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Title: "LEA BRIDGE ROAD — What can a White Paper do?"

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Author: IVOR CHAPMAN

Bath, Uxbridge, Harrow, Edgware, Finchley, Highgate, Holloway, Southgate, Hertford: a familiar list of roads fairly evenly spaced, if you work clockwise,radiating out from the centre of London north of the Thames. After that, the gap. There is no other road of ancient origin until the Romford Road is reached. The reason? The River Lea. All traffic to and from north east London and Essex must cross the Lea. For anyone aiming to develop an integrated transport policy and tackle pollution and congestion, the five Lea crossings which now exist between the old Hertford road at Waltham Cross and the Romford road at Bow must provide one of the severest tests.

The Lea Bridge Road (A 104) is worth studying as it enables one to isolate some general suburban problems very clearly. With other radial routes motorists can easily divert to adjacent main roads or look for 'rat-runs'. The presence of the River Lea renders the first difficult and the second impossible.

Our road runs from the Kenninghall roundabout at Clapton for three miles to Whipps Cross in the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF). It is single carriageway throughout and if only it were unimpeded there is room for two lanes of traffic in each direction for some of its length, as one would expect of a road which carried an intensive tram service until 1939. For the first quarter of a mile there are houses on one side but otherwise the first mile is open road across the Lea flood plain through a mixture of parkland and light industry. At the disused Lea Bridge station bridge (marked by a star on the map) the road enters the built-up area of Leyton (LBWF) and the remaining two miles is typical of a congested area developed before the first world war with shops, houses and businesses generating a great deal of traffic and parking obstruction.

Although there is no straight main road from Clapton to the centre of London, the map shows clearly how Lea Bridge Road is the natural direct route from much of south west Essex and the London Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Redbridge. Unfortunately, when the M11 was re-planned to take the Roding Valley rather than the Lea Valley route northwards, the men from the ministry quite wilfully left it to end at the North Circular Road meaning that motorway traffic had to find its own way across the inner suburbs. For much of the traffic Lea Bridge Road was the inevitable choice. Even when the M11 Link road is open through Leyton to Hackney and Bow (where traffic will be decanted into already chaotic conditions) there will be many who still wish to take the A104. Traffic growth will ensure that any respite is brief.

This road, then, has long had two separate functions: it has provided a through route to London for those living north and east of Whipps Cross; south-west of there it has been a main artery for its local community (Walthamstow and Leyton, now LBWF) for both internal journeys and journeys to Central London. In the first half of this century it carried the public transport services shown on the maps. There was no electrified train service in the area until the arrival of the Central Line in 1947. Through travel by bus from as far afield as Loughton, and by bus and tram (later trolleybus) from Woodford and Chingford, was common. In the 1930's bus services were: 35 (every 3 minutes),38 (every 3-4 minutes), 38a (every 10 minutes), and tram services: 55 (every 4-8 minutes), 57 (every 4-8 mins) and 81 (every 8 minutes), a total of over 70 vehicles an hour. In 1947 services had reverted almost to pre-war standards but with trolleybuses replacing the trams.

With the engulfing tide of commuter cars from the 1950's onwards, exacerbated by the opening of the M11 motorway in 1977, Lea Bridge Road rapidly became unable to perform either of its functions adequately. Speed was soon reduced to a crawl in peak periods throughout its length and has remained so until the present day. Fortunately for commuters by public transport the electrification of the British Rail Chingford line was completed in 1960 and the Victoria line was opened in 1968. Thus there are now alternatives to the slow and tedious business of travelling along the A104 but a change of transport mode is necessary. With the removal of the trolleybuses their services were integrated with those of the buses and then, when the Victoria line opened, the outer ends of the old, long bus routes were diverted to Walthamstow Central to connect. So, any through buses along Lea Bridge Road now start in the Walthamstow/Leyton area (see map); the normal daytime service is now 17 rather than 70 vehicles an hour.

