The hope is that, as we emerge from the pandemic, our high streets will return to the bustling places they were. But beneath the bustle an intense competition is taking place for access and space: walking, shopping, eating and drinking, parking, loading, sitting etc.
We’re deliberately seeking two distinct perspectives on this issue in order to illuminate it:
Mário Alves is Secretary-General of the International Federation of Pedestrians and a long-time advocate of providing good facilities for walkers. Mário will draw on work he’s doing as part of the Horizon-2020 MORE project as well as his broader experience.
John Crosk has been involved with Brewery Distribution for over 40 years. These days he is Vice Chairman of The Brewery Logistics Group (responsible for over 75% of London beer deliveries) and manages the Central London Freight Quality Partnership, which brings together London boroughs and freight operators.
Between them, our speakers know a lot about the subject under discussion and we look forward to a stimulating discussion, perhaps even a bit of a debate? Walking@Tea-Time is a joint initiative ofLondon Living Streets and the Active Travel Academy at University of Westminster
Hokman Wong (specialist brain injury solicitor at Islington firm Bolt Burdon Kemp) looks at the evidence for making streets safer with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.
Following a period of decline, road fatalities and serious injuries have plateaued from 2010. The need to improve this situation has now been in part recognised by the Department of Transport. In 2020 there were two consultations (road policing review and review of the Highway Code) on aspects of this problem.
In August 2020 I wrote about how low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) may help drive improvements in road safety and reduce road danger in Islington. Seven months on there has been a study on the effect of LTNs on road traffic injuries; and findings from Islington Council’s LTN six month monitoring report have been published. So what do these studies these tell us about how LTNs can help reduce the numbers of people killed and injured on our roads?
Islington Council LTN six month monitoring report
An LTN is an area in which “through” motor vehicle traffic is discouraged or removed. As well as reducing overall traffic levels, research has shown that LTNs can help to improve air quality, reduce noise pollution and make streets safer for people to walk and cycle and children to play.
In July 2020, Islington’s first LTN was put in place in St Peter’s Ward on an experimental basis with both residents’ and users’ views being collected during the experimental period. After an 18 month experimental period a final decision will be made. Islington Council’s six month monitoring report has been published and the key findings are:
Traffic in streets within the LTN fell overall by 57%.
Speeding (above the 20mph limit) on streets within the LTN fell by 65%.
Overall across boundary roads, total volumes of motorised traffic showed a negligible change (-2%). Traffic on one boundary road (New North Road) rose by 32%.Journey times increased by an average of 26 seconds.
There has been no significant impact on London Fire Brigade response times.
As of 1st March 2021 there have not been any reported delays in London Ambulance Service response times.
Air quality within the LTN has improved.
There has been no significant impact on anti-social behaviour and crime rates.
The findings show significant reductions in traffic levels and speeding within the LTN. Intuitively one could reasonably conclude this ought to improve road safety. The study below sheds light on whether this is the case.
The Impact of Introducing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods on Road Traffic Injuries
This study was published in January 2021. It looked at LTNs introduced in 2015 and 2016 in the London Borough of Waltham Forest and police injury data (STATS19) from 2012 to 2019. The findings were:
Inside the LTNs, injury numbers fell three fold.
There were no identifiable changes in injury numbers on the LTN boundary roads.
Analyses of fatalities and serious injuries showed similar patterns to 1) & 2) but small numbers meant changes were not statistically significant.
Traffic counts inside the LTN areas show motor vehicle trips fell by 56% from February 2014 to July 2016.
This study concluded that both absolute injury numbers and injury risk decreased substantially inside an LTN. The introduction of LTNs should be seen as an intervention that improves road safety as well as improving health through increased physical activity. Simultaneous interventions on boundary roads (e.g. building cycle tracks) may further enhance safety improvements.
The evidence above shows LTNs work to improve road safety within their boundaries. In some situations, there may be increased traffic on individual boundary roads, but this does not equate to increased numbers of injuries. Simultaneous interventions on boundary roads may counter any increased risk.
In the face of a failure to reduce the numbers of fatal and serious casualties on the UK’s road over the last decade and as traffic volumes have risen sharply on neighbourhood streets thanks to the take up of Sat-Nav technology, LTNs can be a much needed and effective tool to make our roads safer.
