The M25: London's 70 m.p.h beltway eases congestion -- a bit

It may look rather like a misshapen grapefruit on new maps of Britain. But from now on, it goes down in the record books as the world's largest urban orbital motorway. The 121-mile wobbly, circular motorway known as the M25 -- short for Motorway 25 -- was 11 years in the making, cost 1 billion (US$1.4 billion), and girdles metropolitan London.

It has also been a source of controversy ever since it was first planned as far back as 1905. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took on critics at yesterday's official opening of the last 8-mile stretch. (Some 90 percent of the M25 was completed about a year ago, and short stretches have been added since.) ``I must say I can not stand those who carp and criticize when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement, and beating the drum for Britain all over the world,'' Mrs. Thatcher said.

Nevertheless, the M25 proved too congested almost the moment it opened. Designed to bear around 75,000 vehicles a day, the motorway now carries 50 percent more traffic than planned. As a result one stretch of the three-lane motorway is to be widened to include a fourth lane.

A driver for Conquest Cars, a Surrey limousine company which regularly ferries executives to London's Heathrow Airport, says his company continues to use back roads at morning rush hour: ``If our clients insist on going on the M25 we tell them we can't guarantee their getting to the airport on time.''

Yet the M25 makes an enormous impact, regionally and nationally. For often harassed motorists, who live in one of Europe's most densely populated countries, the M25 is, on most days, a little bit of bliss. Cruising the motorway at the 70-mile per hour speed limit, it is possible to circle London in about 1 hours. Previously, anyone heading north or south through London was obliged to crawl along either the North or South Circular Road -- grandiose names for routes that were merely a contrived collection of well-worn roads strung together.

M25 connects other strategic motorways helping to pull Wales, Scotland, and northern England closer to the southeast, Britain's economic magnet. Some economists worry this will increase the regional appeal of the affluent south. Already property prices in towns and villages close to the M25 are soaring.

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