Transport systems have both defined the shape of London and been essential to the city's daily operation since the nineteenth century. By 1900 the railways in particular had transformed the speed of travel for people and goods both across the city and from other parts of the country. Nearly all London's food and fuel supplies came in by rail, goods to and from the docks went by train and the railways carried nearly all passengers on journeys of more than a few miles.
Road transport was still almost entirely dependant on the horse, which meant that it was slow and only suitable for short distance travel. Apart from the original steam underground lines opened from the 1860s, the railways tended to make road congestion in central London worse. They fed both goods and people on to the streets to reach their final destination by horse drawn cart, cab or omnibus. Horse trams operated on the main roads and could carry more passengers than buses, but they were not allowed in the City or West End. For short journeys of two or three miles it was still almost as quick to walk.
Passenger transport in London changed dramatically in the early years of the twentieth century with the arrival of new technology. The first electric trams were introduced in 1901 and by 1915 the last horse tram had been withdrawn. Buses were fully mechanised in an even shorter period, between 1904 and 1914, once reliable petrol engines had been developed and mass production of standard vehicles got under way. Horse drawn cabs survived a little longer, but they were already heavily outnumbered by motor taxis by 1914. Motor vans and lorries replaced horse power on goods vehicles much more slowly and there were still horse drawn milk carts in London as late as the 1950s.
New technology also changed the railways. Improved tunnelling methods, reliable safety lifts and non-polluting electric power were the three essentials for deep level Tube operation. The first line opened in 1890. By 1907 a network of new electric Tubes had been completed under central London, the Victorian steam underground lines had been electrified and a start had been made on electrifying overground suburban railways.
All this development in public transport made Londoners much more mobile. Journeys by bus, train and tram were faster and cheaper, and routes were extended into the suburbs and beyond. Commuting some distance to work by public transport and leisure travel at weekends became an option for a growing number of people. At the same time, better transport facilities encouraged suburban development. This was a major factor in the rapid growth of outer London in the 1920s and 30s while the population of inner London declined. New road development was also concentrated in the suburbs, with the building of arterial roads such as Western Avenue and the North Circular. At the time there were barely enough private cars on the roads to justify their construction, but these government funded schemes served another purpose in relieving unemployment.
London's transport boom in the early twentieth century was not centrally planned or co-ordinated, and was an uneasy mix of private and local authority funded schemes. By the 1920s it was clear that there were no great profits to be made in public transport, and that unregulated competition was not helpful either to passengers or the transport operators. In 1933 London Transport (L.T.) was set up as a single public authority to manage all bus, tram and underground railway operation in the London area, with a fare pooling arrangement with the suburban railways. LT was expected to cover its operating costs and raise the capital for modernisation and improvement works with financial guarantees from government. A massive five year New Works Programme began which included extending the Underground, converting the ageing tram system to trolleybus operation and introducing more efficient diesel instead of petrol buses. All this was cut short by the outbreak of war, ending a brief golden age of progressive public transport for which London was admired internationally.
In the second half of the twentieth century London's transport has not been in a spiral of decline but it has often seemed to be limping through a series of problems and crises which overshadow improvements. LT and the main line railways were nationalised in 1948 but London's transport facilities were then, and have remained ever since, a low priority for government spending. Passenger numbers reached a historic peak but then went into a long decline while private car ownership boomed in the 1950s and 60s. The only major public transport project in London was the Victoria line, opened in 1968-9, the first new Tube in fifty years.
In 1970 responsibility for LT was transferred to the Greater London Council (G.L.C.). It was soon having to provide a growing subsidy for the buses and Underground, but was also struggling to deal with the problems caused by the explosion in car ownership. Thirty years of bitter political battles followed, but the underlying issues about how to plan, fund and manage London's transport in a sustainable way were not resolved.
In 2000 LT was succeeded by Transport for London (T.f.L.), a new authority responsible to the newly elected Mayor of London. T.f.L. has a wider management remit than L.T. including streets, taxis, river services and a growing element of suburban rail as well as the buses and Underground. All these transport modes now involve an element of public/private partnership which works through a bewildering series of contractual agreements rather than a single monolithic authority.
Like all great cities London has a critical and dependant relationship with transport. If that lifeblood starts to clog up the quality and energy of city life declines with it. London has always shown remarkable resilience in the face of successive apparent transport crises. That final meltdown or ultimate gridlock has never happened, but transport improvements seem painfully slow compared with many other cities. Sorting out transport was the priority issue for Londoners when they elected their first Mayor in 2000. It remains one of London's biggest challenges in the twenty first century.
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