Lord Wolfson’s flyovers

In September last year, the chief executive of Next, Lord Wolfson – also a Conservative Party donor and former advisor, who happens to be married to an aide to George Osborne – wrote an opinion column in the Times (£), calling for growth (or rather, particular policies to create growth). He wrote

The central problem is that many are blind to the wealth that could be created by better infrastructure and housing. Ask any Londoner: what would happen to the capital’s economy if the North Circular Road, Westway flyover, Dartford Tunnel and M25 were all permanently closed? They would instantly comprehend the permanent damage to businesses, jobs and wealth, not to mention the misery it would impose on those living in the city. Yet we find it hard to imagine the vast amount of wealth that could be created by building new roads, flyovers and tunnels.

The Westway is, funnily enough, one of the few bits of the inner London ‘Motorway Box’ that actually got built. (If you haven’t seen this excellent film about the extraordinary, aborted, Ringway project, then it’s well worth a watch). By Wolfson’s logic, the failure to flatten vast swathes of London to create ‘proper’ roads back in the 1960s and 1970s has somehow inhibited the economic growth of London.

But the Westway is only superficially ‘integral’ to London’s transport because… it’s there. If you build a nice big flyover that allows you to speed in to central London by car from west London (and indeed from out of London) then obviously people are going to start using it. And using it. And using it. Until it fills up with the people making these kinds of trips.

The lack of ‘Westways’ in the rest of central London hasn’t inhibited growth, because people have found other ways to get into the city, and to move about it. Trains. The underground. Buses. Dare I say it – bikes. And of course on foot. Modes of transport that are just as effective at getting you from A to B, without the horrendous visual intrusion, noise and blight that accompanies the Westway. They’re just more efficient, and more appropriate to a city. They also leave space on the road network for essential trips – deliveries, and so on, as well as for the kind of people who are just going to go on driving anyway.

So the lesson of the Westway is actually the opposite of what Wolfson thinks it is. He thinks taking it away would cause catastrophic economic collapse, when in fact it’s a relic, a tiny fraction of a system that didn’t get built, while London carried on functioning without it. Rather than building more Westways, we should stop and look at how London  functions without them. And indeed how other cities function without flyovers within them, while cities like Los Angeles remain clogged, despite vast road-building programmes (this was something Jane Jacobs appreciated even back in the 1960s).

But this isn’t the lesson Wolfson wants to learn. In the same Times article, he goes on to write –

There is an intellectual battle that must be fought and won before any real progress can be made. Until the country comes to truly accept that building faster roads and new family homes creates wealth, it will always be an uphill battle for governments to develop them.

If we can win this argument, the potential for wealth-creating development is vast. We could build a series of flyovers into central London, allowing the wealth of the capital to spread outwards. For example a “Southway” could allow people to drive from Croydon to Westminster in just 12 minutes.

Yes, he really wants to build a flyover from Croydon to Westminster, so people can drive into central London in 12 minutes. Where would all these motor vehicles go once they had arrived there? What would be destroyed to construct these roads?

The problem is that Wolfson only sees the ‘whizzy fast car trips!’ and ‘investment!’ side of the equation, not the ‘are you sure that’s really a good idea?’ side. There’s nothing wrong with investment; you just have to make sure you’re investing in projects that aren’t idiotic.

Fast forward a year, and it seems Wolfson is still peddling the same message – Turn Your City into a Carscape for Economic Success! He was recently the guest speaker at the Sheffield Chamber Commerce of Industry’s Presidents Dinner. You can watch his speech here.  Talking about economic growth in Sheffield, he argues

The potential’s there, but it’s got to be done right. And doing things right means giving people what they want. And there is an extraordinary appetite across the whole country for planners to give people things that they don’t quite want. So let’s just some up exactly what they want.

They want access. They want to be able to drive quickly to and from the city centre. They want plenty of parking. They’d preferably want a covered area. People don’t like being in the rain. So cover an area, as they have done in Leeds….

… They want it to be safe. They’d prefer not to be run over. They’d like to be able to push their buggies without the risk of a lorry mounting the kerb and mowing down their young family.

It’s easy to come up with designs that allow people to drive quickly into a town or city centre, with plentiful parking, and without too much damage to the quality of life, if you are starting from scratch with a new town. Houten is a good example of how a town can be simultaneously easy to drive into and out of, and yet retain the essential features that make it a pleasant place to live. Milton Keynes is a good example of how to do it badly.