Emma Griffin, co-founder Footways, vice-chair London Living Streets
Central London was running at full tilt when we started work on Footways. Our network of quiet and interesting streets was designed to lure people out of crammed tubes and crawling taxis and onto streets where they could travel healthily and enjoy the city.
By the time we published our Central London Footways map with Urban Good last September, everything had changed. Footfall and spend in the centre had plummeted. London lost almost a quarter of a million jobs between March and the end of 2020, the highest fall in the UK (GLA). Arts, culture and London’s night-time economy were at particular risk.
But our network was even more relevant. People wanted the safety of distance that walking could provide. Months of lockdown strolls were already changing travel habits. According to a recent TfL report, 31% of Londoners said they are walking to places where they used to travel by a different mode.
But now we’ve got a roadmap out of the latest lockdown, we think it’s time to look further ahead – at central London’s future and the role that walking and brilliant public realm could play in that.
The next two years are critical — to bring people safely back to city centres on foot and bike; to revive the life on streets; to make most of new healthy travel habits; and to decarbonise our roads.
We’ve listed some research below to guide thinking, but tell us what you think in the comment box below.
How will your journeys into and around central London change?
How many days will you return to your central London office?
What do you miss in Zone 1 the most?
Which trips will you switch to walking? Would you walk all way from Inner London? Or the final leg from a mainline or hub station?
What needs to change in the centre to bring you back?
One prediction is that people will visit London less, but spend more time in the centre when they do, to make the most of its culture, entertainment and public spaces.
But attracting people to a “playground city” requires “more emphasis on quality of place, including the public realm”, says Arup, LSE and Gerald Eve in a recent interim report for Greater London Authority, adding that London’s rivals, especially Paris, “have taken significant action in this space already”.
We think this means much more space and amenities for people on foot, much less traffic and lower air pollution. It also requires boroughs and Transport for London to focus on the connections between destinations, as much as the destination themselves. After all, the best of London is experienced from the street.
The good news is we’re walking more
31% of Londoners say they are now walking to places where they used to travel by a different mode (TfL)
57% say they now walk more for exercise and 42% walk for longer than they did before (TfL)
But we can walk more and further
Before the pandemic, the average distance of a walk stage across all of London was just 320 metres. The average distance of a walk-all-the-way trip was 840 metres. (TfL)
Almost two-thirds of visitors to central London are Londoners, whose residence is concentrated in inner London.
Some of these journeys could be walked all the way and many can be walked the final leg from mainline stations and transport hubs.
Before Covid, approximately 3,125 people took the tube between Waterloo and Tottenham Court Road on an average weekday, a journey that could be walked in 25 happy minutes (especially on our Footways routes).
Analysis by a major employer in central London found that 9% of its 5,000 staff lived close enough to walk (in 15 minutes). A further quarter, who came from outside London into hub stations, could walk the final leg of their journeys.
The future of central London
Central London suffered more than cities such as Paris and New York largely because it has fewer residents. Just 45,000 residents live within 1.25km / 15-minute walk of Trafalgar Square, compared to 120,000 residents who live within 1.25km / 15-minute walk of Notre Dame de Paris. (Arup et al.)
The majority of central London’s workers come from inner London and many are missing the face-to-face contact of offices, events and meetings.
Almost half of the 2,000 office workers (46%) polled by British Council for Offices (BCO) said they intended to split their work between home and the office. 30% were set for a full, five-day-a-week return to the office, compared to 15% who planned to only work from home.
Creative people seem particularly keen to return to the office. Only 7% of marketeers planned to work from home full time, with 62% of this group stating they enjoy the creative exchanges that occur in the office (BCO).
But less commuting needn’t be a disaster for central London if people “save their retail and leisure spend for the days that they are in town” (Arup et al.).
This is an opportunity for central London to reimagine itself, to “cater for a new generation of experiences, for a new and improved public realm, for lower congestion, inclusive growth, improved air quality, a strengthened cultural offer, and for attracting new types of residents, whilst preserving the existing diversity” (Arup et al).
Footways prioritises connections between cultural destinations and mainline stations and hubs. Check out our walks to the British Museum, for example from Waterloo or Victoria, which merge the journey into the visit.
Footways also connects world-class public realm improvements already complete or planned including the West End Project, Cheapside, Strand Aldwych and Clerkenwell Green.
More local journeys
A mix of home and office working will also help local town centres and create an opportunity “to create a truly polycentric city … each with their own identity and specialisation” (Arup et al).
