The Development and economic effects of Britain`s toll roads? Unit


TheDevelopment and economic effects of Britain’s toll roads?


Toll roads or Turnpikes, were a class private roads that weredeveloped in Britain whereby roads were privatized, refurbished andmaintained by appointed trustees who charged a certain level to usethe road. The roads were previously managed by local governments andthe new approach was an attempt to improve the state of the roads.This new approach was borrowed from the Roman Empire which had alsoborrowed the idea from Asia. The concept would spread throughoutBritain leading to rapid economic development and opening up of ruralareas to trade as funds from toll roads facilitated road expansionand maintenance. This paper seeks to show that indeed enhancedinvestment in infrastructure through the turnpike system as wellbetter roads directly enhanced economic growth and spurred social andwelfare changes.

History ofturnpikes

Although turnpikes are heralded to have had the greatest influence inBritain, they originated elsewhere. As early as 320 BC, Indiaalongside other Asian countries had toll roads which are severallymentioned in Aristotle’s writings (Mokyr, 2003). The use of tollroads was to later spread to the Roman Empire in Europe around the14th and 15th centuries (British history,2015). However, it must be acknowledged that prior to theintroduction of the turnpike road system, there were roads inexistence. The turnpikes system was just a method of managing theseexisting roads and enabling the funding of construction of otherroads. In fact, the system was imposed on existing roads at firstbefore venturing into construction of new ones.

However, information on preexisting roads before the turnpike systemremain fairly scanty and fortuitous. Medieval administrationprocedures were not well organized to establish official routes foruse for various purposes (British history, 2015). Nonetheless, thefrequent of travel by Norman and Engvialn kings alongside theiradministrative men suggest that they used fairly similar routes. Furthermore, merchants who moved between various towns regularly musthave used common routes. For instance, wool merchants who traveledbetween Salisbury and Southampton used horse carriages, which wouldbe inoperable without proper roads (Albert, 2007). Therefore, bydeduction, historians claim that it is such merchants who pushed forthe establishment of turnpike trusts to aid in the management ofthese roads in orders to ease trade (ibid).

Nonetheless, it is the city of London that received much of the earlyroad developments before turnpike system came into place. Neighboringtowns that developed roads all sought to connect to London as themain commercial hub of the time. One map of 14th centuryLondon shows two main roads, with one running from London throughWinchester, Salisbury, and Shaftesbury to Exeter and on to Cornwall.The second one runs from London through Hungerford, Marlborough, andChippenham to Bristol. Other major towns served by these roadsinclude Bath, Reading, Gloucester, Oxford,Northampton, Portsmouth, and Colchester. New towns were to laterdevelop along these routes as of one the effects of the turnpikesystems will be discussed later in the paper. (British history2015 Stenton 1936). However, to better understand the economicchanges that were brought about by this system, it is wise to look atthe situation before the new system.

Early phases ofadoption

The use of the term “toll roads” does not signify that there wereactual roads as we know of them today. Guldi (2012) indicates thatthe so called roads, for which use was charged, were in factstretches of cleared bush in the wilderness. The surface was merelymade of compacted earth, much of which would take place naturallyafter continued trampling by the users, both carriages and people onfoot. Therefore, it was very difficult to sue these roads duringwinter and when it rained. There was need to develop roads that wouldbe used throughout the year. Parishes and local governments that wereserved to develop all weather roads could not live up to theexpectations as they only maintained sections of roads within theirjurisdiction. The turnpike system borrowed from the Roman Empire wasintroduced as a solution better road maintenance and financing(Stenton 1936).

The first turnpike in Britain was established at the London Bridge in1286. Edward I gave authority to the commencement of the practice ofcharging levies from the users of the bridge in order to fund itsmaintenance and also fund the construction of the Tower of Southwarkand Blackfriars bridge (Mokyr, 2003). Edward I also granted tollauthority in another road heading out to London towards the northernmajor towns. Such encouraging recurrence of toll roads however, didnot trigger their popularity. In fact, they were considerablyunpopular with many people opposed to the charges which led to theadoption of the Pike as an option to prevent people and carriage frompassing without permission.

Consequently, it was not until 1663 thatparliament passed the first Turnpike act that formed the firstturnpike trust. This trust was charged with managing a 15 milestretch of the Great North Road that connected London to Newcastle(Mokyr 2003). However, stakeholders in other departments increasedthe pressure on parliament to commission increased funding to othertransport routes. As a result, between 1762 and 1770, nine riverpassages and turnpike acts were passed with some harbors such asDover, Wells and Great Yarmouth being refurbished to better handleincreased competition from turnpike roads (Albert 2007).

