Urban motorway divides Glasgow
James Benedict Brown revisits the failed campaign to prevent the city’s M74 motorway extension
It has been more than a decade in development, but on Tuesday the Duke of Gloucester will finally declare open a project that has the dubious distinction of being the last urban motorway to be built in Europe.
The 8km M74 extension has been built to ease traffic on the M8 by offering a faster route from the west of Glasgow to the east by cutting through the Southside neighbourhoods of Govanhill, Toryglen and Cambuslang.
Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, claimed: “Its completion is vital to the future growth and success of Glasgow’s economy and of the whole country.”
Friends of the Earth has termed the ruling to build it “probably the worst environmental decision ever taken by the Scottish executive”.
A ring of motorways around the city centre was first proposed by Glasgow Corporation engineer Robert Bruce in his infamous 1945 report. Two sides of the ring were completed, but the ensuing demolition of large swathes of Anderston and Charing Cross proved so controversial that the eastern and southern sides of the ring road were never built.
However, it is the obsolete design standards of the M8 itself, and not the Bruce Plan, that have made the M74 extension necessary. The M8 features slip roads on both inside and outside lanes, and some junctions are less than a tenth of a mile apart.
Reflecting on the approval of the £445 million project in 2005, community activist and former MSP Rosie Kane said: “I felt that there was no way the folk making this decision could understand what they were doing to the communities affected.”
Kane had put herself at the centre of a campaign to raise public awareness of the proposed motorway, chaining herself inside Glasgow’s (pro-M74 extension) Chamber of Commerce. At a city council meeting about building the extension on disused industrial land, she dumped bags of “toxic waste” on the table, demanding to know why more work hadn’t been done to investigate the risks of such chemicals to local residents’ health. A bio-hazard alert was declared, until it was established it was just mud from Kane’s garden.
Also at the forefront of the campaign against the project was Glasgow Letters on Architecture (GLAS). The second issue of GLASpaper, published in 2001, centred on the M74 extension. It featured a prescient collage of what the motorway would be like for pedestrians in Govanhill and the Gorbals, depicting a woman pushing a pram beneath a motorway bridge, passing roadsigns to a distant swimming pool.
Ironically, the greatest impact will be on those areas that use cars the least
For Jude Barber, former member of GLAS and now director of Glasgow-based Collective Architecture, it is an image that strikes close to home.
“I was walking with my daughter Isabelle in the buggy last year, going into town from Pollokshields,” she recalls. “It was the day that the big blue steelwork went up. Walking underneath it with the buggy, I suddenly thought ’oh my god, that’s me!’ Ten years on, this horrific image has come true.”
The steelwork that Barber refers to has – in a bizarre gesture to the immediately adjacent houses on Devon Street – been painted a benign shade of sky blue. It is here that the M74 crosses Pollokshaws Road, Eglinton Street, Kilbirnie Street and the West Coast Mainline railway in a 750m viaduct, where one span reaches 138m. The bridge is visible along the length of Eglinton Street and Victoria Road, and from as far away as Queen’s Park.
It is a cruel irony that the motorway’s greatest aesthetic and acoustic impact will be on the neighbourhoods of Glasgow that use cars the least: at the 2001 census, nearly 60% of households in Govanhill had no access to a car.
While the argument for the M74 emphasised reducing congestion, it is now apparent that Scottish businesses are eager for it to generate new traffic.
Amanda McMillan, managing director of Glasgow Airport (eight miles west of Glasgow), said the airport could now attract passengers from as far away as Dumfries and Galloway and northern England. She added: “We will be actively encouraging business and leisure travellers in those areas to use Glasgow Airport as their airport of choice.”
Likewise, when contacted by BD, a spokesman for Edinburgh Airport (40 miles east of Glasgow) was similarly positive about the effect of the motorway on its business. He said: “We welcome any investment that allows passengers from Glasgow to access Edinburgh Airport more easily.”
Jude Barber reflects that “it flies in the face of all the policy made lately about the use of public transport, walking, cycling, or taking the train. It just feels like 1970s planning decisions being implemented in 2011.”