London Ringways

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Plan of Ringways 1, 2, 3 and 4

The London Ringways were a series of four ring roads planned in the 1960s to circle London at various distances from the city centre. They were part of a comprehensive scheme developed by the Greater London Council (GLC) to alleviate traffic congestion on the city's road system by providing high speed motorway-standard roads within the capital linking a series of radial roads taking traffic into and out of the city. Following a series of protests, the scheme was cancelled in 1973, at which point only three sections had been constructed.[1]


The London Ringways consisted of:



London had been significantly congested since the 17th century. Various select committees were established in the late 1830s and early 1840s in order establish a means of improving communication and transport in the city. A Royal Commission was appointed in 1903, led by William Rees Jeffreys and producing eight volumes of reports, including a suggestion of a circular ring road around London.[2]

Between 1913 and 1916, a series of conferences took place, bringing all road plans in Greater London together as a single body. Over the next decade, 214 miles (344 km) of new roads were constructed, primarily as post-war unemployment relief. These included the North Circular Road from Hanger Lane to Gants Hill, Western Avenue and Eastern Avenue the Great West Road bypassing Brentford, and bypasses of Kingston, Croydon, Watford and Barnet.[3] In 1924, the Ministry of Transport proposed another circular route, the North Orbital Road. This ran further out from London than the North Circular and was planned to be around 70 miles (110 km) long, running from the A4 at Colnbrook to the A13 at Tilbury.[4]

The Highway Development Survey, 1937[edit]

In May 1938, Sir Charles Bressey and Sir Edwin Lutyens published a Ministry of Transport report, The Highway Development Survey, 1937, which reviewed London's road needs and recommended the construction of many miles of new roads and the improvement of junctions at key congestion points.[5] Amongst their proposals was the provision of a series of orbital roads around the city with the outer ones built as American-style Parkways – wide, landscaped roads with limited access and grade-separated junctions.[5][6]

Bressey's plans called for significant demolition of existing properties, that would have divided communities if they had been built. However, he reported that the average traffic speed on three of London's radial routes was 12.5 miles per hour (20.1 km/h), and consequently their construction was essential.[5] The plans stalled, as the London County Council were responsible for roads in the capital, and could not find adequate funding.[7]

County of London Plan and Greater London Plan, 1940s[edit]

One of Abercrombie's proposed inner ring roads, as shown in the 1945 Ministry of Information documentary film The Proud City.

The Ringway plan had developed from early schemes prior to the Second World War through Sir Patrick Abercrombie's County of London Plan, 1943[8] and Greater London Plan, 1944. One of the topics that Abercrombie's two plans had examined was London's traffic congestion, and The County of London Plan proposed a series of ring roads labelled A to E to help remove traffic from the central area.[9]

Even in a war-ravaged city with large areas requiring reconstruction, the building of the two innermost rings, A and B, would have involved considerable demolition and upheaval. The cost of the construction works needed to upgrade the existing London streets and roads to dual carriageway or motorway standards was considered significant; the A ring would have displaced 5,300 families.[10]

Because of post-war funding shortages, Abercrombie's plans were not intended to be carried out immediately. They were intended to be gradually built over the next 30 years. The subsequent austerity period meant that very little of his plan was carried out. The A Ring was formally cancelled by Clement Attlee's Labour government in May 1950.[10] After 1951, the County of London focused on improving existing roads rather than Abercrombie's proposals.[11]

Ringway Scheme, 1960s[edit]

By the start of the 1960s, the number of private cars and commercial vehicles on the roads had increased considerably from the number before the war. British car manufacturing doubled between 1953 and 1960.[12] The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, had strong ties to the road transport industry, with more than 70 members of parliament being members of the British Road Federation. Political pressure to build roads and improve vehicular traffic increased, which led to a revival of Abercrombie's plans.[13]

The Ringway plan took Abercrombie's earlier schemes as a starting point and reused many of his proposals in the outlying areas but scrapped the plans in the inner zone. Abercrombie's A Ring was scrapped as being far too expensive and impractical.[14] The innermost circuit, Ringway 1, was approximately the same distance from the centre as the B Ring. It used some of Abercrombie's suggested route, but it was planned to use existing transport corridors, such as railway lines, much more than before. The location of these lines produced a ring that was distinctly box-shaped and Ringway 1 was unofficially called the London Motorway Box.[15]

In 1963, Colin Buchanan published a report, Traffic in Towns, which had been commissioned by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples. In contrast to earlier reports, it cautioned that road building would generate and increase traffic and cause environmental damage. It also recommended pedestrianisation of town centres and segregating different traffic types. The report was published by Penguin Books and sold 18,000 copies. Several key ideas in the report would later be perceived as being correct as road protesting grew from the 1980s onward.[16] The London Traffic Survey was published the following year, and concluded that the Ringways should be built in order to cater for future network traffic, instead of Traffic in Towns which said if a road was not built, there would be no demand along that route anyway.[17] The 1960s plans were developed over a period of several years and were subject to a continuing process of review and modification. Roads were added and omitted as the overall scheme was altered and many alternative route alignments were considered during the planning process.[18] The plan was published in stages starting with Ringway 1 in 1966 and Ringway 2 in 1967. After the Conservatives won the GLC elections in the latter year, they confirmed that both Ringways would be constructed as planned.[19]

