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Traffic and Rebuilding

The London traffic problem is just one of those questions that appeal
very strongly to the more prevalent and less charitable types of English
mind. It has a practical and constructive air, it deals with
impressively enormous amounts of tangible property, it rests with a
comforting effect of solidity upon assumptions that are at once doubtful
and desirable. It seems free from metaphysical considerations, and it
has none of those disconcerting personal applications, those
penetrations towards intimate qualities, that makes eugenics, for
example, faintly but persistently uncomfortable. It is indeed an ideal
problem for a healthy, hopeful, and progressive middle-aged public man.
And, as I say, it deals with enormous amounts of tangible property.

Like all really serious and respectable British problems it has to be
handled gently to prevent its coming to pieces in the gift. It is safest
in charge of the expert, that wonderful last gift of time. He will talk
rapidly about congestion, long-felt wants, low efficiency, economy, and
get you into his building and rebuilding schemes with the minimum of
doubt and head-swimming. He is like a good Hendon pilot. Unspecialised
writers have the destructive analytical touch. They pull the wrong
levers. So far as one can gather from the specialists on the question,
there is very considerable congestion in many of the London
thoroughfares, delays that seem to be avoidable occur in the delivery of
goods, multitudes of empty vans cumber the streets, we have hundreds of
acres of idle trucks--there are more acres of railway sidings than of
public parks in Greater London--and our Overseas cousins find it
ticklish work crossing Regent Street and Piccadilly. Regarding life
simply as an affair of getting people and things from where they are to
where they appear to be wanted, this seems all very muddled and wanton.
So far it is quite easy to agree with the expert. And some of the
various and entirely incompatible schemes experts are giving us by way
of a remedy, appeal very strongly to the imagination. For example, there
is the railway clearing house, which, it is suggested, should cover I do
not know how many acres of what is now slumland in Shoreditch. The
position is particularly convenient for an underground connection with
every main line into London. Upon the underground level of this great
building every goods train into London will run. Its trucks and vans
will be unloaded, the goods passed into lifts, which will take every
parcel, large and small, at once to a huge, ingeniously contrived
sorting-floor above. There in a manner at once simple, ingenious and
effective, they will be sorted and returned, either into delivery vans
at the street level or to the trains emptied and now reloading on the
train level. Above and below these three floors will be extensive
warehouse accommodation. Such a scheme would not only release almost all
the vast area of London now under railway yards for parks and housing,
but it would give nearly every delivery van an effective load, and
probably reduce the number of standing and empty vans or half-empty vans
on the streets of London to a quarter or an eighth of the present
number. Mostly these are heavy horse vans, and their disappearance would
greatly facilitate the conversion of the road surfaces to the hard and
even texture needed for horseless traffic.

But that is a scheme too comprehensive and rational for the ordinary
student of the London traffic problem, whose mind runs for the most part
on costly and devastating rearrangements of the existing roadways.
Moreover, it would probably secure a maximum of effect with a minimum of
property manipulation; always an undesirable consideration in practical
politics. And it would commit London and England to goods transit by
railway for another century. Far more attractive to the expert advisers
of our various municipal authorities are such projects as a new Thames
bridge scheme, which will (with incalculable results) inject a new
stream of traffic into Saint Paul's Churchyard; and the removal of
Charing Cross Station to the south side of the river. Then, again, we
have the systematic widening of various thoroughfares, the shunting of
tramways into traffic streams, and many amusing, expensive, and
interesting tunnellings and clearances. Taken together, these huge
reconstructions of London are incoherent and conflicting; each is based
on its own assumptions and separate "expert" advice, and the resulting
new opening plays its part in the general circulation as duct or
aspirator, often with the most surprising results. The discussion of the
London traffic problem as we practise it in our clubs is essentially the
sage turning over and over again of such fragmentary schemes,
headshakings over the vacant sites about Aldwych and the Strand,
brilliant petty suggestions and--dispersal. Meanwhile the experts
intrigue; one partial plan after another gets itself accepted, this and
that ancient landmark perish, builders grow rich, and architects
infamous, and some Tower Bridge horror, some vulgarity of the
Automobile Club type, some Buckingham Palace atrocity, some Regent
Street stupidity, some such cramped and thwarted thing as that new arch
which gives upon Charing Cross is added to the confusion. I do not see
any reason to suppose that this continuous muddle of partial destruction
and partial rebuilding is not to constitute the future history of

Let us, however, drop the expert methods and handle this question rather
more rudely. Do we want London rebuilt? If we do, is there, after all,
any reason why we should rebuild it on its present site? London is where
it is for reasons that have long ceased to be valid; it grew there, it
has accumulated associations, an immense tradition, that this constant
mucking about of builders and architects is destroying almost as
effectually as removal to a new site. The old sort of rebuilding was a
natural and picturesque process, house by house, and street by street, a
thing as pleasing and almost as natural in effect as the spreading and
interlacing of trees; as this new building, this clearance of areas, the
piercing of avenues, becomes more comprehensive, it becomes less
reasonable. If we can do such big things we may surely attempt bigger
things, so that whether we want to plan a new capital or preserve the
old, it comes at last to the same thing, that it is unreasonable to be
constantly pulling down the London we have and putting it up again. Let
us drain away our heavy traffic into tunnels, set up that clearing-house
plan, and control the growth at the periphery, which is still so witless
and ugly, and, save for the manifest tidying and preserving that is
needed, begin to leave the central parts of London, which are extremely
interesting even where they are not quite beautiful, in peace.

H.G. Wells