Later stages ofadoption

Increased use of turnpikes is best recorded in the period of1720-1740. During this period, various groups managed to convinceparliament to enact laws that created several turnpike trusts. Inmost cases, the roads created aimed at connecting towns and makingfeeder roads for the main highways. The growth of the system was tofurther go on buoyed by increased ease in trade and opening up ofrural areas to new business. The 1750s and 1760s were ideally calledthe ‘turnpike boom’ because they witnessedthe creation of over 300 trusts along 10,000 miles of road (Pawson,1977). Most of these turnpikes were established along major traderoutes. By the early 19th,turnpikes formed the largest toll road network in all of Europe withnearly 1,000 turnpike trusts managing 20,000 miles.

Turnpike roadsand their impacts on various microeconomic variables

There are several hypotheses on the factorsthat influenced the location of these toll roads and effect on thesefactors as a way of driving economic change. Eric Pawson (1977)hypotheses some macroeconomic variables including:

  1. population,

  2. international trade,

  3. agriculture

  4. industrial production.


Areas with relatively higher populations weremost favored by development of new turnpikes roads. A higherpopulation necessitated better and enhanced movement of goods andpeople. Therefore, areas with low population did not benefit muchfrom the turnpike system meaning that they were further denied theeconomic benefits of good roads.


Border points, ports and harbors handled highvolumes of cargo and people. Turnpikes roads had to be developedaround these hotspots of international trade. Efficient movement ofpeople, agricultural products and trade items demanded better roads.Such merchants were at the forefront in demanding formation of trustsin such areas to serve their interests better. In so doing, theturnpike system fastened urbanization, trade and people movement ininternational trade hotspots.


Rapid urbanization in Britain fueled by theclassical industrial revolution saw a surge in demand of agriculturalproducts. Points of high density population mainly around citiescreated lucrative markets for fresh agricultural products. Farmerstherefore joined hands to lobby for establishment of turnpike truststhat would oversees the maintenance of proper roads through whichthey could access their markets. This way, farmers had access toready markets, better means to transports produce and remote areaswere opened to trade.

Factorsaffecting turnpike’s system economic contribution

Thereseveral factors that may have influenced the development of theseroads and their economic impact in areas that they passed through.Bogart (2005) identified some these factors as:

  1. Differences in social culture

  2. Trade differences

  3. Terrain

  4. Political representation

  5. The neighbor effect among other.

Differencein social culture

Merchants of the 18thcentury together with urbanization were associated with vices such asprostitution and theft. Some rural folks were worried thatestablishment of roads would modernize their villages and introducedsocial ills. However, some communities, especially those who had beenaccustomed to urbanization alongside major harbors were more open tonew roads being created as it enhanced convenience and improvedquality of life. Roads paved with stones were lauded to smoothercouch rides.


As earlier aforementioned, competition betweenroad-based merchants and river/canal-based merchants politicized thelocation of turnpikes. Merchants using turnpikes were eager to createnew roads in areas served by water canals to access the interiors.However, the merchants operating in the water ways were convincedthat roads would ruin their business. Therefore, as road-basedmerchants lobbied for creation of more turnpikes, the river basedmerchants lobbied against them.


The success of any turnpike trusts in managingand maintaining a given increased the likelihood of these same trustgetting permission to set u another toll road. However, to avoidincreased charges levied by these trusts, parliament introduced a newschedule of tolls as opposed to the flat fee. The new toll feestructure was determined by tonnage estimated by the number of wheelsor the type of luggage.


Areas with high political representation werethe most likely to receive authorization to establish turnpikes. Thisis because it is parliament was the authorizing body.


Same as other transport means, terrain highlydetermined the routes of the turnpikes of roads established. Giventhat the road construction methods were still primitive, lands lyingon high grounds were preferred to low lying grounds/ additionally,relatively flat terrain was preferred to hilly routes.

Neighbor effect

This approach in the effect and impact of utilization of Turnpikeroad systems is suggested by Bogart. He writes in several papers thatgood deployment of the system in given neighborhoods in Englandencouraged other neighborhoods to push through parliament theestablishment of turnpike trust to serve their locality. This methodof spread has been adopted in other disciplines. However, the keyconcept is that neighbors are more likely to influence one another asopposed to an outsider either through imitation, competition ormotivation.


Relationship between economic growth and infrastructural development

Previously,economists and scholars have tacked the issue of the relationship ofthe two. Much of the debate pertaining to this relationship createdtwo opposing sides. One side argues that economic development drivesinfrastructural development while the other side contested thatinfrastructural development drives economic growth. Empiricalobservations more so in modern time have come to reveal the intricatecomplexities that govern this relationship. For one, there arenumerous cities around the world that have major examples thatcomplicate this relationship. Detroit for instance and several ghosttowns in China have some of these best developed infrastructure buythey lay in ruins. On the other hand, some neighborhoods in othertowns with minimal infrastructural development can boost of intenseeconomic activity (Mondal, 2015). With such observations, there hasemerged a middle ground that posits that infrastructure has a two-wayrelationship with economic growth. One way involves infrastructurepromoting economic growth, and the other way is economic growthpromoting changes in infrastructure.