There is also possibility of increased leisure and night-time spend outside the centre, especially in inner London.
Again, walking is important, so people access and enjoy town centres on foot rather than car. More on this in a future blog.
What do you think?
Has London’s walking environment become even more important in the pandemic? How do you plan to travel in months to come? What needs to change in central London to bring people back?
London’s walking and cycling commissioner will talk about TfL’s huge efforts to enable walking during the pandemic and the plans to create walking-friendly streets and public spaces across London and although London specific this will be of value to anyone who is interested in enabling walking through their work or in the town or city where they live.
Emma Griffin of London Living Streets will continue the theme, including the “Footways” initiative to create maps of pedestrian routes on quiet, low traffic routes – now extending beyond central London.
We will start off with a presentation and then move on to a Q&A/discussion with a mix of questions already submitted and questions on the evening. If you do have a question to pose in advance email us on email@example.com and we will do our best to make sure that it is covered on the evening.
6pm – Welcome from Katja Stille , Chair UDG and introduction by David Harrison LLS.
Will Norman, Walking and Cycling Commissioner for London on Walking in London
Emma Griffin, London Living Streets on the Ambition for walking in London and the power of walking networks (Footways)
There has been a huge amount written about the 15-minute city with the emphasis on glamorous city centres in global cities. The reality though is that the 15-minute city is perhaps less likely to find its fullest expression in those city centres where relatively few people live than in local urban high streets and town centres.
When we add the impact of the pandemic, with more people working from home and making use of local shops and services, these local centres have even greater potential to become the heroes of sustainable living.
Hokman Wong (specialist brain injury solicitor at Islington firm Bolt Burdon Kemp) looks at road safety in Islington and making streets safer with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.
Road traffic collisions are the main cause of severe traumatic brain injury in people aged 10 to 50.
Every day I work on cases involving brain injuries. I see the profound effect brain injury has on a person’s life and those around them. Knowing what I know about road traffic collisions and brain injuries, I realise the importance of improving road safety. Since I became a father two years ago, I’ve felt even more passionate about making streets safer for little ones, and big ones too.
One of the few benefits of lockdown has been the quietness of the streets in my neighbourhood. Without motor traffic, people thronged into them as never before: families walking and cycling, teenagers skateboarding, children on scooters – all enjoying the empty roads. As the buds on the trees burst into leaf, and the spring air filled with birdsong, it seemed as if the area had become a park. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if we could keep this when lockdown ended. Would it be possible to create a ‘Street Park’: a collection of streets where people feel it is as safe and pleasant to walk and cycle as in a park?
While I was mulling this over, in mid May, Transport for London launched Streetspace for London – a programme to create more space on roads so people can walk or cycle while social distancing. Looking at the documents TfL posted online, I saw it had carried out some impressive research. Among the maps was one showing areas of London, marked in blue, where the street layout creates conditions for rat running.
Transport for London would like to transform these areas into emergency low-traffic neighbourhoods – places where councils could quickly install low-cost objects such as planters to remove rat-running motor traffic. To make it happen, local councils need to bid to TfL for the money, but many will only bid if they feel the scheme has local support.
Will people get excited enough about low traffic neighbourhoods to ask their councillors for one? While the concept is great, the term itself is about as appealing as ‘low-calorie diet’. You don’t immediately think “that sounds nice”. As a low-traffic neighbourhood is almost identical to a street park, I wondered if the term ‘Street Park’ would work better. The only way to find out was to put it to the test.
Based on the rat-running areas TfL has identified in Ealing, I’ve mapped out 13 potential ‘street parks’. On average, it would require about five bicycle filters and one bus filter to create each of these areas. That’s about 200 planters – not a lot of money to reduce pollution for thousands of people.
While street parks have lots of benefits, it’s important to acknowledge their down side. The modal filters that remove rat-running traffic can make some car journeys longer for residents. In the past, this has been a major objection to low-traffic neighbourhoods. However, after experiencing the joy of quiet streets in the last two months, many people don’t want a return to busy roads.
In the past few weeks I’ve presented this idea to several different groups, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People immediately get the idea of street parks. Why wouldn’t you want a park in your area? I’ve also sent it to my local council. At the time of writing, I hear they are bidding for at least two of the schemes, hopefully they will bid for more. The results of these bids will be announced around 18th June and there will be be a further funding opportunity for councils judged to have used the initial funding well.