But Wolfson is talking about established cities, where people live already, and where the road network is simply not set up to deal with a vast amount of motor traffic – the kind of motor traffic that would be generated if you ‘give people what they want’, in his words (and are we sure people do want huge roads going straight into the centre of Westminster, or Sheffield, with accompanying plentiful car parks?). This would require destruction on a vast scale – something he is at least honest about – and also would result in another kind of destruction, the destruction of the attractiveness and amenity of the places that Wolfson thinks should accommodate unlimited motor traffic.

It’s the transport version of killing the goose. We need investment in infrastructure that improves the quality of urban life, not reduces it.

UPDATE 25/2/14

The record hasn’t changed. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Wolfson had this to say –

“The new fly-under project in Hammersmith is hugely encouraging. It begs the question as to why we aren’t planning similar schemes to deal with the rest of London’s chronic congestion. Goodness knows we need them. There are always traffic jams in Baker Street so why not build a few bridges over Marylebone Road or another flyover? Why not build 30 or 40? Build more and better roads, put up sound barriers, build underpasses, overpasses, separate cycle lanes. No one would propose taking down the Westway, so why not build a Northway, Eastway and Southway? Imagine a flyover that went all the way from the middle of London to Croydon? The solution is so mind-blowingly simple.”


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27 Responses to Lord Wolfson’s flyovers

  1. Quite like how he keeps harping on about the new roads “generating wealth”, I can’ help but think the only people who would get wealthy from these plans are the private companies who will build the infrastructure using public funds.
    What they need to look at is more intelligent and efficient ways to make use of the space we have at the moment, don’t just add motor capacity and band about figures like “12 minutes from Croydon to Westminster” when he knows damn well that journey time is only going to be achievable at the dead of night if such a huge swathe of roadway did exist. I also think he’s slipped a bit there given that Croydon already has a great almost direct link to Westminster in the form of the rail network that can get you, along with a few hundred more people, to Victoria in about 20 minutes.

    • Interesting you should mention the train. I meant to add a detail which reveals how Wolfson is quite blind to other modes of transport. In the Sheffield talk I link to, he was complaining about how it took him 3 hours to drive along the M1 from Leicester to Sheffield.

      There’s a train between the two cities that takes an hour, with a ten minute walk in Sheffield to get him to the venue where he delivered his speech.

      • Sheffield is also one of the few cities in the UK to have a modern light rail system, which makes it even odder, not least because if he’d chosen the train the tram would have taken him from the station to the steps of the venue in two stops. I can only assume he’s not very bright.

        On the other hand Sheffield recently built a much reduced version of an old-school urban road project, one of very few cities to have done that recently. There’s a bit of cycling infrastructure and acres of tarmac, severance and dislocation.

  2. Mike Chalkley says:

    If you haven’t already I urge you to read ‘Straphanger’ by Taras Grescoe. It’s an analysis of several cities around the world and how their rapid transit systems have shaped their growth (for better and worse). It’s a really good read – you wont want to put it down – and illustrates how the choices made for transport systems can make or break a city.

  3. farnie1 says:

    Erm, there is a big covered area which is easily accessible by car where you wont get hit by a lorry while walking with a buggy. Its called Meadowhall. And its like one of Dantès rings of Hell

  4. dave lambert says:

    What a complete moron. How about we knock down his home so we can build a cycle path. Unfortunately he’s a fucking lord so we can’t even vote the bastard out. At least we can boycott Next.

  5. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    Some architects have put out a proposal to get rid of the Hammersmith flyover and put this road underground.
    The justification appears to be this would free up valuable land for development. Wolfson appears to ignore the opportunity cost of land used for flyovers as it can be used for more economically beneficial and more attractive purposes.

    • I live about a mile from that and it’s worrying how much traction that’s getting for something cooked up by architects, not city-wide transport planners (i.e. people who want to build buildings, not people interested in efficiently moving people around).

      Basically there are three issues:
      1) it literally entrenches car-based transport by diverting money into burying urban motorways rather than reducing traffic to the point where they can be downgraded into something much more appropriate
      2) the structures needed to get to/from the surface are hideous and intrusive and negate the whole point of the scheme – they’d need to be further out than the present ramps, too, due to the need to run the road below the already subterranean underground lines. What’s likely to happen is that people who support the tunnel will wake up to find the portal proposed outside their window and campaign loudly for it to be moved further along into the next poor sod’s window line, and so on. This obviously can’t continue for ever not least because people need to get on and off the road.
      3) The disruption for building it is likely to require investment in long-term traffic reduction strategies along the Olympic lanes lines, in which case why not just do that, not build it and save yourself a fortune? The alternative is what, tell the public in ten years time to get off the bike or bus and back into the car?

