Thought rows over new roads in London went out of fashion decades ago? Think again. The diggers could be coming to a street near you soon if London elects a mayor who'll follow through on City Hall's car-friendly blueprint.
It's two decades since the last set of major roadbuilding projects in the capital: the Limehouse Link route joining the City with Canary Wharf, and the hugely controversial M11 link road which carved a deep scar through Leytonstone. Both were aimed at easing congestion on existing major roads — the A13 through Stepney and Leytonstone High Road — but over time, both new routes became magnets for jams.
That's the problem with building new roads — evidence shows they tend to attract new traffic over a wide area, putting you back to square one within a few years. It's a phenomenon called induced traffic.
Under Ken Livingstone's mayoralty, roadbuilding was largely put on the backburner, apart from a few schemes in the outer suburbs. The one big exception to this was the Thames Gateway Bridge between Thamesmead and Beckton, which was defeated at a public inquiry, thanks to an unlikely coalition of residents, green groups and Conservative-run Bexley Council. It was scrapped (temporarily) when Boris Johnson came to power.
Eight years later, the road lobby is smelling the heady scent of fresh tarmac again and most of the action's back down by the river.
Councils and business groups have long demanded more road crossings linking east with south-east London and Essex with Kent. They point at the queues at the Blackwall Tunnel and Dartford Crossing, complain about low land values in areas such as Erith and Dagenham, and chant "something must be done."
Despite recent improvements, bringing huge economic benefits to the area, public transport river links also remain patchy. And whose bright idea was it to build a whole new town — Thamesmead — without any tube or train connections whatsoever?
The most well-developed current scheme focuses on the area near the Blackwall Tunnel. If built, the Silvertown Tunnel will add a third crossing at the Greenwich Peninsula, but heading to the Royal Docks rather than Poplar. It's currently the subject of a public consultation.
TfL says the Silvertown Tunnel will "virtually eliminate" the notorious northbound queues at Blackwall, and the pollution associated with it. Yet there's a glaring weak spot with the scheme: its reliance on the overcrowded A102/A2 Blackwall Tunnel approach, which has problems of its own. A new crossing is likely to exacerbate southbound queues, particularly on the A2 pinchpoint at Kidbrooke, leading to demands for road-widening and the demolition of homes. Elsewhere, the extra traffic the Silvertown Tunnel will generate is likely to clog up other weak spots in east and south-east London, making pollution worse in other areas.
The tunnel is also aimed at HGVs that can’t fit in the existing northbound Blackwall Tunnel — an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1897. The prospect of more heavy lorries getting closer to central London was a factor behind Hackney Council’s decision to oppose the scheme in July.
The tunnel will cost £1bn and be funded by a PFI scheme plus the slapping of tolls on both Blackwall and Silvertown Tunnels. TfL says these tolls will prevent any increase in traffic, but tolling is unlikely to discourage Kent commuters who are already saving the cost of train fares by getting in their cars. Instead, it’s likely to push some shorter trips towards Rotherhithe Tunnel, adding to jams and pollution there.
The Silvertown scheme is being rushed through however, flaws and all, so that Boris can claim to have done something before he leaves office. But even the tunnel's backers admit to problems with Newham’s elected mayor Sir Robin Wales admitting it will increase congestion. And TfL’s own background documents say that the borough’s drivers will face slower journeys.
But in truth, the Silvertown Tunnel's future will depend on whoever comes into City Hall next May. Green Sian Berry is joined by Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon in her opposition to the scheme. Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan are playing their cards closer to their chest but both are aware of the deep concerns about the scheme.
To those with worries, TfL simply says it’ll build its way out of trouble. So it has two more crossings planned...
Gallions Reach Bridge
So we move further down the river to Thamesmead where Boris Johnson has revived the Thames Gateway Bridge. Now known as the Gallions Reach Bridge, this would link Thamesmead with the North Circular at Beckton. It's a scheme that is totemic for both London's Green and Labour politicians.
It's the scene of the Greens’ biggest triumph: killing off Ken Livingstone's bridge thanks to the legal help they twisted his arm to pay for when he needed their help to get a budget through City Hall.
But it's also unfinished business for London's Labour councils. They see the project as both a cure for Blackwall queues and a boost to the economies of Thamesmead and the Royal Docks. Gallions Reach is their big demand, not Silvertown. They point to Thamesmead's generous network of dual carriageways, built to accommodate an even older, even bigger crossing scheme that never came known as the East London River Crossing (ELRC).
But connections between the Gallions Reach site and the south are diabolical. The main route up from Bexleyheath, Knee Hill, is little more than a side road despite how it appears on maps (see below).
