Everyone knows that the biggest problem which blights Greenwich, and its surrounding areas, is traffic. It has always been the case. Here’s some pictures from a bus enthusiasts’ site of some meaty jams in 1968, shortly before the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach. What used to be the A102(M) cut a deep swathe through east Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath, with whole communities – by the tunnel itself, and close to Westcombe Park station – finding homes and shops flattened, as documented in Christopher Fowler’s novel, Paperboy. Little signs of the destruction remain – the stub of the old Westcombe Hill, now Farmdale Road, in east Greenwich. A stray bit of pavement from what used to be the end of Siebert Road, Blackheath – and the long, lonely, overgrown end to Bramshot Avenue, Charlton, which formed another part of it.
The loss of these communities, though, was seen as a necessary evil at the time. Indeed, residents’ associations made a special presentation to the Greater London Council’s representative when the road opened in 1969. They were lucky – the A102M was meant to be part of a network of urban motorways. In the end, only the BTSA, the East Cross Route – its north-of-the-Thames sister road at Hackney Wick – the Westway and the West Cross Route were built before public opinion turned on road-building.
That’s not to say that no new roads were built – the Rochester Way Relief Road appeared in the 1980s, and north of the Thames, the A102(M) is now the A12, linking it neatly with the controversial extension of that road which connects it up to the M11. Anyone who can’t be bothered to pay the Dartford Crossing toll can simply go via the Blackwall Tunnel instead, it’s a dual carriageway all the way. We just have to deal with the pollution and jams – the area close to the Blackwall Tunnel is one of London’s most polluted spots. (Naturally, Greenwich Council wants to move a school there.)
Since then, though, the pressure has been on politicians to build yet more roads to acommodate the demand caused by the new roads they built in the 1980s and 1990s; that themselves helped satisfy expectations caused by roads built in the 1960s and 1970s. Nobody seems willing to break this dangerous cycle.
Margaret Thatcher’s government finally binned plans for the East London River Crossing, that would have torn up Oxleas Woods, in the late 1980s, but even Ken Livingstone partially resurrected the scheme as the Thames Gateway Bridge, crossing underneath the London City Airport flightpath to link blighted west Thamesmead with Beckton. It would have been easy to see it as a benign local bridge for local people, but we all know it wouldn’t have been that way – traffic would have suddenly flooded through Thamesmead, Abbey Wood, Belvedere and Bexleyheath to find a way to avoid both the Blackwall Tunnel and the Dartford Crossing, clogging up roads that are, in some cases, no more substantial than side streets.
Boris canned the Thames Gateway Bridge last year – but London’s politicians still feel the need to stick another river crossing somewhere between Blackwall and Dartford. So, at the end of last week, Transport for London issued a report into what it thought was worth pursuing. (Download the full thing here – 6.6MB PDF) It discounts an eye-catching but probably impractical plan for a cable car between the Dome and Canary Wharf – but suggests a passenger ferry may be a good idea. It also discounts a potty idea for a road tunnel close to the Thames Barrier, between Charlton and Silvertown.
But worryingly, it backs more work on the Silvertown Link – a proposal for either a bridge or a tunnel which would run from Edmund Halley Way (between the Dome and the David Beckham Academy) across to roughly where the Azko Nobel plant is on the north bank of the Thames. Land is already safeguarded for such a scheme.
The Silvertown Link would be a disaster for Greenwich – merely giving people more reasons to drive up the A102, creating more congestion and pollution. How could you build a third crossing on the peninsula (after the two Blackwall Tunnels) without expanding the 40-year-old dual carriageway that struggles with the two that are there already? It’s insane, and threatens to blight the lives of hundreds of people in Greenwich and Blackheath. It’s bad enough they have motorways at the bottom of their gardens – the last thing they need is the threat of that motorway expanding.
Another recommendation – revamping the Woolwich Ferry and introducing tolls – would also only send more traffic through the Blackwall Tunnel.
Building a new road crossing is justified, according to TfL, because of a lack of “redundancy” in the current network – if the tunnel is blocked, then all traffic is halted because there is no alternative place for it to go. But the same logic does not apply to public transport – we’re not building a second Jubilee Line because there’s nowhere else to go if that line is blocked, for example. When cars are involved, though, we’re expected to roll over and let it happen. We cannot go on building more and more roads.
Boris Johnson has long backed the Silvertown Link – and it’s the Labour party in Greenwich borough’s dirty little secret too; Eltham MP Clive Efford is keen on the idea of sending more traffic through neighbouring Greenwich. But nobody seems to have thought about asking the people of Greenwich and Blackheath whose homes and livelihoods would be threatened.
People aren’t stupid. They drive because it’s a pain in the arse to cross the river any other way, unless you live near the DLR, the Jubilee Line or the 108 bus route. They drive because they feel they have no other choice. Yet there’s nothing in this report which suggests giving people the choice – why no suggestions for rail links between east and south-east London? I’ve long suggested that Thamesmead would benefit from being plugged into the rail lines from Fenchurch Street, linking it to both the City and east London. It’d be of greater value than a new, pollution-generating road bridge.
Other proposals include a ferry or smaller bridge where the Thames Gateway Bridge would have been – the latter idea would surely be overwhelmed with traffic the moment something gets stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel. (The Thamesmead area did have a little-known ferry until 2004 – a link between Belvedere and Dagenham to serve the Ford plant. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of local MP John Austin, its 300 daily passengers were forced onto the roads.)
But this report largely just deals with cars. Yes, a lot of road transport is urgent and vital to keep the capital and the country going. But more work needs to be done to give people the option of not jumping in their cars. Until policy-makers face up to this, this report will just be the product of lazy thinking.
And if you live in Greenwich, Charlton or Blackheath – you should be thinking of acting now to make sure the Silvertown Link, the laziest and most damaging idea of them all, never happens.