Roads as provided by the Turnpike in England several centuries agoshows that infrastructure as an output sector served as one of thekey inputs of production in various sectors such as trade,agriculture and manufacturing (Bogart, 2009). Therefore, a poor roadtransport system as an integral competent of needed infrastructurallayout led to underutilization of invested resources. Some studieshave suggested that 1% growth in infrastructural development equatesto 1% growth in per capita GDP while others have indicated that 20%sustained increase in public investment in infrastructure has thepotential to accelerate real GDP growth by about 1.8 % in 1-10 years(Munnell 1992). Based on this claim alone, then the claim thatturnpike road systems which promoted more investment in roadinfrastructure by availing necessary funds for construction andmaintenance supported economic growth and played a major role ininfluencing population patters ad settlement patters within somerural areas as well established cities such as London, Newcastle andReading.

Another way the turnpike system contributed to economic developmentwas through promoting vibrancy in the financial market. The trustscreated a new market for financial institutions as trusts borrowedfunds to refurbished and construct new roads guaranteed by thegovernment. The trusts would then recoup their investments throughlevies charged. Albert (2007) notes that the earliest rate paid wasby Gloucester Trust that formed around 1697 that borrowed 300 at 6%in 1701. As more trusts sought loans, interests went down to around5% by 1730s (ibid). The lower rates further encouraged establishmentof more trusts while the already existing ones could access funds atlower cost.

Similarly, the transport system had a lot to benefit from theturnpike system. In particular, turnpike roads systems advanced theeconomy of Britain through streamlining transport rules anddevelopment of relevant policies that would set the foundation forbetter development in the sector later. Some of these statues passedby parliament pertained to levying of rates at various toll houses.For instance, around 1662, the maximum weight allowed on four wheeledwagons was set at 20 cwt in winter and 30cwt in summer and wheelsless than 21/2 inches wide were banned (Albert 2007). To enforce theweight rule, trustees were further empowered by governments toinstall weighing machines and fines slapped on those who had goneover the limit.

Innovation in road technology is another critical issue that can beattributed to the turnpike systems. The trusts were required todevelop innovate ways to maintain roads in a cost effective manner.However, the technology that existed then did not allow trust to earnenough to repay their debts within the period of operation beforethey could revert the road to the government. Consequently, deedswere constantly renewed at a fee by parliament. This further pointedto the urgency to develop longer lasting roads and better ways ofbridge construction to facilitate creation of new routes in areaswhere none existed.

The turnpike contracting system gave rise to a new model of publicprivate partnerships. This model of development commonly known asbuild-operate-transfer is common in public private partnerships todayin the UK and around the world. The arrangement involves privateplayers developing public facilities and operating them for an agreedperiod of time in order to recoup their investments beforetransferring them back to the government (Munnell 1992 Markee 2011Bogart, 2009). The success of the turnpike system thus encouragedgovernment to partner players to join hands with private players tofinance major infrastructural developments. Such partnershipsspeeded up England economic development.

Social andcultural contribution

The turnpikes opened up remote villages in England. The turnpikesystem allowed the construction of many roads than was previouslypossible connecting rural areas to urban areas. As a result, ruralurban migration and eased movement of people created a lot socialchange. One such issue that was noted was the introduction or urbanmannerisms in the rural areas and even rural-urban migration thatthreatened rural agriculture and depopulated villages. John Byang isone of the most vocal scholars against the trend as he wrote in 1781

I wish with a my heart that half of the turnpike roads of kingdomwere ploughed up, which have imported London manners, and depopulatedthe country, I meet milkmaids on the road, with the dress and looksof strand misses and must think that every line of Goldsmith’sdeserted village contains melancholy truth (cited in Albert 2007,p.11).

Other opposition tothe continued influence of turnpikes was from administrativeauthorities responsible for managing rivers, water ways and canals.They worried that the turnpikes roads were pulling business from theestablished waterways to the turnpike road systems whoseestablishment was comparably cheaper than establishment of canals.Merchants who had also established their business along the waterwayswere opposed to the continued use of the turnpike road system (Albert2007)


It is clear to see that the bet benefit of turnpike system in Britaincannot be quantified. The system powered cottage industries inBritain, enhanced local and international trade, promotedurbanization, enhanced quality of life, motivated road constructiontechnology as well as eased movement of people around the country.Add-on benefits include social-cultural changes and the developmentof public private partnerships as a way of doing business andfinancing major infrastructural projects. Such innovations inturnpikes tell the history of one of the strongest economies in theworld with a rich history and great cultural influence


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