Erica Ward - Senior Consultant
Imagine a river full of life. A stream of barges, skiffs, punts, rowing boats and even the odd steamboat. This might have been the scene confronted by an onlooker to the Thames 200 years ago when this river was at the heart of our city economy. It is a far cry from today’s Thames riverscape.
I am lucky enough to have a prime riverside view from Temple's offices. When I am able to tear myself away from the computer screen, I like to contemplate the Thames's comings and goings. Apart from the tourist river cruises, the odd sailing boat in the summer and a few waste barges, however, the Thames often seems pretty empty. Any activity that is happening goes largely unnoticed, except during the occasional delay to traffic when Tower Bridge is raised, a brief reminder of London's momentous maritime past.
Even as a landlubber myself, I am frequently left wondering where all the boats and river life have gone. Why cannot this remarkable river, central to both the geography and our imaginings of London, be better used, for transport, industry and recreation? The potential for increasing transport by river seems particularly compelling, reducing congestion and improving the customer experience with travellers switching to the clipper rather than squeezing into a tube carriage. This is especially pertinant given population growth projections in London’s draft Infrastructure Plan 2050 of 37% from 2011 to 2050.
The low usage is partly due to the phenomenal success of roads and railways for transport and the rise of container shipping from the 1960s, which pushed the port of London downstream from the city. Remember also that the Thames, in comparison to many busier rivers, is a tidal river from Teddington Lock, so it is not always easily navigable.
Things are looking up, however. Last year TfL introduced its first River Action Plan. It sets out how we can double the number of passengers on the Thames to 12 million travellers a year by 2020. Concrete actions include improvements to piers and their facilities, provision of new and more frequent routes and increasing the visibility, information and integration of river services. One could imagine an extension of this where the River Thames is seen as a fully integrated part of the transport system, where all piers have good transport connections with the network as a whole. The plan is not as ambitious as it could be – cost is one of the main barriers to increased commuting via the Thames, which is not subsidised to the same extent as other public transport. But it means that finally, after years of neglect, the Thames is receiving some attention as a transport resource to help keep London moving.
The Thames Tideway Tunnel, which was approved earlier this month, will also open up opportunities for new and revived uses as the water quality continues to improve. These could include fishing or even swimming, as suggested by the Thames Baths Project. This idea and more are enthusing Londoners and visitors at this year’s Thames Festival, Totally Thames, taking place throughout September 2014 on and around the Thames.