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Executive summary
France has approximately 1.1 million km of roads, making its network one of the longest
and densest in Europe. The network is largely managed by local authorities
nearly 380,000
km by the departments and more than 700,000 km by smaller districts
particularly following
a couple of waves of decentralisation to the departments, in 1972 totalling 55,000 km, and in
2006 affecting a further 18,000 km.
The different bodies in charge of the road network
Source: Court of Accounts
These decentralisations were accompanied by staff transfers and, from 2006 onwards,
by a wide-ranging reorganisation of the structures responsible for road maintenance. The DDE
(Directions Départementales de l’Equipement
- local infrastructure units), which had until then
dealt with both national and departmental roads (main trunk roads and smaller minor roads),
disappeared and 11 DIR (Directions Interdépartementales des Routes - inter-departmental
road units) were created, structured based on key routes and focused on the 'residual' national
network. The latter now represent only 1.1 % of the national road network (excluding
motorways run under concessions), but nearly 19 % of traffic.
Proportions of length and traffic for different road categories
Length in km
% of
% of traffic
Change in traffic between
1990 and 2019
National network
1.9 %
34.3 %
+60.9 %
of which motorways under
0.8 %
+78.3 %
of which other national roads
1.1 %
18.6 %
+49.1 %
Secondary network
98.1 %
65.7 %
+7.5 %
of which departmental roads
34.3 %
not avail.
not avail.
of which local roads
63.8 %
not avail.
not avail.
The entire network
+45.5 %
Sources: Annual transport report 2019; SDES - traffic review (provisional data)
This process of decentralisation is set to continue. The law on differentiation,
decentralisation, deconcentration and simplification of local public action ("3DS") stipulates a
new round of transfers of substantial parts of the national road network. Its implementation
leaves much room for negotiation between local and central government, and indeed between
local authorities, so its final outcome remains unpredictable at this point.
The result is an increasing fragmentation of jurisdiction over the road network in France.
Overall, our country is moving towards a complex model, of a kind quite rare in Europe, in
which responsibilities are divided between all possible levels of authority, with the share of the
national network not under concession, in particular, becoming very small, while the future of
motorways that are under concession remains uncertain at the end of the current contracts.
However, it does not seem that this transformation and this outlook have given rise to any real
deliberation on the new role of central government in road policy.
The absence of a real road policy
In this context of gradual decentralisation of the national road network, the question of
central government’s role in road matters is becoming increasingly acute. Central
responsibility is not limited to the management of an ever-shrinking national
network. Central government is also, and remains - by law - the guarantor of the coherence
and effectiveness of the entire French road network, decentralised or otherwise. However, it
has little appetite for this role and has not availed itself of the necessary means to exercise this
Thus, it lacks the information on local authority roads, their condition, maintenance and
use; information that it needs to have a complete picture and the means to harmonise and
coordinate road policies, in accordance with the principles of decentralisation. The issue of
bridge safety, to which several dramatic accidents have recently drawn attention, illustrates
this lack of knowledge of in a decentralised network. It was not until the 2020 recovery plan
that central government, noting its lack of knowledge of the total number of bridges to be
checked, decided to implement a national programme enabling bridges’ condition to be
surveyed and assessed in small municipalities, which can only be a first step.
Including 2,603 km of motorways not under concessions.
In comparison, the length of the railway network is 28,077 km, the urban rail network is 1,294 km and the inland
waterways network is 5,065 km.
Similarly, central government is now ill-equipped to carry out its advisory and support
role in network management. Central government's Scientific and Technical Network
, in the
field of road expertise, has seen its staffing levels halved over the past twenty years. In
particular, Cerema
, which had become its main component
and is subjected to continual
funding cuts, has experienced a serious governance crisis and is still trying to restructure itself.
It is less and less able to meet the need for expertise throughout the country. This policy of
attrition now contradicts the official priority given to improving infrastructure maintenance.
However, road decentralisation should have gone hand in hand with the strengthening
of this Scientific and Technical Network, to prevent the effects of a certain fragmentation of this
jurisdiction and to give the local authorities the means to exercise it in the best possible way.
The latter themselves regret this weakening.
This lack of a national strategy is illustrated by the low priority given to infrastructure
questions in road safety policy. Although roads themselves are rarely the main cause of
accidents, their maintenance and development could play an important role in reducing risks
With this in mind, the Court suggests placing the road safety delegation under the joint
supervision of the ministers of the interior and of transport.
