Boris Johnson & TfL want to build massive road tunnels under London, again

What if bikes had four wheels and an engine, though? Made you think. Image: Getty.

Cars. People love cars, don't they? Matt Le Blanc loves cars so much he's the new presenter of Top Gear, even though he’s American. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, loves them so much that he wants to bore enormous great holes under London to put them in.

Cars are great, aren't they?

The latest wheeze from London's soon-to-be-former mayor would involve two tunnels under the city, to connect the trunk roads that tail off in the city’s outskirts. The Northern Cross City Corridor would link the A40 at Park Royal in the west to the A12 at Hackney Wick in the east. That's a distance of about 17.6km as the crow flies; but the proposals show the route going out of its way to connect with White City, so the tunnel, if built, would be rather longer.

Image: TfL.

A second tunnel, which is not currently named but would, let's face it, be the Southern Cross City corridor, could link the A4 in Chiswick to the A13 in Beckton. That would be about 23km, even if the tunnel didn't go via Oval and the Old Kent Road, which this one would. It'll be a long tunnel.

All this is part of a package of measures outlined in a report published by the mayor’s office and Transport for London (TfL) this morning, and it's a measure of the authorities’ keenness that all this seems suspiciously familiar. In 2013, in fact, the mayor was already proposing a huge underground ring road, which would have done a chunk of these routes. That popped up the following year, too.


Image: TfL.

Another version of the plan, revealed following a Freedom of Information request from the late and sadly missed blogger Tom Barry ("BorisWatch") would have looked like this:

Boris Johnson leaves office in three months' time. Even in the most optimistic assessments, none of these projects could possibly be ready for 20 years: they’re not going to be part of his legacy.

So one obvious reading of the fact they keep popping up would be that TfL really, really want them.

Today's report claims that the new tunnels would reduce congestion by 20 per cent and save London's economy up to £1bn a year. The press release contains this rather scary assessment of what will happen if we don’t start building massive pollution holes under London:

"If left unmanaged, congestion could potentially increase by 60 per cent over the next 15 years in central London, 25 per cent in inner London and 15 per cent in outer London unless these strategic plans are put in place."

Hesitant as I am to doubt the words of my betters, I’m not really buying that. There is such a thing as induced demand: building more roads often encourages more journeys, and so doesn’t reduce traffic at all.

And it's easy to see how that would happen here. At the moment, if you want to get from Romford to Uxbridge, or Hounslow to Bexleyheath, it probably makes sense to go the long way round, via the M25 orbital motorway. Build fast, crosstown tunnels, though, and the direct route will become a lot more attractive. Those tunnels will fill up, fast.

The clever people down at TfL must know this. So why are they so keen?

Perhaps they've fallen victim to the widely documented phenomenon in which Transport agencies over estimate traffic growth, and are panicking about the network's capacity to handle it.

Or possible they just genuinely think that making it possible to cross town underground will reduce traffic above it.

If that's true, it would fit nicely with another part of the plan (also a repeat from earlier announcements): putting existing trunk roads in tunnels where possible to free up land for other uses.

This bit of the plan is actually rather a nice idea. Sticking 1.3km of the A13 in a tunnel, as TfL is suggesting, would not only release land for 5,000 homes: it'd also end the situation in which Barking Riverside is cut off from Barking town, making it easier to regenerate both of them.

Perhaps, by the same logic, building the Northern  Cross City Corridor is an indirect way of putting the Euston Road in a tunnel, to generate some of the same effects.

But there's on big question hanging over this plan. Tunnels need ways for cars to get into and out of them, and those portals take up space. It's not obvious where you'd put the access point for the northern tunnel at Highbury Corner, for example.

This plan may free up some land for development – but it'll almost certainly require demolitition of inhabited areas, too.

You can read more about this on the Mayor of London's website, here.

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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.