At best, residents in Plumstead and Welling fear being overwhelmed by traffic — a Newham Council study predicts huge increases south of the river. At worst, they fear seeing their homes demolished along with ancient Oxleas Woods to improve access to the bridge, a threat which had hung over the area with the old ELRC scheme.
It's hard to see any bridge here working without a phenomenal programme of road closures on the south side to protect Plumstead and Welling. But even the most widespread mitigation won’t be able to stop new queues as drivers head to the bridge through areas such as Woolwich.
How to stop the Silvertown Tunnel, then Gallions Reach Bridge being overwhelmed with traffic? Don't worry, TfL says — we'll be building another crossing. Enter the Belvedere Bridge.
This one links Picardy Manorway roundabout at Belvedere with the A13 at Rainham — parts of outer London usually overlooked by policy-makers and the media. Roads on both sides of the river were expanded in the 1990s and 2000s, helping the growth of the logistics industry on the south side in particular.
Sticking a bridge here will still have huge downsides, though. That upgraded road network still thunders through residential areas south of Erith. And a recent study shows that expanding the A206 from the Kent border to Crayford — a rare Ken-era road scheme — led to big increases in local air pollution. Many people here have a lot to lose but it’s unlikely many at City Hall, or many who write about these schemes, could find their homes on a map.
Lower Thames Crossing
To complete the picture, we need to look at what’s planned further down the river too. Central government wants to build a fourth crossing linking Essex and Kent but has postponed making a decision on this Lower Thames Crossing.
One option is a fourth Dartford crossing. It's the simplest idea but one that suffers from the same fatal flaws as the Silvertown Tunnel, as it depends heavily on the same packed M25.
The other is a mighty link between the M25 at South Ockendon, cutting across to the A13 and across the Thames to the M2. This would certainly be loved by drivers on their way to the Channel ports, but it also has the big downside of carving through green fields in Essex and Kent.
Flyover, flyunder and a buried ring road
River crossings are just the start with more big road schemes planned across London. TfL is proposing an £87m flyover in Croydon — one that would lead to the existing 1968 flyover — to help ease access from Surrey to the planned Westfield shopping centre.
Bigger plans to knock down the creaky Hammersmith Flyover and build a “flyunder” have had City Hall backing. Comedian Bill Bailey even joined Hammersmith and Fulham Council to promote the scheme, which has survived the borough’s switch from the Tories to Labour. Supporters say it'll remove pollution and jams from Hammersmith town centre but opponents argue it will have wider impacts beyond W6, effectively building an urban motorway between Kensington and Chiswick.
Buried in City Hall’s 2050 transport plan is the most ambitious proposal: to build a new ring-road around central London, which will be mostly buried underground. Supporters say it’ll “free up the potential” of areas along the current ring road such as Old Street and Bricklayers Arms, and point to Boston’s massive Big Dig scheme as an example.
But the Big Dig buried an existing dual carriageway into a three-and-half mile tunnel. Rebuilding the Inner Ring Road would create a brand new, much longer one, with echoes of the Ringways scheme, which threatened to destroy communities such as Canonbury and Brockley in the 1960s and 1970s. At a cost of between between £15bn and £25bn, it’d be a brave mayor who’d go ahead with this one.
If you’re in a hole, stop digging
It's easy to point at a recurring traffic jam and yell "something must be done!" But finding a proper solution isn't easy. Building roads in areas of high demand merely brings more traffic. If you have too many cars on London’s streets, why would you want to encourage even more?
With a botched proposal such as the Silvertown Tunnel, it's ordinary Londoners who are expected to pay the price through increased air and noise pollution even if they live some miles from the site of the new road.
The uncomfortable answer may well be to bite the bullet and extend congestion charging across a wider area of London to make each driver pay for taking up valuable road space.
Central London traffic may be bad now, but imagine how awful it would be if it was still a free-for-all. Even business lobbyists such as London First have suggested expanding the current charge. It is politically difficult though — Zac Goldsmith recently backed away from a suggestion he might do just that.
But charging drivers will be a small price to pay compared with the disruption and destruction caused by a new round of roadbuilding. If the next mayor backs the Silvertown Tunnel, the consequences won’t be restricted to a couple of riverside neighbourhoods. The effects will be felt far out — and not just in increased traffic, but also a revival of discredited ideas from the 1960s.
There’s no easy answer to London’s traffic congestion. But blocking the Silvertown Tunnel will make it far less likely that other ill-thought through schemes will go ahead, and hopefully that will give space for more sensible solutions. The key question remains however: are London’s mayoral candidates up to the challenge?