By David Harrison, vice-chair, London Living Streets
Remember the tube strike in 2017? Full buses and angry and bewildered passengers in long queues at bus stops. I don’t blame them, but many seemed unaware that they could have easily walked to their destination.
Important locations in Central London are often separated by just a short walk. Consider the area round Covent Garden: it’s a 15-minute walk for commuters from Waterloo Station to Covent Garden; about the same for culture vultures to get from the National Gallery to the British Museum along St Martin’s Lane.
But there is a problem. Most of our street space is given over to motor traffic and parking. On Upper St Martin’s Lane there can be four lanes of southbound traffic. This means that most of the obvious routes are just not pleasant for pedestrians.
This is a major issue of social justice. Only 90,000 vehicles enter the congestion charge zone every day. In contrast, the daytime population of Westminster is around two million, half a million in the City of London and more in Camden, Islington, Southwark and Lambeth. These are also places where people live and where children go to school.
Why are people on foot treated so badly? More importantly, is there a remedy?
We think there is one – though it has the somewhat long-winded title of the Central London Walking Network (CLWN). The idea proposes relatively direct, historic, characterful routes, which should be changed into delightful places to walk by reducing the level of traffic, widening pavements, reducing parking, introducing planting and seating, perhaps in the form of parklets. We know people are much more willing to walk if it is more enjoyable than other options.
A start has been made in transforming Central London. Camden’s West End Project is turning the jumble of roads near Tottenham Court Road into some superb new public spaces, including Princes Circus. Camden Council has also won funding to develop major improvements in Holborn, hopefully including Great Queen Street, the gateway to Covent Garden. Significant changes were made in Trafalgar Square 15 years ago, and Westminster City Council has plans to transform the Strand in front of Somerset House and King’ College London. But these great developments need to be linked with equally superb walking routes.
There needs to be access for motor vehicles to businesses, homes and theatres on smaller historic streets, but through-traffic can be stopped. Some of this work is already underway. South of St Pancras Station, improvements are being made around Judd St and Brunswick Square. Further south is the much-loved historic Lambs Conduit Street that is largely car-free with an attractive street surface. A direct route to Lincolns Inn Field and the Law Courts on the Strand lies ahead. Unfortunately, it is along Red Lion St, dominated by traffic with narrow pavements, but this can readily be remedied.
People ask where the motor traffic travelling through the area will go. The answer is on the main roads. In Victorian and Edwardian times, London had its equivalent of Paris’s Baron Hausmann: it was called the Metropolitan Board of Works. To socially cleanse (remove ‘slums’) and increase capacity for road traffic, a large number of new roads were smashed through London. Examples include Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue (1870s) and Aldwych and Kingsway (1900s), the latter involved the destruction of 600 historic properties (only the Old Curiosity Shop in Portugal Street survives). These streets are wider and were designed to take traffic.
The benefits of the CLWN are huge. It will create a network of clean, safe, quiet, and interesting streets for residents, workers and visitors, promoting an increase in active travel and healthy lifestyles and an alternative to an overcrowded tube.
Moreover, an attractive walking environment will present London as world-class city where people want to visit, live, work and learn and help it compete with other capitals which are creating fabulous public realms.
Fortunately, the benefits are being recognised. The concept is supported by Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner. Camden Council has adopted the routes in its Transport Strategy, and we are now gaining support from other local authorities.
For more information and to see some sample routes, visit our Central London Walking Network page. Share your ideas for great walking routes in Central London by commenting below and tell us what you think needs to change to make walking more enjoyable in Central London.
Also come to our conference, organised with Urban Design Group, on 28 November 2019 at 1.30pm, Alan Baxter Architects, 70 Cowcross Street to discuss the idea further. Sign up here.