Paul Hyett, 21 April 2021
Most people know that the Dartford Bridge and Tunnel connect the north and south loops of the M25 motorway as they cross the River Thames on the east side of London, writes Paul Hyett. By contrast, few people know at what point they pass over the Thames to the west of our capital city. The answer is Runnymede of Magna Carta fame, a crossing facilitated by two bridges, the first designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1939 but not constructed until the late 1950s, the second by Joanna Kennedy with Ove Arup, completed in 1978.
Some 160,000 vehicles a day use Dartford whereas the number is even higher in the west with 200,000 crossings daily at Runneymede.
Again, few people know where the North and South Circular Roads meet and cross the Thames: it is at Kew Bridge to the west where congestion is all too frequently beyond capacity at 35,000 ‘AADF’ (annual average daily flow). But to the east, hardly anybody knows where the two roads meet. Some would suggest the Blackwall Tunnel, but they would be wrong. Nor is it Brunel’s Rotherhithe Tunnel, or Tower Bridge – and there is nothing else downstream, so where?
The surprising answer is that the final link is made by the Woolwich Ferry, which is today run as a free service, for both vehicles and pedestrians, courtesy of London River Services, an arm of Transport for London. Operated by Briggs Marine, an astonishing two million passengers a year use the ferry. But romantic as this nation’s attachment is to its maritime history, the ferry crossing at Woolwich, which has operated in various forms since the early 14th century, was never going to form a viable link in a chain so diverse in character and capacity as the North and South Circular Roads.
This reveals much about the UK’s muddled thinking when it comes to transport strategy and policy. Since its introduction, making way for the motor car within London has presented seemingly unfathomable challenges and endless conflict, the result of which has been compromise the kind of which is nowhere better evidenced than by the South Circular.
I remember back in the early ‘70s sitting in on a great lecture by that inspired irritant architect Sam Webb. Best known for his work on safety and fire-related matters following his investigation into the Ronan Point tragedy, his topic that day was the South Circular Road. In typically entertaining fashion, Webb described the process adopted by the unfortunate traffic engineer responsible for routing London’s South Circular Road – deeming the task impossible, he had apparently charged his young son with solving the problem. And that, we were told, became the adopted route.
Unlikely as this tale seems, a ride along any part of the convoluted route quickly demonstrates that the South Circular is nothing but an apology for a city ring road. And nowhere is this more apparent than the stretch I recently followed by motorbike from Dulwich, rolling eastwards through Forest Hill and Catford to Horn Park, where I routed north to the Blackwall tunnel.
Major planning work had been carried out on London’s road systems in the 1930s by Sir Charles Bressey and Sir Edwin Lutyens, but it was not until Sir Patrick Abercrombie was appointed in the latter stages of World War 2 that any really disciplined thinking emerged. With an optimism typical of the ‘brave new world’ culture that would permeate that era, Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan and 1944 Greater London Plan looked beyond London’s narrow ‘borough-centric’ planning to the wider picture. He proposed the ordering of London’s streets into three distinct categories: Arterial Roads, Sub-Arterial Roads and Local Roads. A fourth category, Express Arterial Roads’, was later added.
Abercrombie proposed that five concentric roads be incorporated within the system, and these were designated by the letters A to E. Of these the ‘C’ Ring roughly followed today’s North and South Circular routes, albeit a bridge or tunnel would have replaced the Woolwich Ferry.
For better or worse, Abercrombie’s vision was never realised, seemingly the result of chronic funding shortages. But funding was only a part of the problem. Dis-jointed planning protocols and organised local resistance to the proposals have consistently played their part. The two parts (north and south) were planned and managed by different agencies, the north team being more effective than their southern counterparts. But while work to the north has produced a roadway of greater capacity which generally facilitates enhanced traffic volumes and travel speeds, both the process and the consequences have been painful. The North Circular Road is still ‘patchy’, ranging between longish sections of fast-moving dual carriageways of up to six lanes, to tight winding sections of two-lane dual carriageways. And there are many sections of two-way traffic roads in between.
Worst of all, for large parts of the North Circular route the effects of long-term planning blight remain evident, with many homes reduced to temporary short-term occupancy and others boarded up awaiting demolition.
The South Circular got off to a better start back in the 1920s with construction of the first section near Eltham, south-east London, beginning as early as 1921 to a then very high-quality specification. The remainder of the road right round to Chiswick in the west was meant to be of similar standard but progress was repeatedly delayed, and the current route was allocated in the late 1930s to existing urban streets instead. Today, the South Circular, (which is the most unpopular road in Britain) receives sustained criticism for congestion and pollution, but it appears to have largely avoided the kind of extensive planning blight that has be-devilled its northern counterpart.
Compare all this with Shanghai where I recently lived for three years. There, the municipal authorities set about complementing their new metro system, now the world’s busiest, with a 3.7 billion annual ridership. As would be expected, no messing in this endeavour: starting in the 1990s the Authority simply and quickly built a giant and extensive system of elevated motorways criss-crossing the city and its suburbs, most of which stand on giant pilotis and run directly above existing major roads. Known as elevated expressways, they have been very effective but come at considerable cost in terms of both their aesthetic impact, and the disturbance and disruption caused to those tens of thousands of citizens who live and work along the way.
Our democratic culture renders even a more modest plan such as Abercrombie’s as nigh on impossible to deliver. But when I still today pass a building which I designed back in 1978 and see the blighted strip of land that was then stipulated as a no-build zone pending possible expansion of the northbound carriageway of the North Circular, I wonder whether 45 years of planning blight is a satisfactory alternative to Shanghai’s ruthlessness. I remember the developer, furious at the local planners, dealing £20 notes onto the table fast as a hand of cards to illustrate how much the planning delay was costing the project every hour.
Now we find the North and South Circular Roads are taking on another role: they are set this October to become the new boundary for London’s ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zone’. Unhappily, neither the A406 (north) nor the A205 (south) will be included within the extended zone, so a grim stalemate is thus set to continue unabated for all those who live and work along the route.