AskDefine | Define motorway

Dictionary Definition

motorway n : a broad highway designed for high-speed traffic [syn: expressway, freeway, pike, state highway, superhighway, throughway, thruway]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In the context of "UK|Ireland|New Zealand|parts of Australia": A broad highway designed for high speed traffic, having restrictions on the vehicle types permitted.

Extensive Definition

This article refers to roads specifically called motorways. For other motorway-like roads, please see List of highway systems with full control of access and no cross traffic
Motorway is a term for both a type of road and a classification or designation. Motorways are high capacity roads designed to carry fast motor traffic safely. In the United Kingdom they are predominantly dual-carriageway roads, with two, three or four lanes in each direction (usually three), and all have grade-separated access, comparable with North American freeways and expressways as a road type, and interstates as a classification.
In English-speaking countries the term is used in the United Kingdom, parts of Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, some other Commonwealth nations, and Ireland (a motorway is also called a mótarbhealach (plural: mótarbhealaí) in Irish). In Ireland, a road built to motorway standard, but without the designation (and the regulations and traffic restrictions resulting from that designation), is known as a high quality dual carriageway.

Regulations and features

In Ireland, Hungary and the UK, motorways are denoted by an M-prefixed (e.g. M1) or suffixed (e.g. A1(M)) road number and blue signage, distinguishing them from A-roads, which are signed in green. This is at odds with some countries in Europe, where the colours are reversed. In New Zealand, motorways are distinguished from regular state highways with the word 'Motorway' on entrance signage. Historically, New Zealand's motorways had green signage while everywhere else had black, until green signage was spread to the entire State Highway network by Transit New Zealand.
The construction and surfacing of motorways is generally of a higher standard than conventional roads, and maintenance is carried out more frequently; in particular, motorways drain water very quickly to reduce hydroplaning/aquaplaning. The road surface is generally asphalt concrete (popularly referred to as tarmac) or portland cement concrete. Other features are crash barriers, cat's eyes and, increasingly, textured road markings (a similar concept to rumble-strips).

Common criteria

For a road to be classified as motorway a number of conditions must be fulfilled. Although they may vary from country to country, the following conditions generally apply:
  • to be a dual-carriageway
  • Accessed at junctions by slip roads off the sides of the main carriageway;
  • Joined by link-roads at an interchange, the object of which is to allow traffic to change route without stopping or slowing significantly;
  • Traffic lights are not permitted (except at toll booths and certain interchanges) - see ramp meter;
  • Have signposted entry and exit points at the start and end;
  • Certain types of transport are banned, typically pedestrians, bicycles, learner drivers, horses, agricultural vehicles, underpowered vehicles (e.g. small scooters, invalid carriages). In the Republic of Ireland, the "Motorway Ahead" sign at every motorway junction lists the excluded classes of vehicles (this sign was also formerly used in the United Kingdom - from which the Irish version is based - but has been almost entirely phased out). Currently in the UK, the last junction a road becomes a motorway is signed for 'prohibited traffic'. In most Australian states, a sign for "Motorway Entrance" or "Freeway Entrance" was traditionally put at the start of these roads, but these too are being phased out. In New Zealand, a no pedestrians and no cycles sign precede the "Motorway Begins" sign to tell pedestrians and cycles that they are not allowed on the motorway.
In the UK and the Republic of Ireland there are further restrictions:
  • The central reservation remains unbroken (an exception being the Aston Expressway in Birmingham, which has an empty lane instead). With effect from January 2005 and based primarily on safety grounds, the UK’s Highways Agency's policy is that all new motorway schemes are to use high containment concrete step barriers in the central reserve. All existing motorways will introduce concrete barriers into the central reserve as part of ongoing upgrades and through replacement as and when these systems have reached the end of their useful life. This change of policy applies only to barriers in the central reserve of high speed roads and not to verge side barriers. Other routes will continue to use steel barriers
  • Emergency telephones (which connect directly to the police except in the UK where they connect you directly to the nearest Highways Agency Regional Control Centre where highly trained officers deal with your call sending either their own officers (HATO's) or other emergency services as required) are provided at a regular intervals (in the UK emergency telephones are situated at intervals of 1 mile, and at 1 km in Ireland)
  • No roundabouts apart from at the start and finish and some motorway interchanges
  • Hard shoulder available most of the time
  • Other roads are connected at motorway interchanges only. No roads join at any other point except for maintenance access.
  • Most junctions are numbered
Note that these only apply to roads directly designated as motorways. Roads may also be indirectly designated as such, see Inheritance below.
Traffic on a motorway is required to keep moving at all times, except in exceptional circumstances (cases where traffic queues have built up, the vehicle has broken down, or the driver has been instructed to stop by a police officer). A minimum speed limit of 50 km/h (30 mph) does not apply in the United Kingdom unlike in the Republic of Ireland. Traffic lights are very rarely present on motorways, but where they are installed (for example, at Junction 3 of the M50 in Ireland), they must be obeyed as usual.
A motorway in the UK, whether by design or inheritance, must have a Statutory Instrument (SI) defining a stretch of road and sliproads as a special road under the Highways Act 1980. In the Republic of Ireland, a Motorway Scheme must be made under the Roads Act 1993.

