Early plans

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London is an old city. The last opportunity for major re-ordering of the central area had been after the Great Fire of 1666. However, with few exceptions, the new street plan followed the medieval layout. The streets were narrow, bendy, and there was no planned layout such as a grid system. This meant that traffic congestion was rife - Samuel Pepys recorded being stuck in a traffic jam (in a hackney coach) for an hour and a half.

The first bypass of London, the wide New Road connecting Paddington and Islington (now Marylebone Road), was started in 1756, so that through traffic could avoid the narrow streets in the city centre. At the time of its construction, it formed the northern boundary of the built-up area, but this didn't last long.

It was only in the twentieth century that real improvements started to be made.

The Royal Commission on London Traffic

Until the modern era, conditions on London's roads had been fairly consistent, as traffic was either horse-drawn or on foot. Much of the population explosion in the nineteenth century was handled by the railway and underground networks. But in the early twentieth century, the motor car started to appear on the city's streets. Apart from the fact that it could go so much faster (when it wasn't held up by horse traffic), it took up more road width than horse-drawn vehicles. Letting cars loose on Central London's narrow streets was not really a viable long-term option.

Proposed Western Avenue. Click to enlarge
Proposal for new Slough road, submitted to the Royal Commission in 1904. Click to enlarge

In 1903 the Royal Commission on London Traffic was set up, and it reported in 1905. The need for road widening was stressed, and bye-laws recommended to control new development, to prevent obstructions to new road plans. The Commission recommended road widths of 43m (140ft) for Main Avenues and 30m (100ft) for First Class Arterial Roads. A grid system, similar to American cities, was proposed. Two major avenues would quarter the central area: east-west, linking Bayswater with Whitechapel via the City; and north-south, linking Holloway to Elephant and Castle. Both of these routes would have trams on the road, and underground railways beneath.

Main Avenue with trams and railways. Click to enlarge
Diagram of the Royal Commission's Main Avenue cross-section. Click to enlarge

William Rees Jeffreys, of the Road Improvement Association and the AA, took a different view. He saw ring roads, rather than a grid in the system, as a priority. He submitted a proposal to the Royal Commission for a "boulevard round London", stating that:

Their encircling boulevards are the pride of many a continental city, and it is a crowning disgrace that, notwithstanding the absence of any great engineering difficulties, no road exists encircling the metropolis.

So far as possible, the new roads should consist of a number of separate tracks, viz., one for electric trams, a second for automobiles and cycles, a third for vans, carts, traction engines, and other slow-going traffic, and a fourth for foot passengers. They should be built throughout of dustless materials.

Rees Jeffreys' boulevard round London. Click to enlargeRees Jeffreys' ring road (shown right; click to enlarge) followed about the same route as the North and South Circular Roads do today.

Although the Commission had recommended the establishment of a Traffic Board for London, this was not set up until 1924. Until then, the Board of Trade set up its own London Traffic Branch, which surveyed the capacity of current roads, ways of increasing it, and the possibility of building new radial routes. They came up with 100 miles of new road schemes, including the North Circular Road, the Eastern (A12) and Western (A40) Avenues, among others, but did not favour the Royal Commission's grid-like dream. These proposals were announced in the General Road Plan, 1911.

The small matter of World War I prevented anything being done about traffic in London for a good few years, but in 1919 the Ministry of Transport was set up, and things began to start rolling. The planned roads were complete by the mid-1930s, and some more Ministry of Transport schemes were added too. However, the ambition of the plans was toned down: not many of the resulting new roads were dual carriageway, and most were under 9m (30ft) wide.

The Highway Development Survey, 1937

Sir Charles Bressey, an engineer, and Sir Edwin Lutyens, an architect, were set to work by the Ministry of Transport in 1934. Their brief was to:

"...study and report on the need for improved communications by road ... in the area of Greater London, and to prepare a Highway Development Plan for that area".

And this they did. The expansion of the London Underground meant that London itself had grown (by the mid-1930s, the metropolis had extended to Edgware, Gidea Park, and Cheam): it was now necessary to examine a much wider area when considering London's transport network. Bressey and Lutyens came up with a thick report with large maps (one for inner London, one for the outer area) showing the 66 new road plans and over 40 junction improvements they proposed.


Bressey and Lutyens' proposed new roads
(from Thomson: "Motorways in London" (1969))
Full size version coming soon

Cloverleaf junction drawingSeveral key "centres of congestion" were identified in the central area. These included Oxford Circus, Holborn, Hammersmith Broadway, Angel, Archway, Cambridge Circus (which was then a roundabout, albeit a very cramped one), the Britannia junction in Camden Town, and Elephant and Castle. Roundabouts were suggested for all these troublespots, but in fact the report included drawings of what appear to be urban cloverleaf junctions (shown left) and elevated roads, so bigger things may have been on their minds.

Key relief roads were also outlined in the plan. These included an extension of the Embankment so that it linked Putney and the Tower, and a corresponding route on the south side. A "City Loop-Way" was proposed, a circular route skirting the very centre, and an Outer Circle. Drawing on the Royal Commission's work, they also proposed an "East-West Connection", linking the Western Avenue at Wood Lane with Leytonstone, via Marylebone Road and Hackney Wick.

'parkways' up to 60m (200ft) wide, with flyovers at major junctions...were to orbit London

Outer London got a very thorough examination too. The corresponding "centres of congestion" were identified as the Hanger Lane junction (some things never change), Brent Cross, Staples Corner and Henly's Corner - all on the North Circular. Many of these junctions were not designed to cope with the level of traffic, and the presence of trams and trolleybuses (which were now on the way out) had posed an obstacle to many types of junction. The whole of the eastern section of the North Circular was also considered to be in need of relief.

Orbital routes and motorways

Many of the radial routes into and out of the metropolis were marked as in need of upgrading or bypassing, but the real visionary ideas in the document were the North and South Orbital Routes. These would have been 'parkways' up to 60m (200ft) wide, with restricted access, and flyovers at major junctions. They were to orbit London at a radius of about 32km (20 miles).

Drawing of tunnel mouth, from 1937 reportThe North Orbital was to link Staines with the Thames ferry at Tilbury (with a branch to Thurrock and a new tunnel) via Watford, St Albans, Hatfield, Hoddesdon and Brentwood. Some of the North Orbital Road got built, as the A405 and A414 (some sections subsequently being upgraded to the M25 J17-19, and others becoming the plans for Ringway 4).

The route of the South Orbital was from Swanley to Sevenoaks, Redhill, Leatherhead, Byfleet and Staines: again, roughly the route of the M25. From Swanley another parkway would join up to the other end of the new tunnel at Dartford. Bressey and Lutyens even recognised the need for orbital routes as far out as Great Dunmow and Bishop's Stortford: they proposed the extension of the A120 westwards to Luton.

Most of the new roads in the report were to be 'parkways', but Bressey did give a passing nod to the concept of the motorway: these would be more appropriate for rural radial roads, he suggested, and he proposed a motorway linking the North Orbital to Birmingham (running somewhere between the A5 and the A41); a motorway linking the Barnet Bypass to a point between Nottingham and Grantham (somewhere between the A1(M) and the M1); the extension of the New Chertsey Road, to motorway standard, to between Winchester and Basingstoke (which was later built as the M3); a motorway from East London to Norwich; and a motorway from Croydon to Brighton (mostly built as the M23).

The report recognised that it would probably be cheaper to build new roads than to upgrade existing roads to motorway standard, something that all the subsequent plans for London agreed upon.