Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Three new eastern crossings are promised—for trains, bikes, and cars. Guess which one is controversial.
East London has been clamoring for years for a new crossing over the River Thames. This week, Mayor Sidiq Khan made up for lost time—he gave the green light to three: a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, a cross-river light rail link, and a major road tunnel. The hope is that they’ll unclog traffic and better connect an area that’s seen some of London’s most intense development.
You might expect a sigh of relief from East Londoners, but reactions have been mixed—critics have even called Mayor Khan’s move a “betrayal” of his promises to clean up London’s dirty air. But few disagree that something needed to be done.
To understand why East London lacks river crossings, you need to look back into history. Until the 1960s, this was one of Europe’s busiest harbors, a labyrinth of wharves opening onto a deep, broad estuary. The river needed to stay unbridged to let ships pass, while the immediate shoreline was usually more industrial than residential, lessening the need for passenger crossings . Some tunnels were still built for through traffic—one in 1908 and another in two stages 1897 and 1967—while a small pedestrian tunnel was also opened in 1902 to help dockworkers on the southern bank reach the wharves.
These limitations didn’t matter much when the port was active (and served by ferries), but the area has transformed since containerization moved all port activity to deeper waters upstream in the 1960s and a wave of redevelopment began. The docklands have become a second financial district and a depot for new homes. Skyscrapers now bristle on the Isle of Dogs (a meander rather than a real island), while the area’s vast old mills are surrounded by high-rise housing developments. A light rail system and subway line (both passing beneath the river) have been constructed to serve the area, as has a gondola (which doesn’t count because it’s scarcely used), but to this day no bridge crosses the river between Tower Bridge, right in the city’s heart, and a highway bridge and tunnel far out beyond the city’s eastern border. Cross-river road traffic is still mainly squeezed into the single tunnel, causing congestion and poor air quality.
Mayor Khan’s three proposals to remedy the situation are a mixed bag. One is an extra light rail link across the river (link four on the map above) that is very welcome without being especially groundbreaking. Another, shown as link one in the map above, is wonderful—a car-free bascule bridge of great use and (in this writer’s opinion) some beauty. It will join the Canary Wharf area—a region with an extremely high density of offices—with a Southbank filled with recently constructed condos, where many of Canary Wharf’s workers now live. At an estimated cost of £88 million ($112 million) it seems pretty good value to boot.
A light-rail link and a foot bridge still won’t dispense with the bottlenecks around East London’s road tunnels. The mayor’s plan to deal with these is more controversial. He has rubber-stamped longstanding plans for a new tunnel at Silvertown (link three in the map above) in order to increase the number or road lanes under the river. If it is constructed, both this new Silvertown Tunnel and the existing Blackwall Tunnel will have a toll, so as to reduce congestion by discouraging some drivers off the route. Transport for London argues that without the new link, traffic congestion will only get denser here, creating a situation which it describes in this video as cutting off Southeast London from the rest of England.
Critics say the new link will merely induce more traffic. Instead of relieving pressure, it will attract yet more vehicles to an area already pummeled by cross-river traffic backed up around the entrances to the existing tunnel. The decision to use tolls to manage traffic seems to partly support these arguments, by acknowledging that more sub-river lanes alone won’t necessarily cut car numbers. In a city beset with poor air quality, it certainly isn’t a classically green solution.
The new crossing plans nonetheless reveal the current state of play in London. The city has shown a real commitment to city center congestion pricing and—belatedly—proper bike infrastructure. London still isn’t ready to embrace a transit policy that reduces pollution by genuinely putting the squeeze on cars. It may well not be empowered to, given the degree of resistance to cycle-friendly planning in some sectors. The new tunnel project may thus be realistic – but it pushes Mayor Khan’s promise to create a “greener, cleaner London” a little further away from reality.