Speed limits

Motorway speed limits are generally higher than those on single-carriageway roads, and some types of vehicle, such as heavy goods vehicles, may be subject to lower limits.
UK motorways originally had no speed limit, and were designed for traffic travelling up to 100mph. Although the design speed of 100mph remains, the majority of UK motorways and dual carriageways are now subject to the national speed limit of 70 mph (110 km/h) for motorcars and motorcycles; some may have lower limits for various local reasons. A UK Department for Transport (DfT) study at several sites in 2006 showed that over half of all motorway traffic was travelling in excess of this limit. In 2004 the Conservative Party proposed increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph (130 km/h) on some stretches, although this did not appear in their 2005 election manifesto. Some road safety groups feel this would be a good idea, as it more closely represents the normal (and, they claim, safe) driving practice of the majority of motorway users.
In Ireland the speed limit for motorways and some dual-carriageways was changed from 70 mph to 120 km/h (75 mph) as part of the conversion to metric speed limits for roads on 20 January 2005.
In Pakistan, initially the speed limit on Motorway was 140 km/h (85 mph) for Light Vehicles and 120 km/h (75 mph) for Heavy Vehicles; however later it was restricted to 120 km/h (75 mph) for Light Vehicles and 110 km/h (70 mph) for Heavy Vehicles.
In New Zealand the speed limit on motorways and other dual carriageways is normally the top limit for state highways, 100 km/h (62 mph), with restrictions in some areas, such as the Auckland Harbour Bridge and Central Motorway Junction (both have limits of 80km/h (50mph)).
Germany has no general speed limit on its motorways (Autobahn); there are only particular speed limits e.g. at dangerous sections, sections with traffic jam hazards, road works or at motorways through cities. Recently, however, speeds on roughly 1/3 of the German motorway system have been restricted to 120-130 km/h.


Most motorway carriageways comprise a main running surface, with a hard shoulder along one edge, and a median or central reservation separating it from the other carriageway along the other edge. The hard shoulder is generally provided for use in emergencies, such as breakdowns, only. However the M42 in the UK has recently introduced a system whereby a small section of the hard shoulder can be used as an extra lane during busy periods.
The nearside edge (the edge up against the hard shoulder) of the running surface is marked with a solid white line, or in Ireland, a solid yellow line. The offside edge of the running surface (the edge nearest to the median) is marked with a solid white line. The running surface is divided into lanes by white dashed lines. On the M42 in the UK the hard shoulder line is not textured due to the frequent use of it as a running lane.
In the UK and Ireland the lanes in a given direction are numbered sequentially from the nearside (left) as lane 1, lane 2, lane 3, etc. Lane 1 is the lane next to the hard shoulder.
The lane closest to the nearside of the road (lane 1 in the UK) is generally intended for normal steady driving, while the other lane or lanes, those closer to the median, are intended for overtaking or passing slower-moving vehicles. Vehicles are expected to use the nearside-most lane which is clear. The Highway Code for the UK states that vehicles must pass on the right, unless in heavy traffic or when turning left. Similar rules apply on German autobahns and in some other countries. In heavy traffic it may be acceptable to cruise in any lane and to pass slower vehicles on either side to avoid constant lane changes.


