The Car & The Elephant : Introduction Next: The Elephant in Context Go to top


On a typical working day in 2004, 27 million journeys were made in the Greater London area. Of this, 42% were by car, 21% on foot, 18% by bus and 10% by underground.1 In the same year 60% of all the households in the Greater London region had access to one or more cars accounting for the 2.4 million cars registered in the city in 2004.2 On the face of these statistics London may well be considered something of a Motopia:3 a city defined by its automobile use. However, statistics can often paint misleading images. Of the 1,069 miles of trunk road in the city, just 37 miles are motorway4 and average speeds in the central area during 2003 were just 10.6 mph:5 slower than twenty years before and hardly any different from those a century earlier.6 Despite one hundred years of the car, London is still caught in apparent tension between a public which desires a lifestyle based on the automobile and a city that has failed to successfully respond to such demands. The influence of the car on architecture and town planning has been immense. In the twenty first century the catchment of London has been increased by ever greater mobility. The city extends far beyond its administrative borders to encompass a regional network of vast out-of-town malls, sprawling satellite towns and distribution warehouses linked by a heavily congested orbital motorway. The car based utopias championed by an earlier generation may not have come to pass quite as envisioned, but something approaching their spirit has happened all the same.

In the twentieth century the car was central to the idea of the modern city; a metropolis of speed and mechanical efficiency. Modernist architects embraced concepts that rejected existing urban forms in favour of a new urbanism that espoused the dynamic relationship between roads and the city. In London, Abercrombie's County of London Plan of 1943 gave birth to a set of principles, which were to colour the development of the post-war years. Arterial and radial motorways were proposed along with reconfigured traffic interchanges that would free the car from the restraints of the traditional city. The Elephant and Castle is one of a limited number of spaces in the city that owes its present form to such visionary efforts.

The Elephant and Castle has long been South London's most famous traffic interchange. The much maligned, "forgotten side of the river,"was once portrayed as, "an accidental and despised cobweb between the horns of the banana of North London."7 The confusion of vehicles and bleak spaces illustrates a sharp contrast to the type of city found on the north side of the river. It is a somewhat daunting introduction to a London without tourists, without formal spaces or the recognisable landscape of postcard imagery. Its present form, the product of comprehensive development by the London County Council, was once optimistically heralded as a 'Gateway' to the city and as 'the Piccadilly Circus of the South.'8 It was later described as 'a major and uncomfortable visible blunder,'9 'disastrous,' and an example of how not to plan. So what went wrong and what efforts were made to remedy it?

This study charts the history of reconstruction at the Elephant from early unrealised efforts at creating boulevards and parks in the image of the city beautiful through to the current plans for large scale sustainable redevelopment that will include demolition and reconfiguration of the existing scheme. The story of the Elephant cannot be told without the story of the growth in motor traffic in London, attempts to ease its flow and the post-war experience at large. Therefore, the area will be set within the context of the story of roads in London and the accompanying technical and, later, political battles over the role for the car in an urban future. The Elephant once presented one side of the ideological struggle of whether to embrace the car or reject it. The future of the Elephant may well present the other side of this struggle, while posing manifold issues of its own. The central aim of the study is to discuss and highlight those issues that drove reconstruction in the post-war years and those which drive redevelopment today. The Elephant is an example of varying sets of design priorities, repeated in other areas of London, each claiming to hold the key to a harmonious future of the car and pedestrian. The Car and the Elephant is a story of the town versus mobility.


  1. Transport for London, London Travel Report 2005, 2005. p.7. The remaining 9% were made by bicycle or alternative forms. From 20/01/2006.
  2. ibid. p.39.
  3. Fraser, Murray & Kerr, Joe, 'Motopia: Cities and Architecture.' in Wollen, Peter &Kerr, Joe, Autopia: Cars and Culture, 2002. p.315.
  4. Transport for London, 2005. p.59.
  5. ibid. p.36.
  6. ibid. Average speed in central area in 1983 was 11.7 mph and 8.3 mph in 1914. (1914 figure taken from MacEwen, Malcolm, 'Motropolis' in The Architects Journal, October 1st, 1959. p.256.)
  7. Sinclair, Robert in 'Metropolitan Man' taken from Williams, Harry, South London, 1949. p.5.
  8. LCC quoted in The Architects Journal October 23rd, 1958. p.595.
  9. Marriott, O., The Property Boom, 1967. p.214.