The Bow Roundabout isn't going to be fixed by seven pedestrian crossings, and the authorities recognise this. And that's why TfL have joined forces with the two local boroughs, one at either end of the flyover, to reconsider the interchange's long term future.
The Vision for Bow anticipates all road users, on however many wheels or on foot, being able to progress through the Bow interchange without undue fear of death, injury or delay. Upgrading the pedestrian crossings is merely the aperitif, part of the Interim Plan, and discussions are already well underway as to what comes next. And what comes next, most likely, is the complete removal of the entire roundabout! Some kind of crossroads would be much safer, and easier for all road users to negotiate, at a stroke removing this key interchange's reputation as a killer junction. There are only two potentially insurmountable problems... 1) money 2) chaos
Before we investigate further, here's a quick bit of background for you. Bow Roundabout was built around 1970 as part of the construction of the A102(M) Hackney Link. An actual motorway, this concrete ribbon carved through the Lea Valley as the firstsection of what was intended to be a ringway box around Inner London, connecting to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road and onwards to North Greenwich. A triple-layer interchange was created at its intersection with the A11, with a north-south underpass for dual carriageway traffic, an east-west flyover for the trunk road, and a giant roundabout sandwiched inbetween. Communities and industry in Bow and Bromley suffered as factories and entire streets were wiped from the map, and even the parish church was removed to make way for progress. The motorway was downgraded in 2000 when it came under the ownership of TfL, and now forms part of the A12 instead. But the Bow Interchange remains a crucial node in the capital's road network, in particular as a key location where inner city traffic can make a break for the suburbs.
It's a fair bet that we wouldn't be discussing the roundabout's future were it not for the death of three cyclists in relatively close succession a few years ago. This highlighted the unavoidable fact that badly designed roads can kill, and created a moral force for transformative change it's become nigh impossible to argue against. Cyclists got their tweak with the introduction of early stop lights and the upgrade to CS2, and the introduction of signalised crossings will greatly improve safety for pedestrians. But in truth these are merely sticking plasters across a dysfunctional junction, impeding the progress of road traffic without truly liberating other road users. Hence the Vision for Bow now somehow has a hold near the top of TfL's long-term pecking order, and the potential exists for my immediate neighbourhood to undergo its second metamorphosis in half a century.
Here are the five main changes intended to be addressed by the Vision for Bow.
a) We will be looking at options that redesign the junction and remove the roundabout in order to provide more direct and straightforward facilities for pedestrians and cyclists
When the Bow Interchange was essentially a motorway junction, a roundabout made perfect sense. But the emergence of cycling as a key means of transport, plus a considerable increase in residential development along Stratford High Street, has made the road layout increasingly unsuitable for its environment. Imagine instead a mega crossroads, where traffic entering or departing the A12 awaited its turn, and genuinely segregated pathways for bikes and pedestrians could be maintained. I'd hope the traffic lights could be sequenced to avoid lengthier waits than on the roundabout at present, else the net result would be even longer queues and that would be unwelcome. But if only a crossroads had been built here in the first place, we'd likely not be having this conversation in the first place.
b) We will be investigating the removal of Bow Flyover in order to provide additional pedestrian crossings on Bow Road and Stratford High Street
The removal of the flyover would be radical stuff, and if I'm honest I have my doubts. The Bow Flyover allows traffic between Bow and Stratford to skip the roundabout altogether, which simultaneously speeds up journey times and reduces the volume of traffic trying to get through the lights. Take out the flyover and you'd force all this traffic through the new crossroads, which means more delays, more idling and more air pollution. Air quality's already abysmal round here as a result of the A12, indeed I'm probably shortening my life every time I breathe in, so the thought of even more slow-moving vehicles belching exhaust fume outside my front door doesn't fill me with joy. The shortcut exists, why remove it?
But TfL's reasons aren't traffic based, they're to reknit communities. One entirely unintentional side-effect of a flyover is that it creates a barrier to movement from one side to the other, at least during the lengthy 'taking off' and 'landing' phases. On the Bow side I don't think that's too much of a problem. I live in the gap between pedestrian crossings at the end of Bow Road, and having to walk up or down the street to reach the other side isn't generally an issue, plus it's the church in the middle of the road rather than the flyover which really creates the blockage. But the descent on the Stratford side is shallower, and the viaduct longer, hence the cross-carriageway disconnect more dramatic. Indeed it's almost a five minute walk from one existing safe crossing to the next, hence flyover removal could make quite a difference.
c) We will be looking at options to improve access from Stratford High Street and the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach to new developments, provide signalised crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, and enable us to extend the bus network through new communities
The Bow Interchange once sat on the edge of the built up area, the only significant housing on the Bow side, because Stratford High Street was essentially nowhere. 21st century redevelopment has changed all that, accelerated by the adjacent Olympics, and the road is now lined with tall flats and towers jammed with people. Plus Stratford itself is now hugely more important - there's a Westfield up the road for heaven's sake - hence the need for far better connections hereabouts. A huge new housing estate is at the start of construction to the southeast of the roundabout, namely Strand East, which'll bring swarms more pedestrians to the area. TfL have imminent plans to add a new signalised junction at the top of Sugarhouse Lane, and much longer term plans to add a bus-only bridge across the Lea to the west of the site. Expect the 108 or 488 to be diverted through the new estate, somehow, which'll probably require at least one more additional road junction where there isn't one today.
d) We will be investigating other ways to improve pedestrian and cycle connections across the A12 without any impact on traffic, such as improving existing subways and providing a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists
Don't expect new subways in Bromley-by-Bow, just upgrades of the old to make them more welcoming, this increasingly necessary as tens of thousands of people start to live down the strip between the A12 and the Lea. As for a new footbridge I'm not sure where in the wider area that might go, though I'd recommend a link across the chasm to the north of the roundabout, perhaps linking to as yet unplanned housing and eventually the Olympic Park. But there is already one utterly obvious candidate for "a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists", which is the traffic-free Bow Flyover itself, if only there were a safe way to get onto it and off again.
e) We will be exploring ways to improve the urban environment that reflect the characteristics of the local area
Heaven knows what that means, it sounds like a catch-all. But if the authorities genuinely want to improve my local neighbourhood 50 years after slicing it in half, that's fine by me.
All of which brings me back to the two enormous barriers to the removal of the Bow Roundabout, namely Money and Chaos. It'll cost a phenomenal amount to disconnect the concrete flyover from its surrounding infrastructure and remodel the surroundings to create a new kind of junction, so much so that the necessary budget may never be available. It might be possible to get the developers of adjacent land to contribute some Section 106 funding, but I suspect it's a bit late in the day to be thinking about that now. When the intended beneficiaries are 'only' pedestrians and cyclists, is extensive transformative change really worth the money?
But the real killer is the traffic chaos that would be unleashed during the remodelling of the junction. You can't simply shut this junction down for several months, it's too important to the East End's connectivity. In particular as the sole road crossing of the Lea for about a mile in either direction, travel between Bow and Stratford would be essentially crippled for as long as the restructuring takes. Even a careful staggered programme of works would cause major disruption over an unimaginable period, with repercussions rippling out across a far wider area. This is the same junction where until recently TfL refused to consider adding pedestrian crossings because they'd impede the flow of traffic... so imagine what damage an entire fleet of diggers could do.
So I'll believe in the Vision for Bow once it has genuine political momentum behind it, and not a moment before. In the meantime the Bow Vision Stakeholder Group can continue to devise their pipedreams, and perhaps we can continue to suggest what they might do in case they ever pull it off. When a once in a lifetime opportunity comes along to improve the heart of a neighbourhood, it's important to get the details right.