As road congestion continues to suffocate London, this exhibition watches the highway ahead – with one eye on the rear view mirror

A future view of city transport London 2026 This Is All In The Air by Montague B Black. TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, www.ltmuseum.co.uk
A future view of city transport London 2026 This Is All In The Air by Montague B Black. TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, www.ltmuseum.co.uk

The prospect of an exhibition on roads doesn’t exactly get the heart racing. But perhaps it should – after all, as the NLA’s new show Streets Ahead tells us, some 80% of the public space in London is taken up by roads, with around 26 million trips made each day by road in London. This figure is expected to rise to 32 million by 2041, presenting the massive logistical challenge of how to accommodate so many travellers without bringing the city to more of a standstill than it already is. As it is, Londoners spend an average of 70 hours a year in traffic jams: radical solutions are needed as the population rises.

Throw in the air quality challenges and exciting technological innovations such as driverless cars and the prospect of drone couriers, and there are plenty of meaty road-related subjects to get our teeth into. 

  • Driverless cars for real.
    Driverless cars for real. · Credit: Nigel Young, Foster + Partners
  • An infrastructure of driverless cars as drawn by Foster + Partners.
    An infrastructure of driverless cars as drawn by Foster + Partners.
  • Could London do this ? Aerial view of Fore Street Tunnel. TfL Visual Services.
    Could London do this ? Aerial view of Fore Street Tunnel. TfL Visual Services.
  • Changing transport one screen at a time on the iBus. TfL Visual Services.
    Changing transport one screen at a time on the iBus. TfL Visual Services.
  • There ARE seats upstairs, thanks iBus. TfL Visual Services.
    There ARE seats upstairs, thanks iBus. TfL Visual Services.
  • Digital Bus Shelter, Regent Street © TfL Visual Services.
    Digital Bus Shelter, Regent Street © TfL Visual Services.
  • Drone courier services?
    Drone courier services?
  • How London would breathe: 2020 NO2 with Ultra Low Emission Zone
    How London would breathe: 2020 NO2 with Ultra Low Emission Zone
  • ... and levels of NO2 without Ultra Low Emission Zone.
    ... and levels of NO2 without Ultra Low Emission Zone.

Roads, it turns out, have been on quite a journey from Roman times to today. It was only in the late 19th century, when responsibility for them passed to local authorities, that problems of maintenance, horse-drawn cart congestion and manure pile-up began to be addressed. Even so, many of the capital’s main streets remained hugely congested, as archive images of car and cart traffic jams show.  This TfL-supported exhibition also takes on the important Buchanan Report of 1963 (Traffic in Towns), which considered not only congestion problems and the matter of getting from A to B but the role of streets for social interaction as well. This was a time of visionary road concepts – we may all breathe a sigh of relief that the 1960s plan shown here for four concentric motorways around the capital was ditched due to cost. 

  • Traffic jams from another time. Illustration of Ludgate Hill by Gustav Dore. TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
    Traffic jams from another time. Illustration of Ludgate Hill by Gustav Dore. TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
  • Traffic jams from another time. Junction of Waterloo Bridge and the Strand_1911-1913. TfL from the London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
    Traffic jams from another time. Junction of Waterloo Bridge and the Strand_1911-1913. TfL from the London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
  • Traffic jams from another time. High view along Brixton Road during AM rush hour_1965-1975. TfL from the London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
    Traffic jams from another time. High view along Brixton Road during AM rush hour_1965-1975. TfL from the London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk.
  • Traffic jams from now. Blackwall Tunnel, aerial view south approach © TfL Visual Services.
    Traffic jams from now. Blackwall Tunnel, aerial view south approach © TfL Visual Services.

Informative rather than inspiring, the exhibition looks at the potential of bridges, tunnels and delivery consolidation to help relieve road congestion. There are also panels on recent radical city road innovations such as shared spaces and cycle superhighways to make our increasingly busy roads less toxic to the cityscape. Promising innovations such as self-healing surfaces, photo-luminising markings and driverless cars are also included. 

  • There is a lot of digging up and relaying to be done to improve things in UK cities. Here at Elephant & Castle. TfL Visual Services
    There is a lot of digging up and relaying to be done to improve things in UK cities. Here at Elephant & Castle. TfL Visual Services
  • ... with Witherford Watson Mann's proposals for Elephant Square.
    ... with Witherford Watson Mann's proposals for Elephant Square. · Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • All change at Tottenham Court Road, as it is now...
    All change at Tottenham Court Road, as it is now... · Credit: Agnese Sanvito
  • ... and proposed changes.
    ... and proposed changes.
  • We might not be able to improve the architecture but TfL shows how the transport surfaces around Old Street could be improved. TfL Visual Services.
    We might not be able to improve the architecture but TfL shows how the transport surfaces around Old Street could be improved. TfL Visual Services.
  • Acton Main Line.
    Acton Main Line. · Credit: Crossrail
  • Foster and Partners' vision of transport and green making London work better.
    Foster and Partners' vision of transport and green making London work better.
  • Driverless cars making efficient use of space.
    Driverless cars making efficient use of space.

Many of the more exciting proposals are from overseas, such as plans to deck over the A7 motorway in the west of Hamburg and fill the new space with parks, trees and allotments while the traffic continues below. Is there scope to try a similar approach over here? There’s plenty more mileage in this subject left to explore.  

Streets Ahead – the Future of London’s Roads, until 24 February 2016, New London Architecture, Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London