The plan was hugely ambitious and almost immediately attracted opposition from several directions. A principal problem was the route of Ringway 2 in south London, since the South Circular was largely an unimproved series of urban streets and there were fewer railway lines to follow. Parts would be built with four lanes in each direction, and in some cases there was no other plan than to destroy whatever urban streets were in the way of the new road.[20]

The report Motorways in London, published in 1969 by the architect/planner Lord Esher and Michael Thomson, a transport economist at the London School of Economics, calculated that costs had been enormously underestimated and would show marginal economic returns. They predicted large quantities of additional traffic that would be generated purely as a result of the new roads.[21] Access to the new roads would soon be overwhelmed even before the rings and radial roads were near capacity, while about 1 million Londoners would find their lives blighted by living within 200 yards of a motorway.[22] Reports suggested between 15,000 and 80,000 Londoners would lose their homes as a result of the Ringways.[23] The Treasury and the Department of Transport both came out against the scheme, primarily because of worries over the cost.

Despite this opposition, the GLC continued to develop its plans, and began the construction of some of the parts of the scheme. The plan, still with much of the detail to be worked out, was included in the Greater London Development Plan, 1969 (GLDP) along with much else not related to roads and traffic management. In 1970, the GLC estimated that the cost of building Ringway 1 along with sections of 2 and 3 would be £1.7 billion.[24] (approximately £25.8 billion today)[25] Three-quarters of this would have to come from central government grants.

In 1970, the British Road Federation surveyed 2,000 Londoners, 80% of whom favoured more new roads being built.[26] In contrast, a public enquiry was held to review the GLDP in a climate of strong and vocal opposition from many of the London Borough councils and residents associations that would have seen motorways driven through their neighbourhoods. The Westway and a section of the West Cross Route from Shepherd's Bush to North Kensington, opened in 1970. It showed the public what the Ringways would be like for local residents and what demolition would be required, and led to increased complaints over the scheme. The GLDP received 22,000 formal objections by 1972.[27] The GLC realised that the South Cross Route might be impractical to build, and looked instead at integrating public transport through a new park-and-ride scheme at Lewisham that would serve a new Fleet line on the London Underground.[28]

The GLC attempted to hold on to the Ringway plans until the early 1970s, hoping that they would eventuallyl be built.[29] By 1972, in an attempt to placate the Ringway plan's vociferous opponents, the GLC removed the northern section of Ringway 1 and the southern section of Ringway 2 from the proposals.[30] In January 1973, the enquiry recommended that Ringway 1 be built, but that much of the rest of the Ringway schemes be abandoned.[31] The project was submitted to the Conservative government for approval and, for a short period, it appeared that the GLC had made enough concessions for the scheme to proceed.[32] A report around this time commissioned by Frank Layfield showed that the GLDP was too dependent on roads for its transport plans.[33] The Labour party made large gains in the GLC elections of April 1973 with a policy of fighting the Ringways scheme, and given the continuing fierce opposition across London and the likely enormous cost, the cabinet cancelled funding and hence the project.[34][27]


Aerial view of elevated roundabout with flyover passing above and slipways joining from three directions. Construction appears to have recently finished.
Elevated junction of the West Cross Route and Westway at White City looking north-west shortly after construction. The continuation of the West Cross Route would have passed under the roundabout with the stubs from the roundabout linking to the northern slipways.

In the central London area only the East Cross Route and part of the West Cross Route of Ringway 1 were constructed together with the elevated Westway which links Paddington to North Kensington.[35] These were all begun and completed before the plan was cancelled and, with its elevated roadway on concrete pylons flying above the streets below at rooftop height, the Westway provides a good example of how much of Ringway 1 would have appeared had it been constructed.[36][37]

Improvements have been made to the North Circular Road (A406) section of Ringway 2 over the decades since the plan was cancelled so that most of it is now dual carriageway. The improvements have been done in a piecemeal fashion so that the road varies in quality and capacity along its length and still has several unimproved single carriageway sections and awkward junctions.[38] By comparison, very little has been done to improve the condition of the South Circular Road (A205) (which has complex junctions and forks) and no part of the southern part of Ringway 2 has been built, mainly because of the density of the residential areas through which the South Circular runs. The road remains predominantly single carriageway throughout.[39][40]

Uncompleted London-bound slipway from A23 on to unbuilt M23 north of junction 7. Bridge across road in distance would have carried M23, but has never been used.