The same applies to the consideration of environmental protection and climate change,
a priority for the future currently giving rise to diverse and uncoordinated responses. Yet
climate change is already having a significant impact, particularly in mountainous areas, due
to the acceleration of freeze-thaw cycles, the increase in floods and landslides, and periods of
drought. Improving infrastructure resilience requires long-term measures with a strong
technical component, combining predictive maintenance, traditional roadway rehabilitation
techniques and innovative solutions.
The different layers to a roadway
Source: Court of Accounts taken from “Routes de France”
A group of organisations, services and establishments under the authority of the ministry of ecological transition,
contributing to engineering, expertise and research in the fields of planning and sustainable development.
France’s centre f
or studies and expertise on risks, the environment, mobility and development
Alongside the Gustave Eiffel University, in the field of research, and the regional technical conferences, which
bring together technicians from local authorities and decentralised central government services on a local scale
Court of Accounts,
Public road safety policy assessment
, june 2021.
The scale of these challenges justifies setting and following a genuine national road
policy in conjunction with local authorities. There are prerequisites for this: knowledge of the
entire network through compulsory data reporting, and an increased role for the crucial
resource that is the Scientific and Technical Network.
The lack of coordination and planning tools
As regards the national network, central government has been regularly monitoring the
condition of road surfaces and engineering structures since the 1990s. However, the annual
assessment of surfaces was piecemeal and lacked precision. It was mainly used to distribute
credits between the DIRs and to establish an overall rating, which by dint of its design did not
change much. It tended to show a slow deterioration, the proportion of roadway (technically,
pavement) surfaces requiring maintenance work having risen from 43 % to 53 % over the last
ten years.
The ministry decided to use a new and much more sophisticated system, based on 3D
imagery and geolocation, which provides an annual update for the whole network.
Unfortunately, implementation encountered many difficulties which have deprived relevant
services of an objective assessment for several years and, in the future, they will not be able
to compare the results of the new indicator with those of the old indicator. Nor does it seem
certain that this new indicator can be used for the selection and planning of roadworks at a
national level, which nonetheless remains a reasonable objective.
With regard to departmental road networks, audits conducted by the financial
jurisdictions showed that only 40 % of the departments in the sample had carried out an
assessment covering all of their roadways. A slight majority use automated methods on the
most important roads, but some still rely on observations made by staff during patrols.
The insufficient frequency and varying nature of the procedures used result in the validity
of the assessments of departmental roadways’ condition made using measurements taken
now being downplayed. In addition, a large proportion of structures, including in large local
authority areas, remains unassessed. All in all, it is therefore difficult to judge the current state
of the road infrastructure. The development of a checklist for harmonising road surface
diagnostics, under the aegis of Cerema and in conjunction with local authorities, is essential in
order to produce reliable findings and to make the right decisions regarding maintenance work.
In addition, the information on national roads made public in annual budget documents
appears to be too limited, sometimes more so than in the past. Thus, it does not cover certain
elements of this infrastructure (interchanges, rest areas, outbuildings), safety and quality of
service aspects, or unit costs. In this respect, providing correct information to the public and
national representatives presupposes an enhancement to the battery of indicators presented
with France’s annual budget bill, and the establishment of an annual review of national road
policy, in conjunction with local authorities.
Central government recently turned to Swiss firms to establish technical and economic
scenarios simulating the consequences of different levels of budget spending on the future
development of the French road network. On this basis, the framework legislation on
‘mobilities’ in 2019 provided for a financial trajectory until 2027 and beyond
exceeding €1
billion per year (compared to €775 million in 2016). This increase is substantial. However,
according to the Swiss experts' estimates, it would not be sufficient to maintain the average
condition of the network at its current level, given the ageing of the infrastructure.
Expenditure trends on the national network not under a concession (in €m)
Source: Court of Accounts using DGITM [Directorate-General of Infrastructure & Transport] data 2019 data including, for
information, €90.7m for operations, €84m for routine maintenance, €307m for road surface protection, €65m for engineering
structures, €71.6m for equipment, etc.
In the departments, maintenance and operations are still too often adjustment variables,
altered depending on the financial position or other investment priorities. Nevertheless, there
has been a recovery in investment in roads specifically, which began in 2017 and will be more
marked from 2018-2019 onwards. The corresponding expenditure thus increased by 17 %
between 2016 and 2020, reaching €3.6bn.
Departmental road spending in millions of euros
Source: Court of Accounts using DGFiP [Directorate-General of Public Finance] data
Despite the progress of a multiyear approach (especially for engineering structures),
planning in local government is usually a seat-of-the-pants affair, with no obvious link between
the deterioration seen and the money allocated. It is sometimes reduced to a simple, even
distribution between localities. A more formal approach could come from the presentation of
multiyear plans in the budget orientation reports presented to the deliberative assemblies.