      The comparison here is with the Boston Big Dig (hugely expensive way of keeping the same traffic issues 20m below while making the former road corridor a bit nicer) with freeway removals in San Francisco, Minneapolis and so on (spending much less removing the road and reconnecting neighbourhoods and finding out that the traffic magically decreases and you have a much nicer environment).

      The Roads Task Force set up by Boris has a ‘tunnel the roads’ section which is traceable back to the ABD’s submission and is thus by definition total nonsense.

      • Patrick O'Riordan says:

        I live close as well hence my interest. I really don’t know what options there are to improve things but the flyover and gyratory blights the entire area.

      • Fred says:

        As a structural engineer I can tell you that if a project like that is being presented by an architect it almost certainly isn’t feasible and definitely won’t happen. Architect’s like to propose all sorts of things, it makes them feel visionary.

  6. paul gannon says:

    Much of Camden Town was marked down for demolition in the 1960s to make way for a White City like system of motorways. What an utter disaster it would have been.

    • Fred says:

      I think you’ll find we now have half of Euston and Mornington Crescent earmarked for HS2 inspired destruction. I’m quite fond of that part of town (esp. the Bree Louise) so it doesn’t strike me as a great idea… I’m definitely not anti train though.

  7. Simon Parker says:

    This league table showing the top ten fastest-growing out-of-town retailers explains much.

    “Planning of the automobile city focuses on saving time. Planning for the accessible city, on the other hand, focuses on time well spent.” – Robert Cervero

  8. Lorenzo says:

    Here’s a picture of the Westway this evening. http://t.co/pOnCiGVIzW Be lucky to cover one mile in 13 minutes never mind over ten. Lord Wolfson is living in cloud cuckoo land.

    • pm says:

      According to CycleStreets (a site I’ve found to be fairly reliable) it would take slightly over 7 hours to cycle from Leicester to Sheffield by an allegedly ‘quiet’ route. Obviously that’s not practical for most purposes – but I still find it striking that its only a little over twice as long as it took Wolfson to drive that journey (using a motorway!) (Especially given the low priority given to cycle routes)

      Driving just doesn’t seem to have delivered as much as was promised in terms of mobility and speed. Yet the solution always seems to be more of the same.

  9. Matt says:

    Mostly nonsense from the noble Lord. But his point about people wanting to drive quickly from a to b directly rings true. The question for me is how to change that desire to a more sustainable solution. As I regularly have to make that argument (generally unsucesfully!) as part of my job I’d love some suggestions.

    • Simon Parker says:

      Could you not refer people to the National Planning Policy Framework? It is in fact a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

      At its heart is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. As the report puts it, “sustainable development should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking.” Thus, the transport system “needs to be balanced in favour of sustainable transport modes, giving people a real choice about how they travel.”

  10. Wolfson’s head office is near Leicester. You can only drive there – it’s 45 mins drive from the train station, and the office buildings are surrounded by a huge car park. It’s hellish morning and evening. He’d probably just rip down local housing and plant a dual carriageway through the beautiful countryside thereabouts to feed his mania, rather than thinking “Oh, maybe there’s another way?”

  11. Steve S. says:

    Wolfson’s vision is what we across the pond did in the 1950s…and today regret.

  12. Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise, long time advocate of a Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge motorway, when everyone else (including the Government) is trying to get the railway line reopened. Aspley Guise is a small, quaint village on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, that Prescott half built a ‘secret motorway’ to that ends abruptly near the M1, and a another short section got built between Cambourne and Cambridge. See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1376794/Lord-Wolfson-Link-Oxford-Cambridge-motorway-create-UK-Silicon-Valley.html

  13. Steve says:

    The case for new roads in city centres like London is not very convincing, as there is already a comprehensive public transport system.

    But for most of the country there is a drastic shortage of road building. In most places roads are the only viable option, but because of the obsession with London, the rest of the country gets starved of transport investment.

    • Mark Williams says:

      On your bike! Virtually the whole of the UK, urban and rural alike, already has vastly excessive road capacity for purely ideological reasons. The UK finance ministry currently has ≥ GBP15 G of MOAT building underway—mostly outside London and, indeed, mostly across various green belts.

      Instead, we could try using what roads we already have (and are soon to have) much more effectively and efficiently. By prohibiting motor vehicles from all but existing motorways, for example.

  14. Pingback: Right and wrong solutions to urban congestion | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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