by David Harrison, Islington Living Streets and vice-chair of London Living Streets
London’s pavements have long been an obstacle course. It is hard to walk more than a few feet without encountering a post or box or something larger.
Some street furniture is, of course, useful: lampposts and benches spring to mind. Some is useful but poorly sited: we need bus stops, but not where their footprint dominates the pavement.
Utilities take up a fair amount of space. Phone boxes have been increasingly installed as advertising sites under permitted development rights – which Ministers have failed to scrap despite pleas from councils. Things might get worse. The press has reported that the Secretary of State for Transport wants utilities to dig up pavements, not streets, so as not to slow down motorists.
Indeed, most of the clutter on streets is associated with the motor car. Long ago it was decided not only that cars would dominate the carriageway and own the kerbside for parking, but that pedestrians would have to suffer all the paraphernalia thought necessary for driving: giant road signs, the endless posts which record parking restrictions, and the machines for paying for parking.
Recently a new and even larger impediment has been appearing all over London. Electric vehicle (EV) charging points (point is definitely a misnomer) are making life even more difficult for pedestrians, especially wheelchair users and wheelers of buggies.
Of course, with almost 10,000 deaths per year in London due to long-term exposure to air pollution, and with motor vehicles the major cause of poor air quality, it seems a good idea to replace dirty diesels and petrol vehicles with clean electric ones. To do this the Government is encouraging local authorities and others to install an infrastructure of charging points, but it has given no thought to the consequences for pedestrians.
Some installations may also not be compatible with equality legislation, that requires anyone looking after the street environment, including private companies, to eliminate obstructions for disabled people.
From time to time, pious expressions are made about the need to reduce street clutter, but they are readily ignored in practice. My ward — Mildmay in Islington — has some of the worst new installations. St Paul’s Place is so wide that parking places are set at right angles to the pavement on one side, still leaving more than enough room for two large vehicles to pass. Even so, the charging points are on a narrow pavement. Round the corner, in Mildmay Grove North, the charging points are placed on an even narrower pavement though the parking spaces in the street are never full.
Like so much other pavement clutter, these installations are unnecessary. It is perfectly feasible to install them on the road. This is done in Paris, and there are a few places where this has been done in Islington. A diagram drawn by Susan Claris at Arup shows how it can be done.
Hierarchy of locations
There is some good news. At the recent, well-attended Islington Healthy Streets Hustings organised by Cycle Islington and Islington Living Streets, all the candidates committed to putting new charging points on the road. This included Councillor Webbe, who has once again been appointed the Cabinet Lead for the Environment and Transport. We must ensure both that the next wave of charging points is on the road, and that many of the recently installed ones are moved.
Even better, charging points could go in public car parks or locations such as supermarkets, shopping centres and petrol filling stations.
We suggest a hierarchy of locations for charging infrastructure. Pavements should be the last resort and only suitable if a minimum 2.5 metre width is left for sociable walking.
- Off-road locations such as car parks, supermarkets, shopping centres
- The carriageway
- The pavement if a 2.5 metre width remains
EV not a panacea
But even where charging points are on the road or car park, we must appreciate that electric vehicles are not a panacea. The electricity which powers them is not all generated by clean electricity. Streets will still be dominated by motor vehicles, and children unable to play or cycle in them. Pedestrian and cyclists will remain at risk, and still likely to suffer high levels of deaths and injuries. Sitting in an electric vehicle will do nothing to address the obesity epidemic and diseases associated with this and lack of exercise. Electric vehicles will not by themselves remove the vast amounts of unnecessary ‘black top’ which disfigures our public realm.
Finally, there is a question of equity. Government support for EV charging infrastructure and the purchase of electric vehicles is a large subsidy to the well-off who are buying them. Given that almost three-quarters of households in boroughs like Islington do not own a car, surely social justice demands that money be spent on the many, not the few.
At present, users of bike hangars are paying over £100 per year to park their bikes. There is also need for more zebra crossings and safer junctions in the borough. The money the Government is giving to subsidise the electric car industry might be better spent on any of the above or, best of all, on a few bollards to create low-traffic neighbourhoods, such as in Walthamstow where through-traffic is removed and streets returned to residents.