Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Banishment of Traffic from London. A brief history of UK thoroughfares from the Romans, to the Congestion Charge, to Olympic Zil Lanes

<<Apologies - this is an ancient post from 2012.  I edited it & it has popped to the top...>>

I often cycle to work.  Some people think that makes them special, caring, intelligent types, but I mainly enjoy the exercise, the fresh air, the price, and the relative absence of B.O. from the thousands of other frustrated souls making their way to their place of toil.

There are obvious drawbacks ; the weather that we are so famous for talking about can be quite cold, wet and icy - neither of which are ideal for cycling as a person advances in years, but I pride myself on being of a fairly robust physiognomy.  Potholes and punctures are perennial problems and there are frequent opportunities to be crushed under the giant wheels of the various heavy goods vehicles which move at high speeds through the city streets.  Fact is though, I quite enjoy my 20 minute ride and so long as I avoid getting squished, I remain well ahead in terms of time, money and health.

It would be nice to have other options though, I feel.  Public transport is just so dire in London.  Slow, smelly, expensive, congested.  I wonder whether they should consider introducing a "Congestion Charge" on public transport?  Seems to have done wonders for keeping people off the roads, why shouldnt it work on the tube?  Fact is that although I can justify running an extremely modest family car after the various running costs, taxes, charges and fines, there is no way that I can justify paying £10 for the pleasure of being able to drive in to work and back.

To illustrate how hard it is, I thought that I would put up some pictures from my daily cycle in.  See if you can spot anything unusual about them.  As a clue, these were taken at around 9:15 in the morning.

View looking South from Oval Station:

View looking North from Oval Station:

View looking South past Kennington Station:

Looking North:

Turning off from Elephant & Castle roundabout:
(That busy traffic hub)

Going North up Borough High Street:

Looking South by Southwark Crown Court:

Northwards towards the Shard:

Turning off:

Through the backstreets to Tooley Street:

You may have noticed that there aren't too many cars on what you might expect to be rather busy roads. In fact, there are practically none.  This strikes me as rather strange and extremely worrying as London is supposed to be our financial capital and this particular route is one of the major arteries in.

For those who are not familiar with London roads, London is set out a bit like a dartboard.  We have three circular(ish) roads: 

Ring Road
The "Ring Road", which is a couple of miles in diameter from Tower Bridge in the East, to the Houses of Westminster in the West.  This road contains what is referred to as "The City" of London, also "The West End", plus a little bit "Sarf of the River".

North/South Circular
The "North/South Circular" roads (which aren't particularly circular in places.) These do a radius about five miles from the City/Square Mile and contain pretty much everything that can legitimately be called "London".

The M25 is a wondrous modern construction, a multi-laned motorway which spans a radius 10-15 miles out. and a joy to all those who use it daily.  This road was the inspiration for Chris Rea's song "Road to Hell".  This area within is often referred to as "Greater London" and is bordered by various green belt lands, such as Epping Forest which are fantastic to cycle in.

These rings are intercepted by ten or so major arteries.  For example:

The A1, which was so named because it is the first of our "A" roads.  Known as the "Great North Road", it joins London and Edinburgh, based on ancient roads built upon by the Romans, starting as Ermine Street from the gates of the wall around London and intersecting and traversing most major routes including the "Four Highways" of medieval England.  (Icknield Way, Fosse Way, Watling Street & the already mentioned Ermine Street.)  Running Northwards at about 11 o'clock, it was superceded by Lord Francis Egerton's Grand Union Canal system, Robert Stephensons London and Birmingham Railway line and finally the M1 motorway by John Laing, but still remains in place for much of the way.

The A2 is probably even older and is based on another of the "Four"; the Celtic trackway known as Watling Street, later the "Dover Road", as it connects London with Dovers iconic white cliffs.  The Thames being the oldest thoroughfare, the A2 hugs her Southern bank most of the way out, past the famous Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe that brought Isambard Kingdom Brunel to fame, by being the first of its kind.  Each of the rings intercept the A2 where they cross over the river Thames to the East.  This road also connects the historic strategic naval centres of Rochester and Chatham.

The A3 connects another vital centre of historic sea-power and is known as the Portsmouth road.  It has been a victim of its own success in some ways in that the area in between Portsmouth and London is extremely wealthy, no doubt as a result of the trade which came their way.  Correspondingly, much of the area is designated as "area of outstanding beauty", resulting in the poor old A3 never getting upgraded much beyond a dual carriageway.  However, money & influence going hand in hand as they do, they eventually decided that they would put a great big four mile chunk of it underground at a cost of £150,000 per metre.  A good deal of train stations in this area cater to villages or hamlets of just a few houses but are mysteriously served by fast or semi-fast non-stopping services

On the topic of well heeled environs, the A4 connects Buckingham Palace to the leafier estates further out to the West via the Royal parks, and the Roman spa town of Bath.  This one hasn't had the luxury of quite such Genteel treatment as the A3 though, no doubt because of the connection to the port town of Bristol, which being near to the Atlantic probably had quite a bit of stuff coming over that we did actually want.  It got an upgrade in the shape of the M4, which ex Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott hilariously had the idea to convert into a bus lane at one stage.  Happily, one good thing that the Tories have acheived was to scrap this ludicrous scheme ten years later, but not until after they had designated it as one of the dedicated Zil lanes for the duration of the Olympic games.

And what is the point of all these ramblings, you might wonder?  Well, just to illustrate that these roads are historically busy, main lifeblood arteries to our capital city.  I love cycling on clear, empty streets, but hate the impingements on our liberty which make it possible.  I imagine that dedicated penny farthing lanes would have been seen as progress in Brunel's time, but can hardly see him ripping out railway tracks to make way for them.  Would George V have countenanced the idea of dedicated "Whiff Whaff" lanes for the dandies of the time to go rip roaring past the palace?  I should imagine that the idea of charging people around double the minimum hourly wage for the privilege of entering within a mile radius of the City would offend liberal Victorian sensibilities & invoke another Magna Carta.  The pictures that you see are taken along the routes of the A2 & A3.  The A4 is being used as a "Zil" lane for Olympic dignitaries.  Nobody can afford to use the roads, even if they are allowed to.  The tubes are crammed to bursting point and the roads are empty, but it's ok; they've painted them blue & written cycle superhighway all over them.  So that's alright then.

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