In the 1960s, a period in which the main objective with respect to the theme of mobility was to make car traffic flow more smoothly, the London administration conceived a particularly ambitious and impressive plan: that of building an eight-lane motorway it would have traversed much of the areas around the central districts of the city. Although today there are some buildings designed around the design of this highway, called “Motorway Box” or “The Box” (the box), for a variety of reasons the plan was never implemented. As he recounted in a recent item the Guardianhad the motorway been built it would have had a major impact on the development of London.
According to the original plan, the highway would have been about 80 kilometers long and would have been the innermost of three expressways that were to surround the city in a concentrical manner (later called Ringway One, Two and Three). To make best use of the space, it would have been built mostly on elevated viaducts following the routes of pre-existing railway lines. It would have connected various growing boroughs of the city including – from the west and clockwise – Shepherd’s Bush, Hampstead, Highbury, Hackney Wick, Greenwich, Brixton and Clapham.
The idea of building it was proposed in 1965 by the Greater London Council (GLC), the administrative body of the London metropolitan area. It was based partly on traffic data in the city and partly on evidence from a report commissioned by the Department of Transport during the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to try and solve the traffic problem.
In a nutshell, according to these assessments, many traffic jams could have been avoided by diverting cars onto fast-flowing roads that passed through the suburbs: a new type of urban road system that had already been conceived at the end of the 1920s in the United States and it had then spread to many large cities especially after the Second World War.
The report commissioned by the Ministry of Transport, “Traffic in Towns”, was created by engineer Colin Buchanan, was published in 1963 and estimated that in 1970, within seven years, the number of cars in the UK would rise from 10.5 million to 18 million. On the one hand, Buchanan argued that to make room for roads and ensure smooth and regular traffic various districts of cities had to be expropriated, demolished and rebuilt; on the other hand, he still suggested to local politicians to evaluate the possible consequences of these interventions and also encouraged them to try to limit the use of cars, for example by encouraging the urban transport sector.
Initially the plan to build Ringway One had been backed by both Labor and Conservatives. It also seemed feasible because the first government of Harold Wilson (prime minister in office between 1964 and 1970 and then between 1974 and 1976) had greatly increased public spending on road and infrastructure construction.
The only ones to oppose the construction of the highway were the small local groups of people who wanted a city with spaces designed for travel on foot or by means other than motor vehicles.
However, things changed in the early 1970s, when Wilson’s government ordered a public inquiry into the project, probably out of fear of the possible consequences of such an imposing plan. This gave time to the groups opposed to the plan to organize and oppose the project more systematically, which was finally blocked in 1973, when due to protests and the enormous estimated construction costs, the GLC canceled the funding and therefore also its implementation (moreover just before the beginning of the energy crisis which marked the end of the years of the so-called “economic boom”).
According to the GLC’s analysis, around 20,000 people would have been evicted to make room for Ringway One. According to estimates by the London Motorway Action Group (LMAG), the main group of activists who opposed its implementation, there would have been 100,000 displaced people and there didn’t even seem to be a plan to relocate them. The LMAG also noted that Buchanan’s estimates of the growth in car use in the UK had proved exaggerated (there were 13.5 million in 1970, up from an estimated 18 million seven years earlier).
Of what should have been Ringway One, only two short sections were completed. The outermost motorway, the “Ringway Three”, was instead begun in 1966 and completed twenty years later, becoming what is now known as M25.
The Guardian he writes that if the motorway had been completed today in various boroughs of London there would be far fewer residential buildings, but also fewer shops, parks and meeting places. There would probably be more noise and the houses in the areas it would pass through would have had a much lower value than they do now. In the Brixton district, to the south, however, there are two buildings that had been designed precisely as part of the redevelopment plans to allow its passage: Southwyck House, also known as the Barrier Block, a 9-storey building 250 meters long, designed to protect homes from highway noise; and the Brixton recreation centre, a sports center just a few meters from where it should have been built.