You already know the Greater London Council’s Secondary Road Network. It was the name they used for London’s existing main roads.
Our other Ringways pages spend their time talking about the GLC’s plans for major new roads, mostly motorways, forming a spiderweb through and around London. They were officially called the Primary Road Network. In the Greater London Development Plan (GLDP), they were to be the city’s busiest and most important arteries.
The GLDP called for a hierarchy of roads, so it follows that there must have been a Secondary Road Network, and there was - but while that may suggest minor roads, they were nothing of the sort. Second only to the motorways, and comprising all of London’s existing major routes, the Secondary Roads would be newly upgraded to carry heavier volumes of traffic, and would continue to be major roads.
The bulk of the GLC’s transport budget would be spent building the new Primary Road Network, so there was much less available for these routes. The following pages will describe some of the limited new Secondary Roads the GLC intended to build, but before we begin looking at those, we should take a moment to see what the rest of the Secondary Road Network would have looked like.
A matter of priorities
The focus of highway planners’ interest was evident from the paperwork they generated. Their feverish work to build a case for the Primary Road Network produced reams of reports, studies and correspondence about the planned motorways, along with dozens of discussions in the GLC council chamber and policy announcements to the press.
The Secondary Road Network, on the other hand, was dealt with in one policy document, containing about twelve pages of text and an A4-size drawing.
It describes the “gross inadequacies” of the existing street network, which would largely be solved by building the Primary Roads. However, even on Secondary Roads, motor traffic would come first. That meant long-term plans to reconstruct and reconfigure them.
The money available for Secondary Roads was unimpressive. In 1970, the GLC estimated that, between 1971 and 1990 it would spend £1.1bn on building motorways, £650m on London Transport services and £650m on rail improvements. In the same period they would invest £500m on the Secondary Road Network, providing a budget (before inflation) of just £26m a year for improvements to hundreds of miles of urban roads.
Given that budget, the policy was realistic about what could be done. 70-80% of the available budget was to be spent on junction upgrades and traffic management to increase capacity on existing roads. 10-15% of the budget would go towards coordinated electronic control of signals in Central London, where no other improvements were possible. The remaining 10-15% would be for limited changes in town centres, where through traffic on Secondary Roads would be most disruptive.
Improvements would come in four forms, in this order of preference:
- Traffic management, meaning controls on parking, loading, turning, and one-way streets. These were to be used to increase throughput of traffic and where possible provide the ideal of two lanes in each direction. Junctions would be limited to four in every mile, with signalised junctions and gyratories preferred. Signals would be coordinated by computer over a wide area.
- Widening existing roads, which was acknowledged as “the most expensive way of acquiring new road capacity”. The focus would be on approaches to junctions, with the road between junctions improved by traffic management. Signals were the optimum junction type, since they provided good pedestrian facilities: by this the GLC meant they could have footbridges equipped with escalators. No mention was made of bridges or subways without escalators, and typically for the time, stopping traffic for pedestrians to cross on the level was unthinkable. Grade separated junctions would be rare, since the capacity of a four-lane flyover or underpass would be greater than the roads either side of the junction; the report suggested that occasional two-lane flyovers or car-only underpasses might be better.
- Building new roads, a long-term last resort where the conflict between traffic and environment could not be solved by other means. The funding available made this choice rare, and money would probably have to come from other sources even for town centre redevelopment schemes where roads had to be diverted to pedestrianise existing High Streets.
- Adding minor roads to the network, effectively co-opting local streets to serve as Secondary Roads. This would come with environmental problems, potentially routing heavy traffic down unsuitable routes.
In general, then, the Secondary Roads would be London’s existing busy streets, with two lanes each way shoehorned in wherever possible, and junctions progressively improved to keep traffic moving. There would be more footbridges and subways, fewer side turnings, strict controls on parking and loading, and occasional short diversions to take traffic around a town centre rather than through it.
The hierarchy of roads called for Primary and Secondary Road Networks. Everything else would be “local roads”. Each area enclosed by a box of Secondary Roads would be a separate “environmental area”, containing only local roads, where through traffic would be virtually eliminated and the needs of residents and pedestrians would come first. In today’s jargon they would be called Low Traffic Neighbourhoods or LTNs.
As a result, any journey by car would involve leaving your local area, joining the nearest Secondary Road, then proceeding only along Secondary and Primary Roads until you turned off into a local road that took you to the doorstep of your destination. Travelling any distance on local roads would be impossible.
The trade-off for excluding through traffic from environmental areas was that it had to be accommodated in full on the Secondary Road Network. As a result the GLC found it “impossible to escape the conclusion” that on Secondary Roads, like Primary Roads, the traffic must come first.
However, many of London’s major roads at this time (and, indeed, today) are really local roads carrying heavy volumes of traffic: unlucky High Streets and residential streets that might be backwaters if not for historical accident. The GLC admitted it had made no serious assessment of which roads were best suited to Secondary status and whether any changes were needed. It simply assumed the existing main roads would continue to be so, and suggested further study might result in changes.
Meanwhile, any property that fronted on to an existing major road in London - countless houses and shop fronts - would find its needs swept aside for the greater good of freely moving traffic.
While the official policy shied away from spelling it out in black and white, it alluded very strongly to the possibility that this was the end of main roads forming shopping streets and focal points for their communities. It said that the needs of traffic must override the concerns of whatever else is there: “the road must be phased out as a centre of pedestrian attraction and left for the traffic”.
No indication was given as to what might happen to all those bustling shopping streets. It had already been made clear that there wasn’t enough money to bypass them all. It appears instead that the London Boroughs would have to make these difficult decisions case by case, since they would in most places remain the highway authorities responsible for keeping Secondary Roads moving.
Secondary roads first
Not only would the Secondary Roads be expected to carry a substantial share of all London’s traffic in the finished road network, in many places they would actually be carrying all through traffic for decades to come.
In other words, because the motorways would have to be progressively built over almost half a century (even if funding was maintained, political will was unwavering and the timetable never for a moment slipped), many Secondary Roads would go on serving as London’s most important roads indefinitely.
There must have been engineers and policymakers within the GLC even at this early date whose faith was wavering. If the Secondary Road Network could, with some low-level investment in traffic management, serve as the major road network for large parts of the city well into the 1990s and beyond - then were the motorways needed all that badly? Indeed, were they needed at all?
That is, of course, the reality London faced once the Ringways were cancelled in 1973. We have been managing with just the Secondary Road Network ever since, and you could argue that the introduction of new methods of traffic restraint - bus priority measures in the 1970s, Red Routes in the early 1990s, the Congestion Charge and others - are simply the logical progression of the need to make London’s main roads work without building new ones.
So much for the main roads London already had in 1970. What of the new Secondary Roads the GLC wanted to build? We’ll visit some of them on the following pages.
- Plan of Secondary Road Network extracted from WQ3/9904.
- Photograph of West Hill is taken from an original by N Chadwick and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of Kenton Road is taken from an original by Stacey Harris and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of Northchurch Terrace is taken from an original by Malc McDonald and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of Clapham High Street is taken from an original by Robin Webster and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Names of PRN and SRN; hierarchy of roads; concept of environmental areas: Greater London Council (1969). "Greater London Development Plan: Statement".
- Transport spending foreseen in 1970: HLG 159/1024.
- Budget for SRN broken down by percentages; types of improvement envisaged; SRN often shopping streets; need to change character and prioritise traffic: A Secondary Roads Policy (1970), Greater London Council, available at Document Supply WQ3/9904.