Reforms and reorganisations necessary for greater efficiency
The current organisation of that part of the national network that is not run under
concessions in France has become unique in Europe. Central government is at once the
owner, strategist, regulator and operator, in contrast to the English example, but also to the
railway and airport model in France.
The transformation of the DIRs has not really started. For example, the calculation of
remuneration including multiple bonuses is proving extremely complex and does not
sufficiently recognise the responsibility and role of middle managers, including operational
centre managers. For the time being, the central administration has done little to question the
relevance of the often long-standing standards set in the DIRs, sometimes for fear of
challenging their organisation or even their usual routines. However, as is the case in England,
monitoring the quality of service as perceived by users, and involving them more closely in the
collection of field data
, could facilitate the adaptation of service levels to meet real needs
(frequency of patrols, response time in the event of incidents, the time taken to clear roads
after snowfall, etc.). In this respect, some departments have been more successful in adapting
not only their objectives, but also their organisations, to the resources available. These
approaches should inspire all road network management bodies - both central government
and local authorities.
The coordination provided by the ministry appears to be both too narrow in terms of
planning the most important work and too loose in terms of practices and exploitation of the
road system. Whatever legal framework is chosen for these activities in the future, a multiyear
contractual agreement of objectives and resources between central administration and road
management services should be put in place, to improve the efficiency of the whole
organisation in particular.
This reform of the management method, adaptation of service levels, and improved
knowledge of requirements thanks to more precise and relevant indicators, could in fact help
to achieve far greater effectiveness. Some preventive maintenance expenditure would, in the
long run, lead to significant savings by avoiding much more extensive repairs in the future.
In particular, using new digital tools, this form of expression is currently left to private initiatives.
Road surface maintenance and changes to its condition
Source: Court of Accounts based on a model by IDRRIM (France’s Institute for roads and mobility infrastructure)
Nevertheless, the current situation also calls for serious thinking about the resources to
be allocated, on a permanent basis, to these major and lasting needs, which could possibly be
based on the level of use made of the road.
Summary of recommendations
Recommendation 1: Provide resources for a national road policy
After consultation with local and regional authorities, set a road policy applicable to the
entire network, including the key requirements of road safety and the challenge of
environmental transition (
central government, by 2025
Organise compulsory national data reporting for all networks and add the data into a shared
information system (
central government, departments, by 2024
Strengthen Cerema's road expertise, clarify its scope in relation to the private sector and
facilitate the conditions for use of its services by local authorities (
central government,
Cerema, by 2025
Recommendation 2: Improve coordination tools
Establish a unified, integrated system for prioritising and scheduling maintenance work on
the national network (other than parts under concessions), based on objective criteria
central government, by 2024
Enhance the range of finance bill budget indicators relating to the management of the
national road network, in particular to better monitor the quality of road operations and the
service provided to users, and report on this in an annual assessment of national road
policy (
central government, by 2024
In consultation with the entities concerned, appoint Cerema to draw up a checklist for
harmonising the diagnostics for local and departmental roadways carrying the most traffic
Cerema, central government, by 2024
Submit a multiyear technical and budget scenario for the maintenance of its network to the
departmental council for approval (
departments, by 2025
Recommendation 3: Improve efficiency and ensure an adequate service
Review and formalise levels of service adapted to traffic levels, and check them (
government, departments, by 2024
Reform the management of the national road network not operated under concessions by
establishing multiyear objectives and resources set in contracts with the DIRs (
government, by 2024
Provide resources for sustainable financing of the national and departmental networks (not
under concessions), not ruling out levies linked to road use, particularly for freight (
government, departments, by 2025
Appendix no. 3: National Highways and the management of
England's roads
In the UK, road management distinguishes between the “strategic road network” and
other roads, which are the responsibility of local authorities. Road management policy reviews
started in the first decade of this century led to several reforms implemented from 2014
onwards. Road users are included in the legislative process by right through a users' advisory
committee (Transport Focus) created by the 2015 Infrastructure Act, transforming an existing
body previously representing only public transport passengers.
The creation in 2015 of Highways England (HE) aimed to improve the management of
the major roads for which central government is responsible in England alone (2.4 % of the
length of road network but 33 % of the total traffic on them). It is a state-owned company with
a high degree of independence. The Department for Transport (DfT) no longer has supervisory
powers, although it sets the strateg
ic direction and delimits HE’s work, while also funding it.
The reform also meant its staff were no longer deemed to be civil servants.