The most basic motorway junction is a two-lane flyover with four slip-roads, two on each side of the motorway, to exit or enter. A simple crossroads or roundabout is present at each end of the flyover. A rather large version of a roundabout, using two curved flyovers, is sometimes used to present a single large junction for users of the slip-roads or crossing road. The slip roads leading off the motorway are known as 'exit sliproads', those leading onto the motorway as 'entry sliproads'. The precise sliproad at any junction may be identified by reference to the direction of the carriageway, for example 'northbound entry slip'.
The signal-controlled roundabout is often used in these situations and has become very common in Ireland. A far greater degree of complexity is present in Britain, with varying types of Spaghetti Junction-style interchanges.
Motorway junctions are usually given a number, indicated in the UK and in Ireland with a white number on a black background in the corner of signs approaching that junction. The same junction number is used in both directions on the motorway. Sometimes, where a junction is newly inserted between two existent junctions, it will be given a letter also (e.g. 2A). In Ireland, the junction numbering has only been used consistently on the M50 since it was opened, however a junction numbering scheme is now being applied to all motorways. This has necessitated certain junctions being renumbered on the M7 (and, in future, on the M4). In Auckland, New Zealand, exit numbers are distance-based, and are indicated by a green sign reading "Exit XXX" (e.g. Exit 441) on top of exit signage.

Location and construction

Major intercity or national routes are often built or upgraded to motorway standard. Motorways are also commonly used for ring roads around cities or bypasses of built-up areas. In New Zealand, motorways tend to only occur in large cities, for purposes of taking commuters between the suburbs and the central city.
In Britain there are plans to improve many motorways as well as to upgrade some roads to motorway status. In Ireland, the National Roads Authority has been connecting main cities with motorways as part of a six-year National Development Plan. The European Union has part-funded many motorway projects in the past, as part of a Trans-European Transport Networks, and there are plans to invest billions of euro in such projects in the next ten years.
One of the most recently constructed motorways in the UK is the M6 Toll, bypassing Birmingham and Wolverhampton, which opened in 2004 and is the only completely toll motorway in England. There are tolled sections of motorway on the M4 and M48, where they cross the River Severn at the Severn crossings. Although the crossing of the River Thames east of London on the M25 is tolled, the bridge and tunnels themselves are officially designated the A282 to permit usage by non-motorway traffic. In Ireland, the M1, M4, and M50 are all tolled, with sections of the M6, M7 and M8 likely to face tolls also in the future.


In the UK and in Ireland certain types of traffic are not permitted on motorways. Thus, to avoid people being forced to travel illegally, there are a number of rules about stretches of road which must be designated as motorways.
In all cases, there must be an escape route for traffic not wishing or not permitted to enter the motorway. As a result, the motorway technically begins as soon as the escape route has diverged from it; for example at a grade-separated junction, the motorway starts at the junction with the exiting slip road, and the opposite slip road is also part of the motorway for this and the following reason. An exception was the A1(M) near Leeds, which was "illegal", as pedestrians could legally cross 300 yards from the start, but cyclists and other types of traffic not permitted on motorways had no way of turning back - the escape route was the Boot & Shoe a mile before. This is remedied by the A1(M) extension. On some maps the start was disguised or covered so people could not see the blunder.
As a result, this creates a less-restrictive set of rules for the standard of the road. Roads whose only destination is a motorway must be assigned motorway status, notwithstanding the possibility of their not being built to normal motorway standards. For example, the A48(M) motorway outside Cardiff begins after the last exit to St Mellons, since by staying on the dual carriageway you cannot get anywhere other than the M4 eastbound; however, it is a motorway-grade highway. A similar example in Ireland is the M6, currently a short 2 km section of the N6 eastbound that leads exclusively to the M4 motorway. The equivalent westbound section of the N6 is not signed as a motorway however.

