Connection, Disconnection, and the Inbetween: the Silvertown Tunnel and Road Politics in London

Editor Johara Meyer grapples with the controversial politics of the Silvertown Tunnel construction.

Fossil Free London supporting a stop to the Silvertown Tunnel project. Image by Johara Meyer.

Geographers and theorists across a range of social sciences have utilised the language of connectivity to engage with the politics of infrastructure. Between the search for meaning in the wake of the cultural turn in the late 1980s to the more recent valorisation of materiality, infrastructure has increasingly been conceptualised as shaped by “a sticky web of connections or an ecology” (Müller, 2015, p.34). Today, situated ‘connections’, for example, form the backbone of “assemblage” or “network” thinking. Yet, binary conceptualisations of connectivity have also prevailed in the study of geographic phenomena (Cloke et al,. 2005, p.5). Despite many geographers’ efforts to ‘think beyond the binary’, the dis/connection dichotomy is still frequently utilised when studying infrastructure. Examining Anand’s work on the “Disconnecting Experience” of Mumbai’s road infrastructure, it becomes clear that categorising people into either connected or disconnected is particularly pronounced in examinations of the infrastructural politics of urban mobility (2006). Anand writes that in Mumbai, dreams of ‘free flowing’ and ‘fast moving’ traffic have driven the creation of ring roads and overpasses that promise to benefit ‘everyone’ but rely on an imagination of the ‘public’ that is rather exclusive and, therefore, “disconnects millions” (2006, p.3422-3424).

Employing such dichotomous categorisation may not be very useful. While it is “necessary to simplify the world in order to begin understanding it”, polarising categorisations can lead to unproductive tensions (Cloke et al,. 2005, p.5). Arabindoo highlights this in “Falling apart at the margins?” by calling attention to the “fuzziness of the peripheral condition” of neighbourhoods like Valmiki Nagar and Neelangarai in Chennai (2009, p.898). She asserts that these places challenge the urban/rural dichotomy as “planning strategies resulted in a conflation of the urban-rural interface into a more complex peri-urban condition, marked by heterogeneity and fragmentation” (Arabindoo, 2009, p.879). In short, the dis/connection binary misses out on the nuances of infrastructural politics.

With reference to the Silvertown Tunnel Project, I argue that infrastructures never facilitate exclusively ‘connection’ or ‘disconnection’. Instead, they are embedded in complex power entanglements that shape and re-shape dis(connection) trajectories. As such, connections are always heterogeneous and subject to change. I suggest that reimagining the dis/connection binary  as driven by temporality and relationality allows for an understanding of transport infrastructures beyond the stationary, physical, and formal.

Cross-river connectivity – a promise and a threat

Transport networks are critical to the everyday experiences of life in the city and can promise progress, freedom, and development through the connections they facilitate (Appadurai, 2013). In London, river crossings play a prominent role in how the future of the city and its networks is imagined. There have long been fewer cross-river connections in the east of the city than the west as the Thames becomes wider as it flows downstream to the east. (There are only a handful of ways to get across in East London: the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the Blackwall Tunnel, The Woolwich Ferry, two-foot tunnels, the Emirates Air Line, and then the Dartford Tunnel and QE2 bridge). While the Thames is 250m wide at Tower Bridge, it reaches an impressive width of 570m by the time it gets to Dartford (Rosehill, 2017). As such, it becomes a much greater undertaking to overcome the physical constraints of the river. Within this context, the Greater London Authority approved the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel in 2018 (Silvertown Tunnel, 2018). The 1.2 billion pound Thames road crossing is set to link the Greenwich Peninsula to South Silvertown via a 1.4-kilometre twin-bore road tunnel. Major Sadiq Khan argues the project will “massively reduce congestion in the area, improve air quality and support economic growth in east London” (Kahn, 2020). However, the prospect of a new car-centered cross-river connection presents a threat for many. The project has been deemed “incompatible with the Greater London Authority’s aim to become carbon-neutral by 2030”, and there is considerable doubt around the promise that congestion will be elevated by adding the tunnel to the road network (Taylor, 2020). As one activist put it, “if the tunnel is a disaster, we’re stuck with it – and its jams” (Chamberlain, 2019a). While construction has begun, momentum is building behind the campaign to “Stop The Silvertown Tunnel”. Thus, in reimagining dis/connection, we must move away from thinking connection is inherently desirable and acknowledge that infrastructures are situated within complex and non-stationary social and environmental realities.

Posters from No to Silvertown Tunnel teach-out outside of the Bartlett during UCU strike 21. February 2022 .
Image by Johara Meyer.