The 2015 Act launched the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS 1) covering the period
2015-2020. RIS 1 provided £15.2bn (
€17.8bn) of funding, created around a hundred projects,
set up six strategic studies, and monitored HE performance through 11 key indicators. RIS 2,
for the period 2020-2025, was subject to stakeholder consultations from 2019 and presented
to Parliament in March 2020. It provided for a significant increase in funding over the previous
period (£27.4bn, or €32bn), to finance capacity developments and improve the quality of the
existing network. The main objectives of RIS 1 - "a safe, reliable and efficient network for all
- have been maintained. A National Roads Fund (NRF) will finance RIS2 from the revenues
collected by the UK’s annual Vehicle Excise Duty.
Highways England, renamed National Highways (NH)
in 2021, is accountable to two
bodies, Transport Focus, for meeting user needs, and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). The
latter in particular analyses HE's results in relation to all its performance indicators. These KPIs
are not limited to road availability and condition but also extend to user satisfaction, road safety,
development of new modes of transport and environmental protection, cost efficiency etc. The
ORR relies on data from the regions to fully ascertain the performance of HE in each region. It
is also responsible for an annual publication and presentation to Parliament. It can advise the
UK Government on the level of funding and performance targets.
The dimension taken by NH also makes it a producer of technical standards. In addition,
the corporation's ability to promote its work is evident in its activity reports, which have no
equivalent in France.
Its expenditure since its creation has been characterised by increased investment in
network improvements (capital improvements). On the other hand, spending on maintenance
and operation (operation of the network, operational maintenance, asset renewal) has
increased only slightly.
This includes, explicitly, cyclists, drivers, passengers and pedestrians.
To take account of the fact that, while this corporation manages the English road network only, it produces
standards that apply throughout the UK.
Highways England expenditure (£bn) to 2020
Source: Highways England annual report and accounts, 2015/2016 to 2019/2020
In order to cope with the increase in the number of development projects, HE's staff
increased from 3,700 FTEs to around 5,700, split between head office and seven regional
directorates. This total includes 1,800 traffic officers.
NH claims to have achieved £1.4bn of efficiency gains since its foundation,
corresponding to savings generated through better project planning, new forms of contracting
and design, mainly on the investment side.
NH promotes an active policy of communication with users: single platform, individual
responses to 40,000 users per month, etc. It boasts a high satisfaction rate (89.2 % according
to the Transport Focus survey). However, this progress has not yet reversed the trend of
relative or absolute deterioration of the road network, as shown by the change in the KPI on
the condition of the roads. This metric is not immediately comparable to its French counterparts
(notably the IQRN).
The DfT (Department for Transport) publishes an annual assessment of the condition of
roads managed by local authorities, using a common methodology for England, Scotland and
Wales for classified roads, which ensures comparability of this data between local authorities.
This form of centralisation also provides maintenance information for the entire road network,
regardless of the managing authority.
A survey is also conducted annually among a very large population (790,000 people) to
monitor the condition of the road network managed by local authorities. In 2018, only 35 % of
respondents were satisfied with the condition of main local roads. In February 2019, the UK
Parliament's services noted recurring concerns about their condition.
A distinction is made between “capital” and “structural” maintenance (re
preventive treatment, etc.) and “revenue maintenance” (routine and emergency repa
irs, verge
trimming, salting, etc.). The first type of expenditure is partly financed by DfT grants to local
authorities, supplemented by local funding. The second type of expenditure is covered by
(local) tax revenues, business rates and government operating subsidies (but not necessarily
earmarked for roads). In the case of England, central government’s support, split between
different funds with different calculation methods, does not seem to meet requirements,
according to the industry and local authorities.
It is difficult to compare the performance of National Highways with that of the DIRs and
their supervisory authorities, because HE has benefited from a large increase in funding and
was specifically created to implement a major investment effort. In addition, the methods of
monitoring road conditions differ on the two sides of the Channel. At the very least, the UK
government has an operational tool for providing accountability. On the other hand, there does
seem to be widespread concern about the worsening condition of secondary roads.
Appendix no. 4: the Spanish example
The Spanish national road network consists of approximately 17,200 km of “high
capacity” roads (motorways & similar) and 148,400 km of ordinary roads.
In addition, the
country has almost 500,000 km of local roads, which are not included as part of the national
The management of the Spanish national road network is divided between central
government, the autonomous communities and the provinces, which are similar in size to
France’s regions and departments respectively.
The Spanish system differs from the French model in two fundamental ways. Firstly, toll
motorways, managed under concessions, represent a significantly smaller and decreasing
share, due to economic difficulties and a debate on the merits of the concession model.
