London's mayor wants to start putting major roads into tunnels

Before and after: the A13 at Barking. Image: TfL.

Roads! Everyone loves roads, right? With their cars and their tarmac and their air pollution and that. Vroom vrooooooooooooom.

One man who has definitely decided we should be building more roads is London mayor Boris Johnson. This week he's in Boston and New York, because reasons, and has decided now is the perfect time to announce a clever plan to start burying bits of London’s trunk roads.

This is not as a crazy and idea as it might initially sound. They did it in Boston, byreplacing a six-lane elevated highway with an eight-line underground one. They're doing it in Hamburg, where the autobahn is being replaced with a park. They did it in that episode of Pigeon Street, too.

Sticking big roads in the ground has a number of advantages. It can reconnect neighbourhoods currently severed by main roads. It can make cities more attractive, if only because almost anything is more attractive than a great big bloody motorway.


And it can free up land for other uses – housing, office space, parkland, and so on. That, we suspect, is one of the reasons London's government is currently leaping on the idea. Not only does this mean more space to cope with London's population growth, but, with land values so high, the development opportunities will make any project a lot easier to pay for.

This morning City Hall said in a press release that it had examined "more than 70 locations... where the introduction of tunnels, fly-unders and decking could deliver benefits". That number looks a bit optimistic, though, and only five have been identified as "suitable for further feasibility work"; and several of these don’t sound terribly ambitious.

Nonetheless, here they are:

1) "Decking or a mini-tunnel" over the North Circular in New Southgate;

2) Turning the Hammersmith flyover on the A4 into the Hammersmith tunnel;

3) A "small fly-under" on the A316 at Chalker's Corner, where it meets the South circular near Mortlake;

4) "Decking of the A3 in Tolworth";

5) "A mini tunnel of the A13 in Barking Riverside", to connect one of London's biggest potential housing developments with something that resembles civilisation.

Here's a map, on which we've essentially highlighted the proposed developments in red crayon. (In an attempt to make them visible, our versions are almost certainly bigger than the real thing would be.)

To give a sense of the full scope of Boris' petrolhead ambitions, we've also included the three proposed East London river crossings: the Silvertown Tunnel, and Gallion's Reach and Belvedere bridges.

The really big one, though, is one Johnson has been talking up for a year: the proposal to create a whole new ringroad underground at a cost of £30bn.

What that would look like is not exactly clear. This is the version that was floating around when TfL first broached the idea last spring...

Image: TfL.

...but that doesn't seem to fit with TfL's response to a Freedom of Information request made by the blogger known as Boris Watch. That suggested the tunnel would be 70km long – roughly twice the length of the network shown in the map above. It also lists 10 junctions, including one labelled A10/A503, and another A23/A205, which strongly suggests that the loop would go as far north as Seven Sisters and as far south as Streatham Hill.

If that's accurate, then it seems likely the final tunnel would look a lot more like this. (We've labelled the junctions included in the modelling.)

The bottom line is that we don't actually know; neither, we suspect, does Transport for London.

But what is clear is that, for the first time in a generation, expanding London's road network is seriously back on the agenda – for better or worse.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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