Temporal Dis(connections)

For one, the promise of connectivity is distinctly temporal. This becomes very clear by examining the ‘life span’ of the Blackwell tunnel. Seen as “one of the great wonders of the world” when it opened in 1897, the Blackwell tunnel facilitated horse-drawn traffic, cycling, and walking between Poplar and Greenwich with the goal of improving trade around London’s East End and the nearby docklands. However, with the arrival of motorised vehicles, it was soon overwhelmed with traffic and construction of a second Blackwall Tunnel began in 1958. Today, 125 years later, the two Blackwall Tunnels are shut close to 700 times a year due to congestion and maintenance work (No to Silvertown Tunnel, 2013a). In response, a further crossing, the Silvertown tunnel, was approved in 2018 to elevate this stress. Indeed, a third bore-tunnel crossing had already been proposed in 1989 by then Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson. However, it was never realised due to political and financial constraints. Evidently, the temporality of infrastructure matters a great deal when it comes to forging dis/connections. A tunnel can quickly outlive its promise of providing fast and ‘free flowing’ connections through socio-technical change. As Susan Lee Star highlights, infrastructures are “fixed in modular increments” and “built on an installed base” (1999, p.381-383). As such, infrastructures are never ‘finished’ products or can be deemed definitively connecting or disconnection. Rather, they have ‘social lives’ which depend on and create temporal variations in their connectivity, often throughout more-than-human lifetimes (Anand et al., 2018, p.22). Many projects turn out very different than planners first imagined them as changing social and political pressures “force alterations in their design and in their function.” (Anand et al., 2018, p.18).

While the Silvertown Tunnel promises to forge a new connection between Greenwich and West Silvertown upon ‘completion’ throughout its construction stage, it is primarily making demands on existing urban mobility structures. The construction of the tunnel portal at the southern entrance to the tunnel, in particular, is expected to cause major disruptions and closures to the existing road infrastructure for several years. While the entrance to the tunnel on the northern side is located away from existing road infrastructure, on the southern side of the entrance, the approach roads are closely entwined with the A102 highway and Blackwall tunnel approach road (as seen in Figure 1.). The Millennium Way Road was narrowed to half its width to facilitate construction, causing disruptions to the 108 and 188 bus lines. Similar closures and disruptions to the existing road infrastructure around the entrance are expected to continue until 2025 (Smith, 2021). Thus, in the process of building new connections, existing connections are slowed, divided, and re-purposed. The dis/connection binary fails to account for the often- interdependent relationship between these two conditions across space and time.


Map of area around southern entrance to proposed Silvertown Tunnel. Source: (Smith, 2021)

Infrastructures of resistance

An interesting phenomenon that has emerged from the planning process of the Silvertown Tunnel project is the role of infrastructure in generating social connections. Opposition to the project has forged an array of cross-river social bonds between residents in Newham and Greenwich, climate activist groups, MPs, and academics. The resident led “No to Silvertown Tunnel” group first began protesting the project in 2012 over air quality and congestion concerns. They took part in consultations and planning meetings as a collective and conducted their own air-quality test across East London. However, over the years, as the need to tackle the climate and ecological crisis has become increasingly prominent in the public imaginary, opposition to the project has been voiced across the whole city (No to Silvertown Tunnel, 2013b). To date, over 50 climate scientists and transport planners have issued an open letter urging Sadiq Khan to halt the project and, an array of climate action groups, including Choked Up, Mums for Lungs, Extinction Rebellion, and even the Climate Working Party of the local teacher’s union have spoken out and taken direct action against the bore-tunnel project (Chaddah, 2021). Under the name “Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition”, these groups have gathered an impressive amount of momentum, and over 2000 people now keep up to date with the initiative’s progress on Twitter. As such, a social network has emerged outside of and largely ‘disconnected’ from the official planning regime, stepping up where the official planning infrastructure failed to deliver (Simone 2004). The coalition asserts that they will “continue with community organising to bring positive changes and social justice to the residents of this long-neglected area.”. The emergence of this ‘social assembly’ resisting the project exemplifies how people’ disconnected’ from the official planning regime “constantly make claims on and form infrastructures beyond those controlled by the state” (Anand et al., 2018, p.11). In other words, “people as infrastructure” can challenge the dis/connection binary by creating their own loci of activity against the backdrop of formal infrastructures (Simone, 2004).