Parts of Ringways 3 and 4 were started soon after Ringway 1 was cancelled. The first section of the northern half of Ringway 3 was constructed between South Mimms and Potters Bar and opened in 1975. The first section of Ringway 4 was built between Godstone and Reigate and opened the following year.[41] Before the first of these opened, the planned north and east sections of Ringway 3 and the planned south and west sections of Ringway 4 were combined as the M25 (the northern part was initially designated as the M16 during the planning stages but opened as the M25). The remaining sections of these two circular routes were never built.[42]

The M23 was particularly affected by the cancellation of the Ringways. The original plan had been to connect it to Ringway 2 near Streatham, and when the Ringway was cancelled, it was extended to meet Ringway 1 near Stockwell. Once the Ringways were cancelled completely, there seemed little point in finishing the M23 as it would drop all its traffic onto surburban streets. However, the M23 up to Streatham remained a projected route throughout the 1970s. The Wallington M23 Action Group campaigned for the motorway to be formally cancelled, as the inability to develop land along the line of the proposed M23 had led to planning blight in the area.[43] In 1978, the M23 north of Hooley was cancelled, to be replaced by an all-purpose relief road replacing the A23. This too was cancelled in May 1980.[44] The M23 to Streatham was briefly revived in 1985 by the GLC after the government had announced plans to spend £1.5 billion on trunk roads in London.[45] In December 2006, the Coulsdon Relief Road was opened by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It was one of the few road proposals approved by the anti-car Livingstone, and included a dedicated lane for buses and cycles.[46]

Some of the radial routes that were planned to connect to the Ringway system were built much as planned, including the M1 and M4.[47][48] Other radial roads, such as the M3, M11 and M23, were truncated on the outskirts of London far from their intended terminal junctions on Ringway 1.[49][50][51] Others were simply not built at all in a form recognisable from the Ringway proposal.

See also[edit]

London ring roads[edit]


London orbital railways[edit]


  1. ^ "Within London, a few fragments had been built: the Ringway 1 East Cross Route was complete by the early 1970s, and the A40(M) Westway and a short stub of the West Cross Route were open to traffic before the GLDP inquiry halted the plans." – Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Background - Epilogue". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
  2. ^ Asher 2018, p. 11.
  3. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 12-13.
  4. ^ Asher 2018, p. 13.
  5. ^ a b c Asher 2018, p. 15.
  6. ^ "Highway Development Survey (1937)". Archived from the original on 14 May 2009.
  7. ^ Asher 2018, p. 18.
  8. ^ "The County of London Plan, 1943: 'this new world foreshadowed'".
  9. ^ Asher 2018, p. 19.
  10. ^ a b Asher 2018, p. 21.
  11. ^ Asher 2018, p. 23.
  12. ^ Asher 2018, p. 25.
  13. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 27-28.
  14. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Background - Post-war and beyond". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 26 May 2015.
  15. ^ Baily, Michael (7 January 1969). "London's Motorway Box Controversy - Investing in an answer to more and more traffic". The Times (57452). p. 7. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  16. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 40-41.
  17. ^ Asher 2018, p. 41.
  18. ^ "Ringways - Background". Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
  19. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 53,56.
  20. ^ Asher 2018, p. 53.
  21. ^ Asher 2018, p. 80.
  22. ^ Baily, Michael (23 October 1969). "Experts condemn London ringway scheme". The Times (57698). p. 4. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  23. ^ Moran 2009, p. 202.
  24. ^ Baily, Michael (19 August 1970). "Road programme cost estimated at £1,700m". The Times (57948). p. 3. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  25. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  26. ^ Hart 2013, p. 167.
  27. ^ a b Haywood 2016, p. 178.
  28. ^ Aldous, Tony (6 June 1970). "Drastic review of Ringway 1". The Times (57889). p. 3. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  29. ^ Hart 2013, p. 168.
  30. ^ Asher 2018, p. 99.
  31. ^ Hart 2013, p. 174.
  32. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 101-102.
  33. ^ Richards 2005, p. 45.
  34. ^ Moran 2009, p. 205.
  35. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 157.
  36. ^ Hart 2013, p. 166.
  37. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 88,93.
  38. ^ Weinreb et al. 2008, p. 591.
  39. ^ Weinreb et al. 2008, p. 851.
  40. ^ Sir Philip Goodhart (28 July 1989). "Traffic London". Hansard. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
  41. ^ Asher 2018, p. 115.
  42. ^ Asher 2018, p. 116.
  43. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 53,105.
  44. ^ Asher 2018, pp. 106-107.
  45. ^ Asher 2018, p. 146.
  46. ^ Marshall, Chris (December 2006). "A23 Coulsdon Relief Road". Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  47. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Northern Radials - M1". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
  48. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Western Radials - M4". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
  49. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Western Radials - M3". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
  50. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Northern Radials - M11". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  51. ^ Marshall, Chris. "Ringways - Southern Radials - M23". CBRD. Archived from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2009.



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