The story of London's motorways

Published on 20 February 2018

The next set of rewritten and vastly expanded Ringways pages are now online, charting the background and the history of road plans in London from the early twentieth century to the public and political fight over the Ringways themselves.

CBRD has been the home of the Ringways - plans for a London-wide network of urban motorways, proposed in the 1960s but never built - for nearly fifteen years now. Rewriting the pages, making them more accurate and adding a wealth of new research, is taking some time, but I'm steadily working through them. Back in December, the return of the pages detailing Ringway 1 was announced. Today, if you go to the Ringways pages, you'll find four new pages have arrived detailing the full history of the plans. These seem to be the pages that people most want to see next.

It's a long read, for which I make no apology. It's a story worth telling. Efforts to plan and rebuild London throughout the first half of the last century were led by a desire to fix the traffic problem, and each generation of planners considered it their first duty to provide better roads. Back in 1936, when the "Highway Development Plan" was published, proposing new roads and junction improvements across the city, it sold out so fast that one of its co-authors, Sir Edwin Lutyens, couldn't get hold of a copy for himself. Just forty years later, roadbuilding in the capital had become politically, socially and financially unthinkable. A vast network of motorways had been proposed to solve the traffic problem, and Londoners were having none of it.

The Arterial "A" Ring - a 1940s proposal for a motorway-standard inner ring road - is one of the predecessors to London's 1960s motorway plans. Click to enlarge
The Arterial "A" Ring - a 1940s proposal for a motorway-standard inner ring road - is one of the predecessors to London's 1960s motorway plans. Click to enlarge

The story of the evolving attempts to adapt London to the requirements of motor traffic, and the shifting public mood on the subject, is a fascinating one. It shapes the city even today, and without a doubt shapes its politics. Now you can read it from start to finish.

What's online now?

Four new pages have appeared that tell the story of road planning in London, explaining how the capital came to the brink of building a colossal motorway network when its citizens did not appear to want one. "Early plans", "Post-war planning", "A plan for Greater London" and "The end" tell the story in four parts. And, like the other new pages, there's now a full list of sources and references for each.

All four pages are quite long. Normally, when I write a long-form article, I do copy editing on paper. Printing out these four articles covered 19 sides of A4 paper in single-spaced text. It's been brought down a little since then, but you might want to find a comfortable chair if you're settling down to read them in one go.

What's next?

The plan is to go back to the pages detailing individual road schemes: the next group of pages to return will be those for Ringway 2, including the North Circular Road, and a new page that didn't previously exist called the Clapham-Wandsworth Link.

You'll find the new pages in the Ringways section. As before, please leave a comment here with your thoughts, and if you find anything that should be corrected, you can always send me an email.


Joel 26 February 2018

I’m so glad a website like this exists. I’ve been fascinated with the old Ringways scheme for a while now and I’m struggling to find route maps on where the roads would have gone. I’ve even tried looking for Greater London maps where the northern part of Ringway 3 was called the M16. The southern part of Ringway 2 and 3 is the mystery for me as I have little information on where the proposed routes would have been. I wait in anticipation for your updates in the future!

Thanks Joel! I'm sorry to make you wait, but route maps for all the other Ringways (and hopefully also a full map of the whole of London, showing all of them) will be along eventually.

Mikey C 19 March 2018

Browsing a football ground site, I saw this fascinating proposal from the early 1970s for how Chelsea's ground would be redeveloped. Which has the West Cross route running behind it over the railway line! The East Stand nearest the Motorway is the only part of this proposal actually built.…

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Picture credits

  • Diagram showing optimum traffic corridors is extracted from HLG 159/1024.
  • Artist's impression extracted from MT 110/3.

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