Air pollution, traffic, no space for cycling: TfL’s east London road crossings plan is terrible

TfL's package of bridges. Image: TfL.

London is drifting towards becoming a road city, a kind of Birmingham of the south. Boris Johnson, the departing mayor, has set in motion “irreversible” projects to build new urban motorways crossing the River Thames in east and south-east London; a new subterranean ring road is also on the cards. In parallel with this, London is facing an air pollution public health crisis, with a Supreme Court ruling that the government and mayor must act upon.

The capital is a walking and cycling city. Rates of car ownership are falling. Public transport is bursting at the seams. So why are we committed to building new roads? Because of population growth, because there is a gap in the road network, claim Transport for London (TfL). It is true the population of London is growing, and more people have to travel further to their work – but there is no evidence all those extra journeys need to happen by car.

TfL has perhaps got to grips with the theory of induced demand whereby if you build a new road, more drivers will appear to use it – so many people, in fact, that the new road ends up with more congestion that you started with. Instead of one congested and polluting road, you now have two. Money well spent.

Source: Campaign for Better Transport.

But instead of learning the lesson that roads equal pollution and congestion, TfL hope that an even bigger splurge on road building – “package”, in their language – will allow them to do what no new road building scheme has ever managed to do. It is TfL’s belief that by building three new roads, then traffic congestion will be cut.

So what are we getting for our £2.25bn of tax-payer money?

The most advanced scheme is a proposed new tunnel next the existing Blackwall Tunnel. This has been given NSIP status – a nationally significant infrastructure project – that ensures a fast track route through the planning system.  The scheme is supposed to provide economic benefit, but does nothing to connect the 10,000 new homes planned for the Greenwich Peninsula with jobs in Canary Wharf. A pedestrian and cycle bridge would be a more sustainable solution here, and would help people cross the river without getting in a car.

Source: Campaign for Better Transport.

The brilliant No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign have been very good at pointing out the flaws of the scheme, including the terrible air pollution levels that already exist in the area: these reach as high as twice the legal limit in some places. There is a story spread by some who fancy the idea of new roads, that if we build more urban motorways the pollution will vanish as traffic becomes more “free flowing”.  But the evidence, which has been building since 1925, tells us that new roads equal more car journeys and increased congestion.

Surely the other schemes can’t be quite so bad?

Further east two new bridges are proposed. One of them, the Gallions Crossing, we’ve seen before as the Thames Gateway Bridge between Beckton and Thamesmead. It was a scheme so terrible that, in 2007, the planning inspector found that it would cause increased congestion, that it would be unsuitable for pedestrians and cyclists, that it would make air and noise pollution worse. He also found there is no evidence that regeneration and economic improvement would result from it. It failed on all the things it was supposed to do.

The third crossing is planned to connect Rainham with Belvedere, half way between Gallions Reach and the existing Dartford mega-crossing of two tunnels and a bridge. Transport for London in their own technical report have found it would cause the local road network to become congested with new traffic, that traffic pollution and noise would increase, and there could be a negative impact on the Crossness Nature Reserve and Rainham Marsh sites. Sounds great, yes?

Another argument for these crossings is that they plug gaps in the road network. But especially in outer London, the gaps in public transport crossings are just as wide. There is just one public transport proposal that Transport for London are taking seriously to plug one of these gaps: this is the London Overground extension from Barking to Thamesmead. But the current plan is this would be built after all the road crossings, in 2025.

Did I mention London is in a public health crisis over air pollution?

As Birmingham is removing some of its urban motorways, we need more sustainable public transport plans in the capital, and not a package of expensive and polluting roads that will change the city for the worse. London is a walking and cycling city, not a motorway city of the south. Let’s keep it that way.

Steve Chambers is an urban planner, and the London Campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.