Heterogeneous (vulner)Abilities

Furthermore, the dis/connection binary veils heterogeneous experiences of connectivity, limiting our understanding of who can use a road and how it is allowed to be used. Even though roads are often ‘public’ infrastructure, in the case of the Silvertown tunnel, even publicly funded through tolling, the ‘public’ they are designed for is narrowly defined. Several geographers have found state mobility projects and policies often draw on bourgeois notions of belonging to determine who needs to be connected (Harvey, 2008; Smith, 1996). This has critical consequences for many ‘unrecognised’ city dwellers. As seen in the Silvertown tunnel project, children are, for instance, frequently overlooked members of the road. As vehicles spill out into the neighbourhood at both ends of the tunnel, street crossing and breathing will become notably dangerous activities for children (Gustafson, 2021). Thus, the project’s effort to make journeys across the river more efficient for drivers is likely to have debilitating effects on children’s ability to move around the streetscape. Of course, children are not always ‘disconnected’ from the road; many use road infrastructures when crossing streets or as passengers of automobiles. However, they do so with risk and difficulty that goes largely unacknowledged within a connection- disconnection paradigm. As such, children’s difficulties with road infrastructure are not a consequence of not being connected. Rather, their concerns centred around being abjected; being ignored as users of the space (Anand, 2012). However, Gustafson notes that “the (vulner)abilities of children in relation to air pollution” also give them political agency (Gustafson, 2021, p.111). Children have been uniquely good at challenging how London’s streets are allowed to be used. Fundamentally, roads are designed for people going places. However, children frequently call this rigid understanding into question by making claims to street space, such as subverting road space to play football, draw, or skate. Indeed, because of their re-purposing of the road, local authorities now have the power to temporarily prohibit traffic on roads to be used as playgrounds in London under the Road Traffic Act of 1960. Thus, viewing the politics of road infrastructures through the dis/connection binary without considering heterogeneous experiences and ‘powers’ is sure to generate simplistic conclusions. The lived experience of an infrastructures “connectedness” is highly uneven and entangled in complex ‘power geometries’. We need to pay attention in particular to vulnerabilities that are intersectional as this is frequently where infrastructural impacts are simultaneously most adverse and most often overlooked.

Maintenance, Capitalism and Disruption

Lastly, it needs to be acknowledged that achieving fast and steady motion is rendered a technical problem rather than a political one within capitalist thinking. As such, infrastructure is deemed ‘apolitical’ while it runs smoothly but ‘failing’ when disruptions occur. The Silvertown Tunnel, for instance, is set to provide an ‘express-lane’ for HGV drivers who engage in labour that enables material and financial flows in, out, and across the city (Chamberlain, 2019b). This would make it possible for consumer goods to be produced, stored, and transported in closer alignment with demand, allowing for what Harvey calls ‘just-in-time production’ (Harvey, 1989). Hence, roads can be understood as ‘infrastructures of contemporary capitalism’ producing the “stable repetition” that forms the “routine base” of the capitalist system (Thrift, 2005, p.3). However, as much as roads enable performances of capitalism, they are also integral to potential disruptions (Mitchell, 2011). Precisely because when traffic is slowed down or blocked, the road switches from being experienced as ‘connecting’ to ‘disconnecting’ activists frequently make themselves and their demands visible through engaging in connection-disrupting ‘insurgent participation’. For instance, protesters opposing the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel have frequently acted as “flow-stopers” by engaging in sit-ins and other roadblocking tactics (Harvey et al., 2017, 13). In August 2019, Extinction Rebellion ‘swarmed’ the roundabout leading onto the A102 from Woolwich Road, demanding a halt to the Silvertown Tunnel Project. In the context of disrupting road traffic, the answer to Deleuze’s question “What can a body do?” is: quite a bit! The willful disruption of traffic is a “serious annoyance” to the car-driving public, so much so that the UK government recently decided to take increased legal action against this form of protest. Under the recently passed Police Bill, activist groups like Extinction Rebellion or Insulate Britain will now face “unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to six months for obstructing highways” (Gayle, 2021). This brings to light the precarious and political nature of infrastructures like roads. The concept of binary connection or disconnection does not account for the fact that once an infrastructure facilitates connectivity, it does not just ‘naturally’ remain this way. Rather, ‘connection’ is maintained, often violently, through police powers and legal structures.

Conclusion

Examining the Silvertown Tunnel Project in East London, this essay has highlighted why we must move away from forcing complex infrastructural politics into simplistic binaries. A key shortcoming of the dichotomous understanding of dis(connection) is its disregard for temporality. Studying temporal variations in dis(connection), brought attention to a long history of ‘fixing’ congestion through additional road-crossings. This revealed how tunnel projects in East London have always been tittering between dis(connection). This finding strengthens the argument made by campaigners in “Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition” that the Silvertown tunnel will not be able to reduce congestion long-term. Similarly, as examining children’s geographies around the tunnel site showed, the ‘connectiveness’ of road infrastructures must be examined in context. For children, the Silvertown Tunnel Project does little to make journeys easier. Lastly, social and economic practices need to be recognised for the vital role they play in facilitating resistance against and maintenance of connections. Such nuances simply aren’t adequately captured by the dis/connection binary, yet they are important to understanding the politics infrastructures are submerged in and inform. Therefore, I suggest that the dis/connection binary needs to be reimagined as evolving, relational, and not necessarily formal. This may not entirely fix the inaccuracy of the binary but allows us to acknowledge that connectivity always materialises somewhere in the complex and dynamic in-between.

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