Route numbering

United Kingdom

In England and Wales, the numbers of major motorways were a numbering system of their own not conterminous with that of the A-road network, though based on the same principle of zones. Running clockwise from the M1 the zones were defined for Zones 1 to 4 based on the proposed M2, M3 and M4 motorways. The M5 and M6 numbers were reserved for the other two planned long distance motorways. The Preston Bypass, the UK's first motorway, should have been numbered A6(M) under the scheme decided upon, but it was decided to keep the number M6 as had already been applied.
In Scotland, where the Scottish Office rather than the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation had the decision, there is no zonal pattern, but rather the A-road rule is strictly enforced. It was decided to reserve the numbers 7, 8 & 9 for Scotland. The M8 follows the route of the A8, and the M85 became part of the M90 when the A90 was re-routed along the path of the A85.
In Northern Ireland a separate numbering system was used. There is no known explanation for it.


In Ireland, motorway and national road numbering is quite different to the UK convention. Since the passage of the Roads Act 1993, all motorways are part of, or form, national primary roads. These routes are numbered in series, (usually, radiating anti-clockwise from Dublin, starting with the N1/M1) using numbers from 1 to 33 (and, separately from the series, 50). Motorways use the number of the route of which they form part, with an M prefix rather than N for national road (or in theory, rather than R for regional road). In most cases, the motorway has been built as a bypass of a road previously forming the national road (e.g. M7 bypassing roads previously forming the N7) - the bypassed roads are reclassified as regional roads, although updated signposting may not be provided for some time, and adherence to signage colour conventions is lax (regional roads have black-on-white directional signage, national routes use white-on-green).
Under the previous legislation, the Local Government (Roads and Motorways) Act 1974, motorways theoretically existed independently to national roads, however the short sections of motorway opened during this act, except for the M50, always took their number from the national road which they were bypassing. The older road was not downgraded at this point (indeed, regional roads were not legislated for at this stage). Older signage at certain junctions on the M7 and M11 can be seen reflecting this earlier scheme, where for example "N11" and "M11" can be seen coexisting.
The M50, an entirely new national road, is an exception to the normal inheritance process, as it does not replace a road previously carrying an "N" number. The M50 was nevertheless legislated in 1994 as the "N50" route (despite having no non-motorway sections). The M50's designation was chosen as a recognisable unique number. As of 2008 the N34 is the next unused national primary road designation. In theory, a motorway in Ireland could form part of a regional road.


In Hungary, similar to Ireland, motorway numbers can be derived from the original national highway numbers (1-7), with an "M" prefix attached, eg. M7 is on the route of the old Highway 7 from Budapest towards Lake Balaton and Croatia. New motorways not following the original Budapest-centered radial highway system get numbers M8, M9, etc., or M0 in the case of the ring road around Budapest.
In New Zealand, as well as in the Scandinavian countries, motorway numbers are also derived from the state highway route which they form a part of, but unlike Hungary and Ireland they are not distinguished from non motorway sections of the same state highway route. In the cases where a motorway acts as a bypass of a state highway route, the original state highway is either stripped of that status or renumbered (as in the case of the Auckland Northern Motorway extension from Albany to Silverdale, north of Auckland, where the new motorway was designated as part of State Highway 1, while the old state highway one route linking Albany to Silverdale was designated State Highway 17).

Motorway service areas

Motorway service areas, motorway service stations or simply motorway services are, as in the rest of the world, places where drivers can leave a motorway to refuel, rest, or take refreshments. Almost all motorway services in the UK are owned by the Department for Transport and let on 50-year leases to private operating companies.
Food sold at motorway services is notoriously expensive (although discounts are frequently available; for instance, MOD (Ministry of Defence) and The AA breakdown members receive a little-publicised 20% discount on products in the retail outlets (AA Only) and in the restaraunt and BK Units at Moto service stations on production of their membership card). This is often attributed to the fact that, under the terms of their leases, motorway services must provide free short-term parking and free toilet facilities and adequate provision for the sale of food and fuel; also, the vast majority of motorway services in the UK are owned by one of three companies: Moto, Welcome Break or RoadChef. Another factor may be that, unlike in other countries, the companies must pay the full cost of constructing the entry and exit ramps and all other required features for safe access to motorway services, as well as the motorway services facility itself. In other countries, the authority responsible for the highway tends to subsidise these costs on the grounds that these areas are partly a public service to drivers. The leases provide that motorway services must operate 24 hours a day, and the costs of providing utilities and services are high. With very few customers in the early morning, they need to earn the money in other ways.
Services are prohibited from selling alcohol as this might encourage drink driving. However many now have video game areas and gambling areas with fruit machines and other electronic devices. Some service stations also have hotels next to them offering motorists cheap overnight accommodation.
The Republic of Ireland does not yet have motorway service areas – initially the National Roads Authority opposed them on the grounds that it preferred to see traffic using existing businesses in bypassed towns, and that the motorway network was not large enough for them anyway. However in 2006 it changed its mind, and the Roads Bill 2007 makes provision for a Motorway Service Area Scheme to be made for proposed motorway service areas.

