next week will see the beginning of the consultation on the Government's much-vaunted "integrated transport policy" - which should outline ministers' ideas on how to move people from their cars to public transport.