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London's Traffic Really Is Moving More Slowly

Major construction across the city is clogging up the roads, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

A rendering of planned cycle lanes for London's Westminster Bridge. (TfL)

According to new figures this week, London traffic is moving far more slowly than it once was. Back in 2012, the average speed on London’s roads was 19.33 miles per hour, dropping to 8.98 in the streets of Central London. This year, according to Transport for London, London cars are driving at an average of just 16.5 miles per hour, falling to 7.4 miles per hour in the city core.

The reason for this isn’t some spontaneous outburst of careful driving. In the intervening years, London’s streets have clogged. Roads that once saw a steady if stately stream of traffic now witness an excruciating crawl. The causes of this newly thickened, syrupy traffic flow are various, a perfect storm of factors that altogether must have regular drivers groaning in frustration. The good news, however, is that some of the reasons for the slow-down aren’t at all bad.

First up is London’s population—it’s going up, surpassing its previous 1939 peak of 8.6 million inhabitants last winter. Secondly, there is major construction work going on across London, including such mega-projects as the redevelopment of the area around the wholesale fruit and vegetable market at Nine Elms, site of the future U.S. Embassy. With more people needing to get around and construction sites both creating diversions and bringing in trucks, it’s no wonder things are getting a little squeezed.

Perhaps the greatest factor, however, is that London is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its road system, some of which will eventually help cars run more smoothly and some of which will squeeze them out in favor of cyclists and pedestrians. Over 100 junctions that are notorious accident hotspots are being redesigned and laid out afresh for greater safety. At the same time, London’s first properly protected cycle lanes are being constructed, eating into space for cars and forcing some temporary lane closures. An ambitious East-West cycle superhighway shadowing the banks of the Thames is due to open at the end of April, but in the meantime, the riverbank is jammed with obstructions.

They may be frustrating right now, but in the long run, the vast majority of these works are for the good. They should ultimately lead to a freer-flowing city once the barriers and cement mixers have been cleared away.

Except that things won’t stop there. Right now, London is fielding yet more major plans that will extend pedestrian space by taking it away from cars. The areas in front of some key Tube stations in North London may be turned into pedestrian plazas, correcting planning mistakes from the 1960s that saw these junctions turned into alienating mammoth roundabouts. You only have to look at this Google Street View image of a proposed plaza at Archway Station to see what a mess car-friendly planning has made of the area, which should be completely overhauled by next summer. Back in the city center, more segregated cycle tracks are planned across major bridges, including right past Parliament.

This means London’s streets won’t necessarily unclog any time soon, leaving city authorities feeling around for a solution. On Thursday, outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson said that the person who replaces him after elections this May (in which he is not standing) will have to deter more driving by raising London’s congestion charge—something of an about-turn from the man who actually slashed the area the charge covered by half. Another possibility is a smart charging system, which could bill drivers for road use during peak hours.

Both solutions point towards the same necessity. Removing current obstacles won’t be enough to deal with London’s car problem. It’s really the number of drivers that needs to be slashed. As public awareness grows, the city’s poor air quality is slowly, tortuously emerging as a popular health issue. A study published this week upped the ante by stating that cleaner air could help millions of Londoners live longer.  

Of course, no one’s health is going to be helped by increasing speeds on the road network, making it more appealing to drive in the first place. If they ultimately succeed in deterring more people from driving in the first place, the problems of London’s currently snarled roads might also form a solution of sorts.

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