Environmental effects

  • Roadway noise: Motorways generate more roadway noise than arterial streets due to the higher operating speeds. Therefore, considerable noise health effects are expected from motorway systems. Noise mitigation strategies exist to reduce sound levels at nearby sensitive receptors. The idea that motorway design could be influenced by acoustical engineering considerations first arose about 1973
  • Air quality issues: Motorways may contribute fewer emissions than arterials carrying the same vehicle volumes. This is because high, constant-speed operation creates an emissions reduction compared to vehicular flows with stops and starts. However, concentrations of air pollutants near motorways may be higher due to the substantial traffic volumes. Therefore, the risk of exposure to elevated levels of air pollutants from a motorway may be considerable, and further magnified when motorways have traffic congestion, although the presence of motorways will reduce the overall air pollution resulting from traffic in the region.
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Motor vehicle use may cause the emission of up to twelve times the amount of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre than using the train.



The first motorway built was the Autostrada dei laghi, inaugurated on September 21 1921 in Milan. It linked Milan to Varese. Piero Puricelli, the engineer who designed this new type of road, decided to cover the expenses by introducing a toll to be paid by whoever used the motorway.
Other motorways built before WWII in Italy were Padua-Venice, Milan-Turin and Rome-Ostia.

New Zealand

New Zealand's first motorway opened in December 1950 near Wellington. This 5 kilometre (3 mile) motorway now forms part of the Johnsonville-Porirua Motorway and State Highway 1. Auckland's first stretch of motorway was opened in 1953 between Ellerslie and Mount Wellington (between present-day Exit 435 and Exit 438), and now forms part of the Southern Motorway.

United Kingdom

seealso Roads in the United Kingdom In Great Britain motorways were introduced into law under the Special Roads Act 1949, with the first motorway, the M6 Preston Bypass, opening in 1958. The first major motorway to open was the M1 between Crick and Berrygrove. by 1972 the first of motorway had been built.Whilst roads outside of urban areas continued to be built throughout the 1970s, opposition to urban routes became more pronounced. Most notably, plans by the Greater London Council for a series of ringways were cancelled following extensive protests and a rise in costs. The completed M25 London Orbital opened in 1986. In 1996 the total length of motorways reached .
Northern Ireland developed their own network of motorways. Legal authority existed in the Special Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1963 similar to that in the 1949 Act. The first motorway to open was the M1 motorway, though did so under temporary powers until the Special Roads Act had been passed. Work on the motorways continued until the 1970s when the oil crisis and The Troubles both intervened causing the abandonment of many schemes. The final scheme to open has been the M3.


In the Republic of Ireland the Local Government (Roads and Motorways) Act 1974 made motorways possible, although the first section, the M7 Naas Bypass, did not open until 1983. The first section of the M50 opened in 1990, a part of which was Ireland's first toll motorway, the West-Link. However it would be the 1990s before substantial sections of motorway were opened in Ireland, with the first completed motorway - the 83km M1 motorway - being finished in 2005.
Under the Transport 21 infrastructural plan, motorways or high quality dual carriageways are being built between Dublin and the major cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford by the end of 2010. Other shorter sections of motorway either have been or will be built on some other main routes. In 2007 legislation (the Roads Bill 2007) was proposed to allow existing roads be designated motorways by order. Current legislation only allows for new build roads to be designated motorways. It is now intended that all the HQDCs on the major inter-urbans - other than some sections near Dublin on the N4 and N7 which do not fully meet motorway standards - will be reclassified as motorway.


