A mass of people and vehicles jostle with each other in the constrained space with the noisy clattering of horses’ hooves on the irregular cobblestones and men and women shouting and screeching at each other to move along the tightly-crowded pavement. On the viaduct above the puffing noise and dirty smell and smoke of steam trains almost masks the view of St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.
Nothing much has changed since Gustave Dore’s illustration of Ludgate Hill in 1872. Streets and roads are the arteries for the flow and ebb of city life despite the fact that they are frequently clogged with bustling smelly noisy traffic, pedestrians and cyclists and it seems that as soon as a new artery is created, it quickly becomes full. Where did all the people come from who very quickly filled up the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern over the?
In a prosperous and growing city like London, there are constant conflicting demands on the city streets. Oxford Street is a battlefield between shoppers, commuters, cyclists, buses, taxis and cars. 19th century engineers moved people underground to relieve the pressure above ground, a strategy that has continued into the 21st century with new transport links such as Crossrail and Thameslink. Congestion charging, night-time deliveries, improved public transport and other initiatives are trying to reduce demand on the streets while the Super Cycle Highway, bus lanes and increased space for the public realm all reduce the space available for motor vehicles.
Along the Strand there are glimpses down dark alleys to the river including strange remnants of previous generations such as an old Turkish baths which can be seen through a grimy window and old pubs which are still busy today. On the other side are short cuts up to Covent Garden, once the heart of fruit and flowers in London and now a centre for shopping, opera and leisure while, along the Strand into Fleet Street, most of the newspaper offices have gone but here are the places where Charles Dickens worked and drank such as the Olde Cheshire Cheese, while rising ahead in all its renaissance glory is St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Strand and Fleet Street are part of the ancient pattern of streets with their origins in Roman times, like the Old Kent Road which runs down to Canterbury. Dickens would recognise many of the same streets and pubs, even though individual buildings have been redeveloped. London is a fast-growing city – how will its constrained street system cope with the future?
The New London Architecture (NLA) exhibition “Streets Ahead – The Future of London’s Roads” explores the history of the London’s streets, the challenges in the 21st century and options for the future. While in many parts of London, the streets are the same as they were 100 years ago – or longer, changes are afoot. London grows by 9 residents every hour. I car load every 26 minutes, 2 buses every day and 2 tube trains every week and people are demanding more of their streets, no longer willing to fight with the traffic and take their lives in their hands as they seek to shop, attend the theatre, go to restaurants or visit cultural institutions such as the National Gallery.
The exhibition examines what other cities such as Boston have achieved and explores options including improved real-time information for commuters, separating pedestrians from traffic on the one hand and integrating them on the other, as in Exhibition Road in South Kensington. Ideas for future expansion of the street network include new bridges over the River Thames at Vauxhall and the Garden Bridge at Waterloo, where people on the river bank are concerned about the success of these bridges in bringing more people to their area, as also seen with concerns of local residents in King’s Road with regard to the implications of Crossrail 2.
What about the potential for increasing the capacity of London by placing roads underground? Potential projects include the A3 at Talworth, the Hammersmith flyover and the A13 in East London. Strangely, there is nothing here about Clapham Junction railway station which covers a huge area that must have potential for a complete new urban district above a redeveloped station.
In addition to this, what about future technology such as digitally-controlled cars? The exhibition illustrates proposals in other cities such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. How can this be adopted within an ancient and constrained city like London to balance the heritage and history with the needs of the future?