Christian Wolmar, award winning transport writer and broadcaster, has cycled 2000 miles in pursuit of the nomination as Labour candidate for London’s Mayor in 2016. He gave us a masterly summary of London’s transport history and a glimpse of several possible futures.
He started with a view of London’s streets as multifunctional – social spaces for play and building neighbourhoods as much as for transport. As London grew and workers needed transportation the first innovation we got was George Shillibeer’s horse drawn omnibus. This started in 1829 and is commemorated in The George Shillibeer, a pub by an old omnibus factory on the Caledonian Road.
Driven by the growth of Victorian London the British became world leaders in the invention of novel urban transport systems. The first underground train was the cut and cover line running between Paddington and Farringdon which opened in 1863 (see illustration). Tube trains, tunnelled through London clay, followed. These were concentrated in north London where land for over-ground railways was too expensive.
The age of the car accelerated in the post war period, with a decline in public transport, and we were shown several brutal plans for new London motorways which flourished in planning offices between 1960 and the 1980’s. Luckily most of them fell by the way, and from the 1990s there has been a gradual decline in car use.
It was no surprise that he sees cycling as part of the future – though his vision of a pedestrianised Oxford Street has no room for cycles. There was more ambivalence about electric cars; fussy to charge and polluting unless the electricity is ecologically sourced. As for driverless cars, these are still a fantasy for now; for urban areas they don’t solve any of the congestion problems we face.
Christian faced off some hard questioning about badly behaved cyclists and ensuring suitable transport for disabled people, and the continuing discussion reflected an excellent evening.