Most of Australia's capital cities feature a significant motorway network within their urban areas. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth each feature extensive freeway and motorway systems, while Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart and the regional centres of Newcastle, Gold Coast, and Wollongong feature a selection of limited-access routes. Outside these areas traffic volumes do not generally demand motorway-standard access, although heavily-trafficked regional corridors such as Sydney-Newcastle, Brisbane-Gold Coast and Melbourne-Geelong that form part of major long-distance routes feature high-standard motorway links. While Sydney and Canberra are currently the only two Australian capitals connected by a continuous motorway-standard link, upgrades to full dual-highway of the heavy-use Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane interstate routes, a total length of more than 2000 kilometres, are currently underway.

Pakistan: South Asia's first motorway

Pakistan has a network of high-quality international-standard limited-access motorways, which are maintained and operated by the National Highway Authority. In 2008, operational motorways in Pakistan had a combined length of 575 km, with more than 1,000 km of further motorways under construction or planned.
Pakistan's motorways are either six-lanes or four-lanes and are 'limited-access' with a universal minimum speed limit of 80 km/h and a maximum speed limit of 100 km/h for heavy transport vehicles and 120 km/h for light transport vehicles. They have a concrete central median and are fenced on the outside for safety and to prevent unauthorized access.
Pakistan's first motorway, the M2, was completed in 1997 and was the first motorway to be built in South Asia. The contract was awarded to the Korean firm Daewoo. It has six-lanes and links the federal capital Islamabad with Punjab's provincial capital Lahore and its length is 367 km. Since then, the network has been further extended to Faisalabad with the M3, which has four-lanes and a length of 53 km. The M1 from Islamabad to the NWFP's capital Peshawar was completed in 2007. It has six-lanes and a length of 154 km.
More motorways are being planned in Pakistan and some are also being built by local as well as foreign firms. M8 will link Gwadar with other central and South Asian countries. M9 will link Hyderabad with Karachi.
Entry Restrictions On all the motorways in Pakistan, entry is restricted to fast moving vehicles only. Two wheelers (motorcycles and bicycles) and slow moving traffic modes are not allowed. However Motorway Police personnel use heavy motor bikes for patrolling purposes. Construction and agricultural machinery is also restricted.
motorway in Tosk Albanian: Autobahn
motorway in Arabic: طريق سريع
motorway in Bosnian: Autoput
motorway in Bulgarian: Автомагистрала
motorway in Catalan: Autopista
motorway in Chuvash: Автомобиль çулĕ
motorway in Czech: Dálnice
motorway in Danish: Motorvej
motorway in German: Autobahn
motorway in Modern Greek (1453-): Αυτοκινητόδρομος
motorway in Spanish: Autopista
motorway in Esperanto: Aŭtovojo
motorway in Extremaduran: Autupista
motorway in Persian: آزادراه
motorway in French: Autoroute
motorway in Galician: Autoestrada
motorway in Korean: 고속도로
motorway in Croatian: Autocesta
motorway in Icelandic: Autobahn
motorway in Italian: Autostrada
motorway in Hebrew: כביש מהיר
motorway in Lithuanian: Automagistralė
motorway in Hungarian: Autópálya
motorway in Malay (macrolanguage): Lebuh raya
motorway in Dutch: Autosnelweg
motorway in Japanese: 高速道路
motorway in Norwegian: Motorvei
motorway in Norwegian Nynorsk: Motorveg
motorway in Narom: Motoroute
motorway in Polish: Autostrada
motorway in Portuguese: Auto-estrada
motorway in Romanian: Autostradă
motorway in Russian: Автомагистраль
motorway in Scots: Motorwey
motorway in Slovak: Diaľnica
motorway in Slovenian: Avtocesta
motorway in Serbian: Аутопут
motorway in Finnish: Moottoritie
motorway in Swedish: Motorväg
motorway in Thai: ทางหลวงพิเศษ
motorway in Turkish: Otoyol
motorway in Ukrainian: Автомагістраль
motorway in Chinese: 高速公路
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