Highways and Commerce.
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By H. Howard Humphreys, M.Inst.Mech.E., A.M.Inst.C.E.
(Specially written for "The Commercial Motor.") There is a large body of scientific but practical engineers in the Government department which controls the hignways in all the 87 Departments. The roads are classified as national, departmental, main parish, branch parish roads of "lesser traffic," and country bye-roads or paths. The last-named are the only ones which escape from governmental or departmental control.
Are we prepared to throw away any further chances of holding our own in the race for commercial supremacy because we lack " precedent" for reform, and to wait with folded hands until a benevolent Government has erected tariff walls for our protection? If so, the probability is that there will presently be little enough left to protect. The more laudable course would seem to be to help ourselves by any and every just means : amongst other things, io straighten out, simplify, and centralise administration ; to codify our highway laws, and leave to our foreign competitors the work of placing obstacles in the way of our trade expansion. It is not pretended that the better construction and administration of highways—in which the whole of the nation are shareholders—will prove a panacea for all our commercial troubles, but those who are in touch with the realities of present transport problems, and who are endeavouring to take some stock of the future, are inclined heartily to agree with the report of Mr. Francis B. Loomis, U.S.A., commercial agent at St. Etienne, who stated in 1890 that :—" The road system of France has been of far greater value to the country as a means of raising the value of lands and of putting the small peasant proprietors in easy communication with their markets than have the railways. It is the opinion of well-informed Frenchmen who have made a practical study of economic problems that the superb roads of France have been one of the most steady and potent contributions to the material development and marvellous financial elasticity of the country. The far-reaching and splendidly-maintained road system has distinctly favoured the success of the small landed proprietors, and in their prosperity and the ensuing distribution of wealth lies the key to the secret of the wonderful financial vitality and solid prosperity of the French nation." If this was true of France nearly fifteen years ago, before the potentialities of highway traffic had become as great as they have become with self-propelled vehicles, it does not seem too much to say that if Great Britain inaugurated moderate and in
expensive reforms on the lines recommended by the Departmental Committee of 1903, great benefits would follow to the community generally ; benefits, too, which we cannot afford to do without.
Considering that our canals are at present of little service, and that railways have a practical monopoly of the carrying trade, it would not seem unreasonable to place our highway administration on a sounder, more logical, and more businesslike basis than at present, for it must be remembered
that facilities not only assist existing industries, but actually beget trade. There is no question as to the purchasing of any roads, so the standard British objection about leaving industrial matters to "individual enterprise " cannot be raised in this behalf, and the most cautious conservative need not shudder at any latent spirit of socialism in the suggestions made. The proposed change will hurt no one, and the probability is that, although a greater volume of road traffic will have to be catered for in the near future, the economies effected by central supervision, and, above all things, by a scientific training of road engineers, will lead indirectly to economies which will counterbalance the small additional cost of creating a National Department of Roads and Bridges. Without taking an unduly optimistic view of the commercial possibilities of roads, it seems hardly too much to say, as was said once of railways :—" If the country will make the roads, the roads will make the country." Let it also be remembered that better highways will result in benefit not only to users of self-propelled vehicles, but to those who continue to use horse traction, and, further, that the best is cheapest in the long run. No note has been made of the gain to the nation on the grounds of sanitation and humanity by the increase of industrial self-propelled vehicles, for the point as to sanitation is one which chiefly affects a special aspect of the case, viz., that of towns, whilst cruelty, though far too general still, is becoming less, owing largely to the efforts of the N.S.P.C.A. In dealing with a question of this kind, active and extreme opposition to reform will do small harm, as it only enables advocates of change to show the solidity of their case. The real danger in this, as in much else connected with our commercial life, comes from the innumerable descendants, both in and out of Parliament, of the sluggard whose agonised wail as of old is :—" Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep."