Background

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Those already familiar with London's road network, or who are already well acquainted with the Ringways plan, might like to move straight on to the history pages. For everyone else - those who haven't heard of the plan before, only have a rough idea of what it involves or who don't know London's geography very well, might like to use this page to get to know the basics.

Nice image
Artist's impression of the M1, looking north towards the North Circular

Introduction to the Ringways

Ringway numbersLondon is a city of seven million people. Its road network today is, in comparison with most cities of comparable size, under-developed. It has a small number of urban motorway routes and other roads built to a high standard, but there is no continuous network of them and for the most part travel around the urban area by road is not a fast or easy experience. It is encircled by the world's biggest ring road, the notorious M25, which suffers chronic traffic congestion, acting both as a bypass for long-distance traffic and a local distributor. The intermediate ring road is partly of high standard in the north (the North Circular Road), but reverts to urban streets in places, while the South Circular Road, and the entirety of the Inner Ring Road, are both simply signposted routes along city streets and have very limited capacity.

Mostly this lack of roadspace is due to the fact that London is a densely-packed city, large parts of which were built without formal planning controls, making it very difficult to find a path for a new road without having to destroy scarce parkland, historic buildings or residential areas.

Politically, the city has a history of electing left-wing governments which favour public transport, and there is widespread opposition to any development that involves the demolition of homes or the desecration of green spaces. London's public transport network is often described as being among the best in the world, with well-developed suburban rail routes, bus networks, and the world's oldest underground railway system. For many of the city's residents this is adequate compensation for the fact that many areas of the city are highly inaccessible by car.

This situation is why the Ringway proposals (and their predecessors) are of such interest. In the first half of the twentieth century, a series of plans were published by local and national government bodies for the redevelopment of London, mostly concerned with solving the problems that were created by the lack of planning controls during its period of fastest growth. Drawing on all of these ideas, the Greater London Council (at the time, the body with overall responsibility for public services in London) drew up plans for the Ringways in the 1960s. Together they represent more than sixty years of proposals for improvements to the road network. Most of them came to nothing.

Get to know the Ringways. Move your mouse over the map to see the name of each section.

The Ringways would have been - by some considerable margin - the largest scheme of public works ever seen in the UK, far bigger than anything before or since. Ringway 1 alone, which counted for only a small fraction of the mileage proposed, would have been bigger than any other single item of public expenditure before or since. During the time that the proposals were being actively considered by the GLC, the road plans became one of the major political issues in the city, upsetting the council's balance of power. Since the plans were dropped, no comprehensive plan for road improvement has existed for London and today there is virtually no road improvement work whatsoever.

Ringway 1 alone...would have been bigger than any other single item of public expenditure before or since

The plan was initially made up of three ring roads and a series of radial routes. Some parts made use of existing road and others were to be built on new lines. Over time this was expanded to include a fourth ring. The ring roads were numbered out from the centre, with Ringway 1 the innermost and Ringway 4 the outermost. The radial routes mostly took their names from existing road corridors.

Over the following pages, CBRD looks in great detail at the history of the proposals, from the earliest years of the twentieth century to their cancellation in February 1973. It then examines each road proposal individually, starting with Ringway 1 and working out to Ringway 2, 3 and 4; then working around the radial routes in three sections: the Northern, Western and Southern radials. The plans were continually changing, and new information is being discovered all the time, so these pages list all the history, variations, uncertainties and information that is currently known. Various map resources are available too, including the whole plan as it is currently known laid out across London.

The story begins with the earliest ideas for improvements to London's roads at the turn of the twentieth century.

* This number is reached using the known figures for Ringway 1 and Ringway 2, and estimating the much lower levels of eviction that would be necessary for the other roads in the plan.