Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Jubilee - Where did it all go right?

The Jubilee. What a disaster. Road closures. People unable to get around. Businesses going bust. Shops running short of stock. Food rotting in warehouses.

That's what should be happening in London in 2012, given that - as TfL are so fond of telling us - we're so dependent on the road network operating at maximum capacity and traffic flow is so critical.

But surprisingly, everything seems somehow...normal. Only better. The road closures around Buckingham Palace, St Pauls Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster have enabled people to appreciate these historic buildings in a much more pleasant environment than the usual noise, pollution and danger that surrounds them. The public space has been dedicated to events that make people appreciate everything that is great about London. I bet tourists are more likely to return as a result, and local people are loving their city more.

While no doubt some businesses have experienced logistical problems, in general the economy is expected to be boosted by £1bn as a result of the Jubilee and Olympics.

The fact is, there is no magic formula that tells you how much roadspace you need for motor traffic in a 21st century city. Businesses and people are very good at adapting their travel patterns to what's available. But one thing is certain: no-one visits London for the roads. For visitors, driving and parking in London is expensive, slow and unpredictable and navigation is difficult. For non-driving tourists and locals alike, traffic is a turn-off, and is likely to suppress business: no-one wants to eat, shop or pass time near busy roads. I suggest however that tourists like to cycle. And in London we have Bike Hire - an under-used asset that many people would like to use but are put off by the traffic. Compared with motor traffic, bikes are far more benign, producing less noise and danger, no pollution, and consuming less roadspace. Go to Hyde Park and you'll find lots of visitors on Boris Bikes - but the enthusiasm tails off away from the segregated paths of the parks.

So why not boost London's attractiveness for all by setting up segregated bike paths on selected traffic-free or low-traffic streets? Because every motor journey is essential, and the capital's economy will simply fall to pieces? That assumption is being proved incorrect in 2012, because people are being forced to reduce the amount of motor journeys, and the predicted armageddon hasn't yet happened.

It's time London, TfL, and the Mayor abandoned the twin myths that there's a linear relationship between the amount of motor traffic and the economic health of the city, and that the current level of traffic is the optimum. While clearly there's a need for some motor traffic, and some motor journeys are essential, it doesn't follow that more equals better, and we're seeing this year that the city can cope with less and be asuperior place for it. In fact, London would likely lose less productivity to congestion if there were less traffic year-round. Instead of obsessing about traffic flow, we could put our minds to improving the efficiency of road use - reducing the number of empty vans running around, giving people better alternatives to private car and taxi use, and so on.

It seems pretty obvious that the economic health of any city is linked to quality of life. And quality of life is linked to the quality of public spaces. A restaurant or a shop or residential property on a traffic-free street is worth a lot more than one on a major thoroughfare. We're told that we need to attract talented people to the UK. Lower taxes may be one way of doing it (we're assured), but no-one wants to have their kids growing up in a noisy, dangerous, polluted city no matter how low the taxes are. So let's consider that far from being a naive, green, lefty idea, better public spaces and a more intelligent approach to traffic management is good for business and essential for London's long-term future as one of the world's great cities. And in 2012, we're living through an experiment that proves it can be done.


  1. Well argued and absolutely correct. And I get the impression from outside London that momentum is building in the right direction.
    What I would like to see is a mandatory % of road space being made bike only. Even 2 or 3 % of London's roadspace would revolutionise the city.

  2. Re: Jubliee - Where did it all go right?

    Part of the reason the Royals put on such a good show is that the people that work for them have:

    (i) clearly defined responsibilities,

    (ii) sufficient resources, and

    (iii) a shared vision.

    Alas, according to the Guardian blog, "The world of organisational cycling is famously fractious, riven with splits, some of them with amazingly ancient roots. Trying to get bicycle organisations to agree on something, on anything, is like herding proverbial cats."

    A more rigorous reading of Cycling: the way ahead shows that there are just four steps to the development of a cycle network:

    (i) Plan the network (analyse journeys).

    (ii) Study the feasibility of the network.

    (iii) Implement the network to a minimum level of functioning. (As a general rule this is correct, though any planned improvements (such as the remaining Cycle Superhighways), or on each occasion that major works need to be to be done (such as at Tottenham Court Road), should of course be approached in the most positive way.)

    The study and introduction of the network could be completed within two to four years.

    (iv) Develop the network further on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable.

    It is entirely possible that London could have Gone Dutch within eight to twelve years, and within twenty years for certain.