A little less than 50 years ago, the Greater London Council finally abandoned a plan from 1966 that would have obliterated Earls Court, Brixton, Hampstead, and many other central neighborhoods:
If events had turned out differently, Southwyck House would be perched on the edge of the Motorway Box, a 50-mile, eight-lane ring road built across much of inner suburban London, including Brixton. This was only part of the planners’ ambitions. The Box, or Ringway One as it was later titled, was to be the first of three concentric gyratories. Together they would have displaced up to 100,000 people.
Baffling as the idea might seem now, it must be viewed in the context of a time when politicians and planners were panicked about imminent gridlock across the UK’s towns and cities as ever more vehicles took to the roads.
The solution they collectively turned to was the inner-city motorway, an innovation that arguably changed postwar cities as fundamentally as modernist architects’ tower blocks. Here was an entirely new type of street, one that did away with shop fronts, pedestrians, chance encounters or indeed anything recognisably human-scale. For the first time in centuries of urban life, a street was not a public realm, just a conduit between private spaces.
In 1969, while the Ringways plan was being finalised, New York’s mayor, John Lindsay, scrapped [Robert] Moses’ proposal for a massive freeway across lower Manhattan, after pressure from a new breed of activists who had started to ask, for the first time in the automobile era, whether cities should be designed around motor vehicles or human beings.
Most prominent was Jane Jacobs, the visionary urbanist and writer whose idea of a successful city centred on a necessarily organic and unplanned “ballet” of street-based life proved hugely influential in subsequent decades.
Such radical ideas were less embedded in London, and opposition to the Ringways came mainly from a string of small and fragmented local campaigns. But a near-miracle was at hand. In 1970, with the GLC on the verge of starting construction, [Prime Minister Harold] Wilson’s [Labour] government unexpectedly ordered a public inquiry, seemingly spooked by the scale of what was about to be done.
If only other cities had stopped the destruction in time. Here in Chicago, we have three major expressways converging on downtown. In all three cases the construction devastated neighborhoods (usually Black and brown ones) and permanently separated others. They're ugly, and they don't really work; induced demand destroyed their utility almost immediately. And here we are, in 2022, with the city proudly announcing that the "spaghetti bowl," where three massive highways meet just west of Downtown, will reopen this week after a $800 million rebuilding effort.
Cities can recover, but at great expense and often only because an unrelated disaster forces them to act. (See, e.g., San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway and Rochester, New York's Inner Loop North.) And yet here we are, with 100 years of data about the external costs of high-capacity, limited-access highways in urban areas, unwilling to remove them. Even in places where residents almost universally want the roads removed, politicians refuse to act.
When they write America's obituary, they will list "cars" as one of its causes of death. I'm glad London avoided it.