How Transport Shapes a City: An Historical View of the Royal Borough of Greenwich

Transport conferences, or as they are commonly referred to these days, ‘future mobility’ conferences, are becoming increasingly exciting. They are an opportunity to discuss and dissect a range of technologies and innovations, from self-driving cars to fleets of robo-taxis. The buzz and excitement of such environments and the technological novelties being exhibited propels one’s imagination, sometimes far beyond today’s realities, and into a perfect world of the future.

In these instances it can be easy to forget the importance of transport history and how it affects the life and development of a city today. To better understand this, we take a look at the past, reflecting on how transport has been changing Greenwich over the centuries and how these forces continue to impact the Borough.

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Historical context

The Royal Borough of Greenwich constitutes three town centres: Eltham, Greenwich and Woolwich. Eltham developed around the Royal Palace and progressively lost its importance to Greenwich as the court moved closer to the River Thames and London. Whilst Greenwich developed steadily from the 15th century and became a naval centre, Eltham remained a suburban area until the 20th century. Due to its increasing industrial and military relevance, Woolwich began to expand in the 16th century, with a growing population working at the dockyards, military garrisons and weapon manufacturing facilities. During the First World War Woolwich reached its largest size, with over 70,000 people employed in the factories associated with its industrial site, commonly referred to as the Royal Arsenal. After the war, its importance began to decline and in the 1960s it finally closed.

This  historical overview, while brief, is relevant for understanding how the Borough’s public transport system developed over time, and what challenges it leaves for us today. Below is a breakdown of some of the Borough’s key transport developments, and the positive and negative impacts they have brought with them.


There are three railway lines passing through the Borough, all providing fast connections to Central London. The Greenwich – London connection was the first metropolitan railway line in London, opened in 1840 to connect London Bridge to Greenwich. It allowed people to commute into London and provided Londoners the opportunity to access and enjoy Greenwich. The line was later extended to Woolwich and two additional lines crossing the Borough were also developed in the 1800s, connecting Kent to Central London.

Positive Impacts: Fast and direct travel links were developed towards central London.

Negative Impacts: No provision was made for any fast North-South travel links.

Trams and buses

The current bus network in the Borough developed over time, on the back of a historic tram network. Trams – first horse-drawn (1870) and later electrified (1908) – provided mass transit for workers of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Trams connected Woolwich to Abbey Wood, Eltham, Bexley and later, Charlton and Greenwich. This enabled workers to commute from the housing estates that were often built on green fields. The tram network was replaced after the war with trolley buses and later with buses by London Transport (predecessor of Transport for London [TfL]). This happened primarily to replace the old tram tracks as vehicles would have been too expensive and the existing service operated very noisily. The benefits of increased flexibility were also part of the reason behind this decision, since bus networks are easier to change and extend, unlike fixed tram links. The last tram in London stopped operating in 1952 on a journey from Woolwich to New Cross.

Positive Impacts: An extended bus network developed in the Borough, with many of the lines going through Woolwich Town Centre.

Negative Impacts: As buses share the road with other vehicles, they are slower and operate with less predictable travel times than rail-based modes.

River crossing

Whilst travelling to Central London along the river has been made relatively simple, a major barrier to North-South integration with other parts of the city has been the River Thames. London could not shift residential or industrial activities South of the river from the East End because of it, something that significantly contributed to how the city developed. Towards the end of the 19th century a number of projects took place, directly benefiting people and businesses in Greenwich. Keeping with the traditions of a river crossing, a steam ferry started operating in Woolwich in 1889. A few years later, Tower Bridge (the closest bridge crossing to Greenwich to date) opened in 1894, providing a fixed connection for both people and goods. The Blackwall tunnel opened in 1897 (with a second tunnel opening in 1967 to meet increasing demands), providing another fixed access across the Thames. Finally, foot tunnels were constructed both at Greenwich (1902) and at Woolwich (1912), allowing pedestrians and cyclists to cross the river.

Positive Impacts: Some level of river crossing developed within the Borough.

Negative Impacts: The capacity was insufficient, as the tunnel and ferry were not able to create cross-river integration.

Where does this leave us?

These historical patterns and developments continue to define transport in Greenwich today, even with the significant efforts made over the last two decades. The Jubilee line crossing North Greenwich, the DLR, Thames Clippers and Crossrail all provide rapid links to Central London, but their reach does not extend everywhere in the Borough.

Without rapid North-South links, in many areas of the Borough people depend on their cars to get around, having less opportunities to benefit from what London has to offer. For instance, it can take longer to travel from the South of the Borough to the O2 than it does from the other side of London. And for those cutting through the Borough to access London from the South East of England, crossing the river can be a challenge as the Blackwall Tunnel is one of London’s (and the UK’s) most congested roads, causing delays as well as air pollution in the Borough.  

What does the future hold?

Many future solutions are likely to be found in those buzzing transport conferences. Indeed, we are already seeing innovative tests and pilot services being rolled out around the world. However, we need to make sure that implementing these new technologies addresses two crucial factors: the existing needs of citizens, and the potential future implications on the whole of the city. Only by doing this correctly will we ensure that the future of transport shapes the city in a way that is beneficial for all.