The battle to reconcile the local and the long-distance functions of the A104 has continued unabated. With the road garotted by commuter cars, London Transport reduced the bus services to 2 (total 12 buses an hour) saying that it was impracticable to run through services to the West End if they were so likely to be made unreliable by congestion. A long campaign led by the Waltham Forest Transport Action Group (WFTAG) encouraged the Borough to put in lengths of peak hour bus lane, which permitted the reintroduction of the 55 bus service to the West End. Unfortunately the bus lanes have already proved less than sacrosanct as sections have been removed to give priority to left and right turns.

The writer, by an error of judgment, found himself in a car travelling north-east along the A104 during the evening rush hour of Friday, November 28th, 1997. What happened then should be studied carefully by those who would write White Papers or in any way attempt to sort out London's suburban traffic. With a driver who would not illegally enter the bus lane, we were overtaken by a continuous stream of traffic on our nearside. At the points where the lane has been removed, or was always broken (as at traffic lights) even the law-abiding found themselves in the bus lane when it re-started. Worst of all, at no time during this very slow transit, did a bus appear travelling north-eastwards. The three-mile journey from Clapton to Whipps Cross took 25 minutes.

A letter about this, copied to a Transport Minister, an M.P., four LBWF councillors, an LBWF officer, the Managing Director of London Transport Buses and the local Police Superintendent revealed that the police do not regard the enforcement of bus lanes as any sort of priority; that the provision and retention of bus lanes is regarded as an appropriate topic for dividing along party lines (basically Labour for, Conservative against, and Lib Dem variable) rather than according to intelligent personal judgment; and that technological means of safeguarding bus lanes (cameras, bus gates and so on) are seen as the answer. All this, of course, refers to Waltham Forest. On the London side of the Lea the road is in Hackney; there is no bus lane and a totally different set of considerations apply.

London Transport agreed that all the buses must have become snarled up somewhere on the London side of Clapton and passed the letter on to Stagecoach East London and Kentish Bus. And this is where one at last arrives at the crux of the matter. Given all the conditions just outlined, it is plain that bus lanes are very difficult to control and are seldom continuous over a long enough distance. As soon as a bus is off the bus lane it becomes subject to ordinary traffic conditions and cannot keep to schedule. If schedules are to be disrupted, public transport must remain uncompetitive; a car is a very much more comfortable place to wait than a bus stop. Also no-one has yet devised a bus which is not uncomfortable as it lurches and weaves among the traffic.

Lea Bridge Road, together with all the other London radial routes, is in a terminally chaotic condition. Nothing will give those using it a smooth, fast, comfortable and uninterrupted ride, better than their own car, except a light rail vehicle. It has become fashionable to reject the light rail solution on grounds of expense, but if one looks in detail at an example such as the A104 it is clear that nothing else will work.

If it continues to be the case that re-laying rails along some of the roads from which they were mistakenly removed in the nineteen-thirties is prohibitively expensive, what can be done? Working with our Waltham Forest example, look at adjacent and parallel underused railways. The maps show Lea Bridge Road's traditional links. Between and beside the old bus and tram routes lies West Anglia/ Great Northern's Chingford Line. With its three trains an hour and its widely spaced stations it is grossly underutilised at its Walthamstow and Chingford end. Any large increase in trains to the City would conflict beyond Clapton with the Stansted Express and trains from Enfield and Hertford. But a frequent service with light rail characteristics and new stops running from Chingford and then veering off onto the Lea Valley line to Lea Bridge and Stratford (see Map 2) would give a quickly achievable improvement to Lea Bridge Road's links. A reopened Lea Bridge station stop could then either be a bus interchange or, ideally, a stepping-off point for future street running to Clapton and Hackney.

The present tendency is for local authorities, political parties, the police, bus companies, train operating companies, Railtrack, planners, consultants and environmental bodies to pull unproductively against each other in transport matters. A decisive White Paper followed by strong legislation, plus coordinated leadership for London is vital if the energies of all these groups are to be directed towards the common good. Without this, the chaos of the last forty years on roads such as Lea Bridge Road could continue and increase for the next forty.

Ivor Chapman

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