London doesn’t love its roads. There is no equivalent of the celebratory US anthem Route 66 and most of the debate about our main roads is about how awful and congested they are. They are seen as places to dump traffic and where the poor live.
It wasn’t always like this. The main roads of London feature prominently in much of our great literature, including Chaucer and Dickens. And a glance at William’s Booth’s famous maps of London life in the 19th Century indicates that main roads were where the prosperous middle-class resided (the good bits are shown in red).
Dislike of living on main roads is not common in other European cities. The boulevards of Paris, Barcelona and Berlin are at the centre of local and city life, with excellent public transport – including a 24-hour tram system in Berlin – and a range of shops, cafes and restaurants.
I suspect part of the problem in London is continuing fallout from the failed plans of the 1960s and ’70. Huge political controversy was caused by sneaky traffic engineers and politicians trying to push a huge urban motorway through inner London, the remnants of which can still be seen around the Westway and on approach roads to the Blackwall Tunnel. A consequence has been that any change to London’s road network has been put firmly put in the “too difficult” box.
The next big idea came the 1980s – the M25 orbital motorway. The ambition was to shift traffic – heavy goods vehicle traffic in particular – from London’s roads. This was combined with the introduction by the Greater London Council (GLC) of the London lorry control scheme to limit access to main roads within London of lorries weighing over 18 tonnes. As a manager at a large National Freight depot in Camden Town at the time, I saw its impact at first hand – the depot was closed and operations moved to far-away Enfield.
That was all part of the much wider de-industrialisation of inner London, along with the closure of the docks, printing plants and a whole host of factories heavily reliant on heavy traffic. It looked as if there was a strategic approach emerging to managing traffic. Sadly, that didn’t last long. Part of the problem was the abolition of the GLC by a vengeful Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Like much else involved in that decision, little thought was given to how a large and complex city was supposed to cope with motor vehicles.
It was left to the 32 boroughs to sort it out. Needless to say that didn’t work out well and eventually, in 1991, the Department for Transport introduced the red route scheme. With the establishment of the Greater London Authority in 1999 this became the responsibility of Transport for London. Now comprising 300 miles of main roads, red routes make up less than five per cent of the road network but account for 30 per cent of all traffic and a much higher proportion of bus routes.
The tragedy of the last few years is that the future of the red routes has barely rated a mention in the heated debates about road space, congestion and pollution. A loveless marriage between TfL and the boroughs means that the interests of red route users and whose who live on them have lost out to better organised pressure groups.
Like the NHS, the red routes are operating at full or above capacity. And, also like the NHS, big increases in demand – in this case traffic levels – can cause chaos and ultimately gridlock, with huge implications for the reliability of emergency vehicles and London’s buses, the workhorses of our public transport system. Denial of the problem is no longer an option.
It might help if TfL reconvened its roads task force, set up in 2012, which has not met since 2016. If that happened, task force members might want to look at the findings of an excellent report published in 2020 by Centric Lab, a research company concerned with addressing health problems among communities most susceptible to them, and Environmental Fund Europe. Entitled Rethinking London’s Red Routes: From Red to Green, it rightly makes the point that social and economic circumstances have changed dramatically since 1991. It also cites a TfL survey indicating that 39 per cent of commercial vehicles driving across London were only one quarter full.
The principal purpose of red routes was defined at the time of their introduction as keeping traffic, especially freight, moving. As is now evident, little consideration was given to issues relating to congestion, quality of life for residents and visitors or the emerging scandal of poor air quality. Red routes are hostile environments for the millions obliged to travel on them, the hundreds of thousands who live on or close to them and the one third third of inner London primary schools near them.
The critical question now is how to reduce the amount of traffic on already crowded London roads. In 2019, pre-pandemic, Department for Transport figures say motor vehicles drove 20.3 billion miles on London’s roads with the figure on an upward trend during the preceding six years. Moreover heavy freight, which causes the most problems in terms of congestion and road safety, has largely unrestricted access to London’s roads, unlike in many other European cities.
Solutions may be emerging. The transition to electric vehicles means fuel duty will no longer be fit for purpose as a revenue earner (though zero emission vehicles, currently exempt, will have to start paying vehicle excise duty from 2025). If the alternative is road pricing, as a House of Commons committee concluded a year ago, London may be ahead of the game.
As well as improving air quality, the planned extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to the whole of Greater London in August will provide the infrastructure for a Londonwide dynamic road-user charging scheme which could both change driver behaviour and provide finance for transforming public transport.
Such an initiative could be combined with a re-purposing of the 40-year-old London lorry control scheme, which is now administered by London Councils. Its purpose remains reducing noise pollution by restricting access to a number of red routes at night and at weekends. A revised remit for the scheme could see it address road safety and congestion concerns too. We also need a radical discussion with the principal freight distributors about what type of commercial vehicles should be using our roads.
Fifty years on, it’s time to re-open the “too difficult” box and move the debate about London’s traffic away from localised small initiatives which fail to address city-wide issues. Paris and Boston are adopting imaginative policies to resolve their issues of congestion and improve the quality of life of all their residents. It’s time London caught up.
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