Have you ever been stuck in traffic on the M25, wondering where all these other vehicles are going to and from? Well now we have the answers, thanks to new research published by the RAC Foundation and consultancy firm Atkins, which shows London’s orbital motorway is predominantly used for travel to or from the capital.

According to the data, only around one in seven car or taxi journeys made on the M25 (14 percent) are made by people travelling from one part of the country to another and wishing to bypass the capital city. And 12 percent of journeys on one of the world’s busiest ring roads begin and end in London, enabling drivers to move around the city without driving through the centre.

But the vast majority of drivers – almost three-quarters (74 percent), in fact – were found to be either heading into or out of London, with many heading to or from “key destinations” such as ports or airports.

Evening heavy traffic on busiest British motorway M25 in London

The figures were gathered using “anonymous” data from more than 4.4 million journeys during weekdays in November 2019 – before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Working with TomTom, Atkins was able to use in-dashboard, on-dashboard and mobile navigation technologies to trace drivers’ journeys.

The resulting data also revealed the peak hours for traffic on the M25 occur between 7am and 8am, and 4pm to 5pm, with drivers undertaking “strategic trips” that circumnavigate London tending to travel earlier in the day. The data also showed significant traffic on the M25 was due to travel between Surrey, Gatwick and Kent, suggesting a “lack of alternative high-capacity cross-country routes” in the south-east of England.

M25 London Orbital Motorway near Junction 18 in Hertfordshire UK

“This unique research addresses one of the great mysteries of life,” said Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation. “Where are all those cars on the M25 actually going? Now we know, and most of them are not trying to avoid the capital. This might come as a surprise to the many of us who think of the M25 as a way of avoiding London rather than travelling in, out or through it.

“This data should be of keen interest to those responsible for the management of the M25 and of the many local roads that connect with it. A possible follow up to this important work could be a look at where freight journeys on the M25 are starting and ending.”

Meanwhile Sean Flynn, from Atkins, said the research justified further investigation into drivers’ use of the M25.

“This research, underpinned by the robust and easy-to-use origin destination tool of TomTom, was a good opportunity for Atkins to demonstrate our traffic data analytics capabilities,” he said. “We believe the initial outcomes will be of interest to a number of our customers and that M25 movements merit further investigation.”

Evening heavy traffic on busiest British motorway M25 in London