Secondly, operation and maintenance of the approximately 24,000 km of high-capacity and
ordinary roads where central government has not granted conventional toll concessions to
third parties are in fact almost entirely carried out by private companies, under the control of
central and deconcentrated services that are consequently much smaller than their French
Following the liquidation of the original concession companies, the management of eight
concession contracts was transferred to a public company, SEITT (th
e “State Company for
Land Transport Infrastructure”). It also took over the operation of three sections of motorways
for which central government decided not to renew the concessions when they expired. In total,
SEITT now manages 682 km of motorways. Formed in 2005, the main purpose of this company
is “the promotion, construction, operation and maintenance of national land transport
infrastructures, on behalf of the government’s General Administration within the framework of
management agreements”. Although
it was originally intended to be multimodal, its first work
was mainly in the railway sector. It extended into motorways in 2015, in response to the
difficulties encountered by some motorway concession-holding companies.
On the basis of a direct management agreement concluded with central government in
2017, SEITT operates the eight motorway sections corresponding to concessions where the
incumbent holder has been wound up. It does so with the staff and resources of these
companies, which were transferred to SEITT at the time. It collects the revenue from the tolls
stipulated in the initial concessions, and receives additional subsidies paid to it by central
government’s General Administration. However, the three motorway sections where
management was also handed to SEITT by central government when the concessions expired
no longer charge tolls for the time being.
SEITT is running this set of terminated or expired concessions provisionally. Indeed, by
the end of 2022, central government must decide how these motorway sections will be
managed in the long term. This decision is part of a wider debate on the pricing and
management model for the entire Spanish motorway network.
Another specific feature is that 10 sections of expressways built in the 1980s are run
under concession contracts but without tolls paid by users. The upgrading, operation and
maintenance of these sections, with a total length of just over 1,000 km, were entrusted to
private operators in return for regular payment by the concession grantor (either central
government or the Autonomous Community) of “shadow tolls” calculated according to the
traffic recorded. As with toll-free roads, the financing of these particular concessions, which
are 19-year contracts, is therefore ultimately borne by the taxpayer.
The management of the national road network under central government’s jurisdiction
that has not been entrusted to private operators is mainly the responsibility of the central and
decentralised services of Spain’s Directorate
-General for Roads
, which until 2019 was part
Dirección General de Carreteras
of the ministry of development
and since 1 January 2020 has been attached to the ministry
of transport, mobility and urban agenda (MITMA)
The central services of the Directorate-General for Roads comprise four sub-directorates
responsible for operations, maintenance, studies and the implementation of network
development projects and one sub-directorate responsible for resources and contracts. Its de-
concentrated services, called Demarcaciones de Carreteras del Estado and Unidades
Provinciales, are structured at regional and departmental levels respectively (in equivalent
French terms). Their jurisdictions correspond to those of Spain’s Autonomous Communities
for the former and the provinces for the latter.
The directorate-general for roads also benefits from the support of CEDEX (Centre for
research & experimentation in public works), a central government public agency offering
multidisciplinary support to the public and private sector alike in civil engineering, construction
and the environment. The institution is composed of specialised technical units which devote
about 70 % of their resources to high-level technical assistance activities and 30 % to applied
research and development, technology transfer and technical and scientific information
Spain’s organisation of its roads has several points in common with the organisation in
France - roads managed by a central and deconcentrated administration, supported by a state
scientific and technical network. It differs, however, in the substance of the activities of the
decentralised services of the DGR, which carry out virtually none of the operation and
maintenance tasks of the national road network that is not under concessions, whereas these
are still partly carried out by the inter-departmental road directorates in France. Thus, in Spain,
these activities are almost entirely entrusted to private sector companies, under service and
works contracts. The private sector also provides all the engineering for network development
projects. As a result, the directorate-general for roads and its services in the Autonomous
Communities and provinces have four times fewer staff (1,876 in 2018) than the DIT and the
DIR in France.
The corresponding expenditure is charged to a road operations and maintenance
programme, which also finances the allocations (shadow tolls) that central government pays
to the companies holding the above-mentioned contracts, as well as the personnel and
operating expenditure of the Directorate-General for Roads, which is however only a small part
of the total (approximately 5 %).
Breakdown of the overall budget in 2018
Amounts in €m
Operations and upkeep
Shadow tolls
Road safety
General budgets of Spain’s central government
Budget allocations operations and maintenance of national roads under central government's jurisdiction (excluding personnel
and operating expenses of the Directorate-General for Roads)
Ministerio de Fomento
Ministerio de Transportes, Movilidad y Agenda Urbana