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Roads to Nowhere

Silvertown Tunnel plans show we don't learn from history

Wayne Asher photo

Guest blogger Wayne Asher explains why politicians are blind to the lessons from history when it comes to road building.

Plans for the Silvertown Tunnel – a new Thames crossing in East London - show that what we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

The whole history of road building in the capital shows the futility of trying to solve traffic congestion by building new roads. I researched this for Rings Around London – the first full length study of the notorious Ringway plans of the 1960s - and their echo in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher's Government wanted industrial strength road building schemes.

The ringways were a concentric set of three motorways – plus, further out, the north and south orbital routes. They would be connected by a set of radial motorways such as the MI, M4 and M11.

Building them would have been the greatest triumph of the motorway era, the definitive statement that our towns and cities needed to be completely rebuilt to feed the appetite of the motor car, rather than investing in public transport.

They would have cost more than a third London airport, the UK share of the Channel Tunnel and Concorde put together. Tens of thousands of people would have been made homeless, and London's cityscape would have changed irrevocably to one where motorways would be the dominant feature of the city. The 21th century renaissance of public transport could never have happened – there simply would not have been the money to pay for it.

Protesters against the Ringways demonstrated that, in their own terms, never mind the lost housing or environmental damage, they could never have worked because they would have generated enough brand-new traffic that they would have been clogged on opening day – as would all of the approach roads to them.

This point was stoutly resisted by officialdom, who, in this period, were hand in glove with the road lobby which needed to fight against better public transport. Yet I found while researching Rings Around London, an official report in 1938 (!) by Sir Charles Bressey which looked at the arterial roads built after the first world war and which pointed to the fact that new roads generated their own traffic.

So motorway building was – in its own terms – an utterly pointless activity. For the capital and its citizens the Ringways would have been a disaster of the first magnitude.

They were stopped because protesters managed to change opinion in the London Labour Party, which, from being every bit as pro-motorway as the Tories, began to take a new interest in public transport. When Labour recaptured the greater London Council in 1973, they canned the Ringway project. But parts of the scheme can be seen in the East End, with the Westway, and biggest of all, the M25 – the ultimate proof that you can't solve traffic problems by building new roads.

Officialdom finally accepted this point in 1994, when its own advisory committee – SACTRA – confirmed the general suspicion that all those traffic jams on the M25 were actually generated by the existence of the road. And because pro-road civil servants had denied that generated traffic even existed, they had approved roads which made no economic sense on when assessed on honest assumptions. The claimed monetary benefits of reduced congestion wouldn’t be delivered because generated traffic would fill the new road up again. And so they threw billions of pounds of taxpayers' money down the drain.

The fight against the Ringways is a historical memory – but one worth rediscovering because it showed that the official steamroller can be halted if enough people fight to stop it. Even the SACTRA report was almost 25 years ago. Time for memories to fade and for arguments to need restating again. A new tunnel at Silvertown will only generate new traffic and will benefit long distance car commuters, not residents of an east London area where car ownership remain fairly low. Its not too late to scrap it.

Wayne Asher is the author of Rings Around London and A Very Political Railway.