A pair of massive road tunnels could help solve London’s traffic congestion problems, saving the London economy up to GBP1bn a year.
That’s the promise from outgoing mayor Boris Johnson, who has given Transport for London the task of undertaking detailed feasibility studies into the tunnels. The study will look at two spine tunnels, as well as a number of smaller road burying projects around the capital, which could release land for development.
The news came as TfL’s board pushed the idea of a new Thames tunnel a stage further forward. A Development Consent Order has been submitted to government, asking for permission to commence construction on the Silvertown Tunnel. Hopes are that work could start in 2018 for a 2023 opening, linking Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks.
The largest of the new proposals is a 15 mile long tunnel named the Northern Cross City Corridor would run from the A40 at Park Royal, to the A12 at Hackey Wick. A second of around 11 miles would run from the A4 at Chiswick to rise at Beckton onto the A13. An orbital tunnel is also under consideration.
“The Mayor and TfL have been considering the potential for different types of measures including a network of congestion-busting tunnels, incentives to improve freight movement, and changes to the way Londoners pay for road use,” said the mayor’s office in a statement. “If left unmanaged, congestion could potentially increase by 60 per cent over the next 15 years in central London, 25 per cent in inner London and 15 per cent in outer London unless these strategic plans are put in place.”
Alongside major infrastructure proposals, the mayor’s office is also looking at faster ways of curbing traffic, notably freight. The last few years has seen an explosion in online shopping, and a commensurate explosion in courier vans dropping next day deliveries to consumers at their homes and offices. Johnson is keen to eat into this growth by encouraging “click and collect” services, so that London workers can pick up their goods on their way home, perhaps at their local railway station.
Johnson told the Times: “We have got 45 per cent growth in white vans caused by internet shopping, and a colossal growth in minicabs caused by the arrival of new apps. So we have to manage both of those phenomena and it is not easy.”
Also being looked at afresh is freight consolidation, with TfL investigating what incentives might be offered to improve uptake.
The smaller road improvement plans include short tunnels, or flyunders, at sites where getting the existing road out of the way could yield valuable development opportunities, or reunite blighted communities. On the A13 in Barking, a 1.3km tunnelled road section could create the opportunity for a new neighbourhood of over 5,000 homes and help unlock access to London Riverside. Elsewhere, the A3 at Tolworth could also be tunnelled for a section.
Mayor Johnson has also called for devolution of vehicle excise duty, which if given to the capital, he has pledged would be spent on improving London’s roads. At the same time, TfL is looking at how various taxes and tolls could be integrated, perhaps into some sort of Oyster for drivers. Vehicle users in the capital already pay the congestion charge and Low Emission Zone fines, while the Ultra-Low Emission Zone is being implemented in 2020, and future river crossing upgrades at Blackwall and Silvertown will be tolled.
Freight consolidation is already seeing growing adoption. In 2014, Camden, Enfield, Waltham Forest and Islington started a one year pilot with DHL to reduce goods deliveries to council buildings. After 15 months, the trial saw a 46% reducting in vehicle trips and 45% cut in distance travelled. As a result, the London Boroughs Consolidation Cetnre has now agreed a three year contract with DHL as the provider, working out of a depot in Edmonton. The local authorities are looking to encourage retailers and other private sector partners into the project.
LPA Perspective: Despite a lack of big road infrastructure projects, London’s road traffic seems to struggle on, just about. Behind the scenes, lots of little efforts have already been made in recent years – smarter traffic lights, fines for dallying roadworks and so on. They were the low-hanging fruit, and some big ideas may now be needed.
However, while Paris may have tunnelled itself a new orbital road, somehow the idea of expensive, lengthy tunnels – a sort of Crossrail for motorists – doesn’t seem to have a compelling logic for London. Yes, local cut and cover projects could free up new development space; and be more achievable financially. But unless the mayor can come up with a convincing way of funding them, those longer tunnels don’t seem feasible. There’s also the question of where exit ramps come up, into the existing dense grid of the city.
On the one hand, the plethora of increasingly redundant central London car parks is testament to the reducing interest in commuting by car, or in owning a car if you live centrally. The flip side is, as Johnson points out, changes that mean other types of vehicle traffic are on the increase.
Camden, with its partners, has proved that significant reductions in traffic can be made by freight consolidation. Let’s hope it can encourage retailers to get on board. It works elsewhere, such as in Bristol and Bath, but as the mayor has suggested, maybe there need to be incentives to encourage a change of habits. The recent drop in diesel prices will not help force home the message.
Johnson is also keen to reduce the volume of large trucks in the capital, and his comments must once again encourage opponents of Smithfield meat market, among them City Corporation planning committee member Brian Mooney. He has repeatedly questioned why the market is not moved to a site alongside the M25, not only ridding the Square Mile’s streets of heavy lorries, but also opening up a great heritage asset of the market buildings for a more appropriate reuse.
What is surprising about Johnson’s comments on deliveries, is that as a cycling advocate he has mentioned nothing about using cycles to deliver goods. The CycleLogistics research project suggests that over half of goods transported in cities could shift to bicycles and cargo bikes for the last part of their journey. Such bikes are extensively used in cities such as Gothenburg and Utrecht, alongside electric vehicles that mean delivery trucks don’t make it into their urban centres.