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Civil Engineer blog

How do we make the Thames into a river highway?

12 February 2018

Almost 90% of freight in London is moved by road. The river Thames could add much needed extra capacity.

How do we make the Thames into a river highway?

The River Thames is at the heart of London. While many of us walk past it or across it weekly, if not daily, the role it could play as a transportation method is often overlooked. It's time to change this.

Water transportation offers many benefits, not least because barges are estimated to produce between a fifth and one third of the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo carried, compared to the equivalent journey by lorry. As well as lowering the city's carbon footprint, harnessing the river will ease congestion, reduce the need for road maintenance, and improve cyclist and pedestrian safety.

When we consider how much traffic there is on London's roads, moving the heaviest vehicles onto the river seems obvious.

While I don't doubt that developing the Thames into a useful river highway has its difficulties, it's a vital step necessary to reduce emissions and traffic congestion.

Our 'green highway'

At Cory Riverside Energy we've been operating a fleet on the Thames to transport fuel in London for over 100 years, beginning with coal, before moving to oil, and now residual waste.

Our unique use of the river as a 'green highway' for waste means we can remove an average of 100,000 truck journeys and save around 13,500 tonnes of carbon a year.

How can London make better use of the Thames?

Despite the potential benefits, London clearly isn't using the river to its full potential. Given London has some of the most congested roads of any European city, with air pollution on some roads breaching annual limits in a matter of days, it's surprising that the opportunity to better leverage the river, and provide a quick and sustainable improvement in the quality of environment and life for Londoners, has largely been overlooked.

Moving freight traffic from the roads onto the river is a move that is entirely possible. The River Seine in Paris is a perfect example – for the past five years one of France's biggest convenience stores has been using the river to ship its stock throughout the city.

The same could be achieved in London with a little thought and application of effort.

Freight is the easiest modal shift to achieve. Freight is typically less time sensitive than passenger traffic, less sensitive to the transit time, and people are harder to persuade to adopt modal change – we only have to look at the difficulties there have been in moving people from cars to buses, and road to rail.

Nonetheless to transform the Thames into an efficient river highway for freight, there are some hurdles to overcome.

What kind of actions are needed?

London has only a very limited number of fully operational wharves in the central areas. Without this infrastructure for boats to dock, a modal shift of London's traffic cannot be considered.

That wharves that London still has need to remain protected from potential projects which change their use. All the wharves under threat from redevelopment should be limited to developments that only use the air rights, allowing the existing operational quayside and vehicle access to remain.

The new development proposed at Cringle Dock is a good example. Through working collaboratively with the Western Riverside Waste Authority (WRWA) and the Battersea Power Station developer, we've been able to help co-create a residential opportunity for the developer that also enables the renewal and continued use of one of inner London's wharves and important waste transfer stations.

Given that London is becoming increasingly overcrowded, enhancing our wharves in ways like this will contribute to the much-needed housing and office space while still invigorating the necessary infrastructure to serve the needs of London's river traffic.

How can London boost river use?

Developing a freight-friendly River Thames is important but challenging. To create the wharves, cranes, and river fleet to carry much of London's freight there is an urgent need for investment and collaboration between industry, regulators, local authorities and politicians.

London mayor Sadiq Khan recently highlighted the role the Thames can play in his London Plan, recognising that water transport is one of the most sustainable modes for freight. In addition, the PLA, the GLA, and TfL are already looking at the feasibility and coordination needed to develop this strategy. But it needs to turn into action and encourage investment and investors.

This is exactly what we intend to spur on at our forthcoming roundtable as part of ICE's 'Energy, resilience & climate change' campaign – by getting the necessary parties together to discuss why, how and when we can make this vision a reality.

It's a big vision but one that offers a huge benefit to London's road users, residents, and businesses. And through collaboration it is certainly one we can and should achieve.