Early plans

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1666 to 1934

London is an old city - the last opportunity for major re-ordering of the centre had taken place 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.

The Twentieth Century

Up until now, conditions had stayed fairly similar, as traffic was either horse-drawn, or pedestrians. However, the motor car started to rear its ugly head. Apart from the fact that it could go so much faster (but obviously had the potential to be held up by horses), 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.

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 (preventing it from obstructing new road plans). The Commission recommended road widths of 140ft for 'main avenues' and 100 ft for 'First Class Arterial Roads'. A grid system (similar to American cities) was proposed, with two perpendicular major avenues: east-west linking Bayswater with Whitechapel via the City, and north-south linking Holloway to Elephant & Castle (both of these routes would also have trams on the road, and underground railways beneath).

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", doubtless influenced by similar roads in continental cities. His ring road follwed 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. However, a new London Traffic Branch was formed, part of the Board of Trade, 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 MoT-planned schemes were added too. However, the ambition of the plans was toned down somewhat: not many of the resulting new roads were dual carriageway, and most were under 30ft wide.

The Highway Development Survey, 1937

Sir Charles Bressey (engineer) and Sir Edwin Lutyens (architect) were set to work by the Ministry in 1934, 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 indeed 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
Bressey and Lutyens' proposed new roads
(from Thomson: "Motorways in London" (1969))
Full size version coming soon

Several 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 & Castle. To relieve these, roundabouts were suggested for all these troublespots, and some key relief roads. 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. Also in the list was an "East-West Connection", linking the Western Avenue at Wood Lane with Leytonstone, via Marylebone Road and Hackney Wick.

Outer London got a very thorough examination too. The corresponding "centres of congestion" were identified as the Hanger Lane junction, 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 200 ft wide, with restricted access, and flyovers at major junctions. They were to orbit London at a radius of about 20 miles. The 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) The route of the South Orbital was Swanley - Sevenoaks - Redhill - Leatherhead - Byfleet - Staines (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 felt, and proposed a motorway linking the North Orbital to Birmingham (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 (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.

Tom Sutch