TfL is aiming to fund street parks (‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’) all across London. So why not ask your local councillors for one in your area.
Dido Penny recalls life in one of London’s pioneer low traffic neighbourhoods and looks forward to seeing the benefits as Councils are asked to re-prioritise people over traffic our streets.
A few years ago I shared a flat on De Beauvoir Square in Dalston with a couple of friends. We were lucky in lots of ways – the flat had lots of natural light, views of the square, and a big living area that was great for parties. It even had a tiny garden. But one of the best things about living there was that we didn’t really need a garden at all with the square only a few yards away. We spent a lot of time out there in the summer – picnic breakfasts, afternoons lying in the sun and early evening cocktails where we would take it in turns to run in and get ice. We weren’t the only ones who loved it- most people who lived on the square seemed to spend a lot of time there and it was rarely empty.
There are lots of reasons why De Beauvoir works so well as a community space. There is a summer fair and various other events (such as the annual dog show), and an active neighbourhood association. And the square is well maintained, with a playground, lots of trees and a rose garden, as well as being a beautiful space to begin with.
But one of the main reasons that people treat it as an extension of their homes is the almost complete lack of any traffic. The whole De Beauvoir area is well filtered; it’s possible to access any street by car, but there are only a few designated through routes without modal filters. So although there are parked cars on the square, and a stream of commuting cyclists for a few hours every day, it’s pretty much car free. It is a real example of how much more pleasant pedestrian areas are, and how a lack of traffic makes people feel that they own the space around their houses and spend more time outside. There were so many things people wouldn’t do if the square was a busy roundabout – picnicking on the grass only a few yards from the road, chatting to their neighbours in the street, letting dogs off their leads or children play in the playground supervised from a distance.
I now live in central Hackney, and though I love the area, there is much less sense of communal space. But walking around the area during the lockdown when there was very little traffic save the occasional delivery van, I noticed that many people seemed to be using the space around their houses in a way that reminded me of De Beauvoir. On my daily walks around familiar streets, people were outdoors much more than they would be in normal times. I noticed several families on the same street washing their cars together, and chatting to each other from across the road (from a safe distance!). People were sitting in the little front yards between their houses and the pavement. I saw one couple having brunch on a table they had set up on the pavement outside their front door, complete with prosecco. The lack of any traffic didn’t just make the streets quieter and the air cleaner, but seemed to create a different atmosphere for the residents as well. On a sunny weekend it felt like this was one of the few positives in this strange situation.
Of course this is partly because many people were not at work and children not at school, and parks were either shut or limited to exercise. In an area where most flats have a small balcony at best, people were improvising to find ways to relax in the sun. But it was also a consequence of there being virtually no traffic to the extent that the streets felt pretty much pedestrianised. The streets in my area are in fact fairly well filtered already and set back from main roads. But despite this the streets normally feel just slightly too busy, and the risk of speeding cars is too real for them to feel truly safe.
In the past couple of weeks since the lockdown has been relaxed, it seems that unfortunately the traffic is returning to normal and I’ve noticed far fewer people using their front gardens and porches and the green spaces next to the blocks of flats. But the nearest park to me is very busy on weekday evenings and weekends as it’s now officially OK to meet friends outside. It seems that just a slight increase in traffic- or even just the perception that people will be driving again – makes quite a big difference. Reducing the number of cars in a residential area can have a big impact on the way people perceive and use the space around them.
The lockdown has also given many a renewed appreciation of their local area- I certainly found that being limited to where I could walk within an hour made me very grateful for the local shops and green spaces. And the importance of a local community and support network has proved to be of real value during the lockdown. Much has been written about how the Covid Mutual Aid groups have connected neighbours and created support networks ready to help those self-isolating. Even the weekly clap for Care Workers has meant that people feel more connected to their neighbours- in some cases actually seeing them for the first time. It would be a really positive outcome if this sense of community could be maintained and built upon.
Having read a little about the history of De Beauvoir square and why it is such a successful low traffic neighbourhood, I learned that the measures to prioritise pedestrians were a result of a long campaign from the local residents in the late 60s and early 70s. Following years of pressure on the council and demonstrations where residents blocked the roads, they succeeded in making most of the area filtered to traffic. It’s a virtuous circle where a determined group of people created a desirable area to live, which itself continues to foster a strong community spirit. I hope that the few weeks of lockdown, which, though so difficult in many ways, give residents in Hackney and other areas a sense of what the area could be like without cars, and that this is something worth fighting for.
