Embankment cycleway used to be a tram route

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In different eras Britain’s roads have been dominated by pedestrians, waggons, bicycles, trams, omnibuses and – latterly – motor vehicles. Researching the past shows us that things change. The hegemony of the car (and the HGV) is taken for granted today, but it isn’t a given. Nothing is set in stone (or tarmac). The urban highways of now and the future don’t have to be dominated by motorised vehicles. Motor-centrism was one of the defining aspects of the 20th century but finite space, climate change, whole-population health, and air quality issues mean that engineers will increasingly have to design for more people-centric towns and cities.

Now, in some cities, re-imagining who and what roads are for could mean the reintroduction of the tram (it’s already happened in Manchester, which was the first city to rip out its tramlines to cater for the car) but it will be far easier and cheaper to design for the bicycle, and for pedestrians. This is what London decided to do, and the protected cycleway and wider sidewalks on the Embankment, close to the Houses of Parliament, are shining examples of how to cater for non-motorised transport.

Thames Embankment, 1897
Thames Embankment, 1897

Naturally, there has been much chatter about the traffic delays caused by the construction of the wide Embankment cycleway. Yet, how many of those complaining about the reimagining of the Embankment realise it wasn’t designed for motor cars and that sixty years ago the Embankment was dominated by trams? At first there were horse-drawn trams, later there were electric trams. Each was opposed by motor interests. An 1898 editorial in the The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal opined:

ThamesEmbankment1908“There are certain districts and streets in which certain types of vehicles are suitable, but the Thames Embankment is not, we submit, the place for horse tramcars. To disfigure the most magnificent boulevard in Great Britain, if not in Europe, by the hideous, obsolete, horse-drawn street car is an absolute outrage upon the community.

“Every one, with any sense of the beauty attaching to noble structures situated amid scenes of considerable natural beauty, will, we are sure, agree with us in our contention. Why should we make one of our very few handsome thoroughfares…depressingly ugly? Rather let us beautify where we can; our streets need it badly enough. The reason for this attempted desecration of the Embankment is merely ‘to give facilities to the teeming population of South London to reach their employment in town.’ This is…no justification for the aesthetic outrage complained of. The only vehicles, in our opinion, which should be permitted to use the Embankment, or which can use it without jarring upon one’s sense of the fitness of things, are high-class motor-carriages, pair-horse carriages, private cabs, and cycles; all other vehicles constitute an eyesore and are an offence.”

Central London's tramlines, via Sharemap.org.
Central London’s tramlines, via Sharemap.org.

The Embankment’s wide carriageways and generous sidewalks were a happy side-effect of the installation of a wide-bore sewer which, among other benefits, reduced the stench from the Thames, a long-running complaint from the occupants in the nearby Houses of Parliament. It may have been built in the 1860s as a covering for much of London’s crap, but the Embankment was laid out as a posh boulevard, with access restricted to high-class carriages and, later, bicycles.

Walthamstow's now has a Mini-Holland bicycle scheme – it used to be a major node on London's tram network, as the signs on this extant building attest.
Walthamstow now has a Mini-Holland public realm improvement scheme – it used to be a major node on London’s tram network, as the signs on this extant building attest.

By the early 1900s the road was reimagined again, with steel rails laid for trams. These lasted for about sixty years. During “Last Tram Week” in July 1952 Londoners took their final tram rides, including on the well-used service which ran on the Embankment. The death throes of London’s trams were captured in an evocative period film, “The elephant will never forget”. This starts by showing the wooden logo-statue for the Elephant and Castle pub, and reminisces about what London had so recently lost. There are also fleeting glimpses of the tram service on the Embankment.

London’s tram lines were ripped out for a number of reasons, including deliberate under-investment, a belief that diesel motor-buses would better serve Londoners, and a desire to get trams “out of the way.” As the film suggests, many motorists believed that trams were a leading cause of congestion. “The motorist who every day cursed every time he had to stop cursed but little and looked forward to tomorrow,” said the film’s narrator, optimistically.

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