What’s exciting is that changes are already happening. Hackney Council have already closed Broadway Market to traffic, and on the 22nd May announced three further road closures. This is in addition to the 120 road closures proposed in Hackney as part of the London wide StreetSpace plan. This is one of many reasons why Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which many London Boroughs are now installing, and attractive low pollution walking routes such as the Central London Walking Network, are so important. Streets that prioritise pedestrians are not only safer and healthier, but also more fun to live in and encourage a sense of community.
Robert Molteno examines the risk that walking may continue to be overlooked as active travel is prioritised.
We are living in a moment of great expectation. Almost every day news comes that this or that borough is taking measures to widen pavements for pedestrians so they can keep proper ‘social distance’, or to take carriageway space and turn it into a protected ‘pop up’ cycle route, or even to exclude traffic entirely from some neighbourhood road prone to ‘rat running’ in order to make it safe for people on foot or cycling. The Borough of Croydon has even invented the novel idea of ‘exercise streets’; volunteer residents can get rapid Council permission to close a section of their street to traffic for a couple of hours a day in order to give people safe space to exercise.
And the hope is rising among some that today’s ‘temporary’ will be so enjoyed by people that it becomes tomorrow’s ‘permanent’. And that we really will, as Grant Shapps MP, the Transport Secretary said when introducing his Department’s Paper, Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge, back in March “use our cars less, and public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities.” And six weeks later on 9 May, when his Department issued its Covid-19 Guidance to all local authorities on how they should act urgently, as the return to work accelerates, to support walking and cycling as the main way of making short trips, he was even more forthright: “We recognise this moment for what it is: a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities.”
But before we get taken over by a surfeit of optimism, let us ask the question:
Is Walking really the ‘poor relation’ of other transport modes?
Let’s think about it for a moment.
How many politicians get up and say things like ‘We must look after our residents on foot’? Or ‘we promise to spend £X billion on our country’s footways.’ Or ‘we will deliver benches on high streets and in town centres where people can pause and chat’. Do local councillors ever put in their election manifestos: ‘Countdown displays at all signalised crossings to reassure people of all ages and abilities they have time to get across the road safely.’ ‘Arrival indicators at every bus stop so even people without smart phones know how long they have still got to wait (just like on a train platform!)’.
Or try Googling ‘The UK’s national walking strategy’, and see what you get!Or, rather, don’t get. Successive UK governments have had Road strategies, and strategies for Rail, Air Travel, Freight, and so on. Even buses got promised a new National Bus Strategy in September 2019 though it hasn’t appeared yet. But Walking? – only in Scotland has this been thought of.
At local level, very few London boroughs have Walking Strategies, even as more of them, quite rightly, are developing explicit Cycling Strategies. These days many London boroughs do have Active Travel Strategies. But take a look, and you’ll find they are usually talking mainly about Cycling, certainly when it comes to projects (often with catchy names), or actual sums committed, or timetables for delivery.
How many local authorities even bother to count pedestrians? Counting people on overflowing narrow pavements. Counting people waiting way beyond 30 seconds at signalised crossings for the Green Man. Or, worse, counting commuters and shoppers having to thread their way through the traffic because there is no nearby crossing on the road at all. Transport for London (TfL) counts pedestrians in some places, but certainly doesn’t count any of these things. I remember only four years ago when TfL started its Better Junctions Review, its traffic modelling did not include pedestrian statistics as a relevant variable. Indeed has this really changed in the world of traffic modelling even now? Only the City of London makes a point of being consistently serious about actually counting us pedestrians, and making us increasingly the primary focus of its transport policy-making.
Walking remains the Cinderella of transport policy. And not just policy, but projects and spending too. The attitude to pedestrians of too many highway engineers, even transport planners, and their political masters seems long to have been: ‘Everyone walks, don’t they? Like we all breathe. Pavements exist. And what if people have to share them with cars parked on them, as happens everywhere outside London. So, job done. Or pretty much so.’
The hard evidence – how a century of car hegemony has transformed our urban road infrastructure
The evidence of the marginalisation of Walking in policymakers’ minds is the urban road system we are now living with. Let’s just consider:
The volume of motor traffic: One statistic will do. In the 1950s when I was a boy, there were only about four million vehicles on the road. Today in Britain, it’s approaching 40 million, and in London alone, 14% of households actually have two or more cars! In simple geometry terms, the authorities are beginning to realize that that number simply cannot fit into the ‘pint pot’ of our urban road space.
Collisions and Road Deaths: Another statistic! In the United States, that epicentre of the car culture, by the early 1970s, over 50,000 Americans were being killed on the roads every year – more than the entire number of US casualties during the Vietnam War. And the cause? The refusal of the car industry to design safety into their cars, and the issue of speed limits.
Speed Limits too high: When the first steam-powered vehicles appeared on the roads in this country in the late 19th century, Parliament required a man with a red flag walking in front of them! But almost immediately, a change was demanded: by 1903 the speed limit had risen to 20mph. And in 1930 the Road Traffic Act abolished speed limits altogether. Only the soaring number of road deaths that immediately resulted led five years later to a speed limit being reimposed, but this time 30mph in built-up areas, a limit that is still with us today. Over the past decade, the extraordinary 20’s Plentyfor Usnationwide campaign led by Rod King has begun to undo this damage, but there are still many boroughs, particularly in Outer London, which still do not recognise the incompatibility of urban living with 30+mph speed limits. It is pedestrians who are primarily paying the price – in 2018 in London, over 50% of all road deaths were people on foot.
The sorry story of speed bumps: Some local authorities, my own Borough of Wandsworth included, turned wholesale to building speed bumps as the method of speed enforcement, but an outcry from motorists gathered force. The height of bumps was often reduced, and their shape changed to allow vehicles a smoother ride! The result? Less adherence to speed limits; more deaths and injuries of people not actually travelling in the vehicle.
Carriageway architecture: This is a whole subject in itself. So just a couple of examples of changes introduced to facilitate drivers not having to slow down. At road intersections, the geometry of kerbside corners was loosened to enable motorists to turn into and out of side roads with less slowing down. And another intersection innovation – the roundabout. Great for drivers in a hurry, dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.
Pavements –the strange case of the disappearing space: The priority for decades has been ‘smoothing traffic flows’. One thing that meant was maximising carriageway space – wider traffic lanes, more lanes. And the only way to do that was whittling away pavement widths. And when that meant pedestrians on crowded pavements having to step out on to the carriageway, what did the engineers do? Introduce endless guardrails to hem them in. And that’s not to mention all the signage, speed limit notices and parking notices, and now Electric Vehicle charging points, all situated not on the carriageway, but on the pedestrians’ very own pavements!
Pedestrian Crossings –under siege: This is another whole subject! In London, back in 2010 we experienced Mayor Boris Johnson’s cull of signalised crossings, also in the interests of ‘smoothing traffic flows’; some 300 were abolished. Local authorities create a mountain of obstacles about installing any new crossing – in my borough of Wandsworth, residents have to prove that the number of people killed or seriously injured on a particular stretch of road must exceed a defined threshold before Officers will even consider building a new crossing. And Wait Times for pedestrians are another scandal – people on foot, including commuters in a hurry, can be made to wait up to two minutes at some signalised crossings before being allowed to cross.
And where to put all those 38 million vehicles? Here the authorities face an insoluble dilemma. Most owners of cars in built-up areas do not live in accommodation where they can park their cars off-street. Take the example of Wandsworth again, of the 90,000 registered vehicles, 65,000 of them are parked on the street. That’s an unsightly nuisance, on occasion a danger, for local residents. But the fact that Wandsworth’s parked cars take up 18% of the available road space is a very curse for drivers – more parked cars means less carriageway space; less carriageway space means slower possible speeds and more congestion. In many places, particularly outside London, the law has come up with an extraordinary ‘solution’ – pavements stop being only for pedestrians; instead they become shared space between them and parked cars. Allowing vehicles to park up on the pavement is a leading example of car-centric policymaking.
And all those human activities that no longer happened on our streets: Children playing football, cricket, or other games on traffic-free residential roads – a sight common in the 1950s. Street markets and barrows. The street being a place where people wanted to be, if only to socialize and chat.
All these dimensions and examples of car-centric urban road design and policy show just how marginalised walking has become as a mode of transport people want and can enjoy doing in our country today.
But we must not disable ourselves in a sea of pessimism.
Perhaps Covid-19 will transform the place of Walking fundamentally? Grounds for hope.
That is indeed the hope of some of us. And there are certainly straws in the wind that can raise our spirits.
Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of what the future could be like: Quiet skies over West London (Heathrow has even closed one of its two runways). No more purplish haze of filthy air hanging low over Central and Inner London for the spring sun to light up each morning. Above all, unbelievably peaceful, untrafficked streets, easy to cross, and much safer for everyone on foot or cycling (the tide of traffic, however, is flowing in again as the lockdown unwinds).
The Climate Emergency: That is simply not going to go away. The science in unanswerable. Action is embedded in law. Public opinion is engaged. The Department for Transport (DfT) has declared in March that it must now draw up an effective game plan to get to Zero Carbon across the whole transport sector – ie all modes of travel. The Department had intended, pre-Covid-19, to bring out the new national policy by the end of this year. Let’s see.
The sudden, very recent realisation that public transport can only move about 10-15% of normal commuter numbers if people are to be able to ‘social distance’ safely. And since the epidemic may have a long tail, many people will, quite rightly, fear using buses, trains, let alone the London Underground, for many months to come, perhaps even years. Once again, Grant Shapps MP, the Transport Secretary, has been centre stage. On 9 May he announced a hugely accelerated programme to make it possible and safe for many more people to walk and cycle to work, to school with their children, and the local shops. And so avoid public transport. And avoid the nightmare scenario of even more people using their cars to make short journeys than before the epidemic, or others now acquiring a car where before they didn’t have one – with unimaginable consequences for traffic gridlock, poisonous air quality, road danger, and the quality of urban life generally. ‘Over 40% of urban journeys are under two miles,’ Shapps pointed out. ‘The Coronavirus has had a terrible impact on [our] lives, but it has also resulted in cleaner air and quieter streets, transforming the environment in many of our towns and cities…. Millions of people have discovered, or rediscovered, cycling and walking…. When the country gets back to work, we need them to carry on cycling… [and] pedestrians will need more space….’
The Streetspace Planfor London: To give practical effect to what the Department for Transport is calling for, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have moved fast to develop the measures they will take on the roads that they manage, as well as setting up a Fund the boroughs can now apply to in order to do similarly on the roads they are responsible for.
The job ahead – making over our urban roads to enable Walking and Cycling again
The brutal reality remains. Only when our political leaders and the transport professionals really take on board how three generations of car-centric road building, road design, and transport policy have deformed what is by far the largest part of our public realm, will the era of the marginalisation of walking and cycling as transport modes in our urban areas begin to be ended. The task is no less than undoing that legacy of infrastructure and policy distortion that the past century of motor vehicle hegemony has wrought. Government and local authorities must invest serious money, year by year, in doing that. Only then will we be able to say that the marginalisation of walking and cycling is coming to an end.
Pollution – exhaust from cars, motorbikes, vans and lorries – affects us all. But some of us more than others.
I had asthma when I was a very young child, it went away and I forgot about it. It suddenly came back when I was 32, just over a year ago.
I went from being someone who had finally got really fit and cycling everywhere, to struggling to breathe just walking down a street.
I noticed immediately that if I was walking along pavements on busy streets it felt so much harder to breathe – just walking as I normally would, let alone cycle.
This pandemic has been an awful thing, but one silver lining that everyone seems to agree on is how much fresher the air feels, that we can hear birdsong all day, and that people are taking to walking around the part of the city they live in and even getting out a bike for the first time in years.
Some people are scared to cycle in traffic, some people can’t breathe when they are in traffic. And if there’s one thing we could take away from this terrible time is that we can choose to have cleaner, safer streets and have the cleaner air all the time. It has huge health benefits for everyone, not just people with lung disease.
I commend the building of cycle superhighways, but for people with lung issues, it’s not enough as these superhighways are all placed along the roads with the worst traffic. It’s not enough for children, and it’s not enough for people who feel a bit nervous about cycling.
What we need is a network of car and pollution free roads across London which allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross the whole city without breathing in dangerous fumes and being afraid of cars.
As we rebuild our lives after Covid, it seems that there is support for this network to prevent gridlock on the roads and dangerous overcrowding on public transport. Let’s build upon the ideas in the Mayor’s StreetSpace Plan and London Living Streets’ Central London Walking Network to make this a reality.