Paul Hyett, 27 June 2019
Getting to grips with traffic
We were pleased when the London First organization used the atrium space in our office to hold one of their recent evening events. You know the format: a welcome glass of wine and some networking; 45 minutes of formal discussion around a ‘hot’ topic followed by Q+A; and then a chance for those with a late pass to chat some more and finish off the canopés.
Established in 1992, London First is a not-for-profit advocacy group whose declared mission is to promote the UK capital. Contrary to the loudly proclaimed mission of the ‘America First’ campaign, London First’s purpose is not to fight for the city to be put first, but rather to ensure that London is first: that is, ‘the best city in the world in which to do business’. It therefore aims to inform proper debate around issues affecting the capital and to assist its members in lobbying effectively to make London the best it can be.
This is obviously a wide remit but what exactly constitutes best city? Low taxation? Clean and safe environment? Affordable housing and outstanding amenities for the workforce? Excellent schools and medical facilities? A destination cultural and entertainment hub? Fine restaurants and parks. Clean air? Yes, of course, all of these and much more.
I was very pleased to introduce the event, which was aptly and very cleverly titled ‘Quality of Place and Quality of Movement’. The format was admirably simple: an interview between London First’s Director of Strategy John Dickie, with Gareth Powell (managing director of surface transport for Transport for London) as guest. Think about that convoluted title: essentially it simply means movement above ground. That is, walking, cycling, motorbikes and cars, taxis and buses, trains, the ferry clipper and even the cable caracross the Thames between the Excel exhibition centre and Greenwich; but not, of course, the quaintly named ‘Underground’.
A fascinating interview ensued that revealed a dazzling array of facts and figures. These ranged from injury and death rates against modes of transport; emission levels and bus sizes; plans to shift further towards cycling and walking; and road closures such as the one recently rejected for Oxford Street, but may live to fight another day.
Through all this - and the key here lay buried in the seemingly innocent title - emerged a very real and major concern for the role that transport plays in contributing to that essential component of all best cities: the symbiotic relationship in terms of quality between public space and movement.
In this context, the most immediate and important public open space for all of us is not our parks or squares but the roads that exist outside or close to the front doors of our homes. Sadly, as a society, we seemed to have forgotten this simple fact. This caused me to do a little research on roads. Here is what I dug up: there are, to my astonishment, some 60,000 streets in London with a total length of 9,197 miles. The first UK roads were the so-called ‘corduroy roads’ found near Glastonbury, dating from 3500 BC (the first paved roads emerged in Egypt in 2500 BC).
For the UK the rest is all history...town and city roads became increasingly dirty, congested and dangerous as their use was intensified to the point, in the later 18th century, when it was decided that the filth of horse (and occasional human) excrement had, for the sake of public health, to be curtailed.
So, onwards to my childhood days, by which time suburban roads – courtesy of initiatives such as the Garden City movement – had matured from facility to comparatively clean and pretty safe amenity. But just think about what has happened since...
Somehow, over the last 50 years, our perception of ‘road’, and indeed the very meaning of the word, has completely changed. This is especially true within our residential areas. And this change has been covert and sinister in its coming, as I am sure Jane Jacobs would have agreed. As an example, when I was a child growing up in Cwmbran New Town, in Wales, our street was first and foremost an amenity for public use. Yes, it provided an occasional routeway for cars, and there were raised pathways each side for walking but, and this is the point, the road doubled up as social place, and as a play area for children.
Most importantly, and for the simple reason that back in the 1950s car ownership was rare, there were hardly any cars parked in our streets. So not only did we play in the street, they were very social places. On special occasions street parties were held, where kitchen tables were laid out for celebrations such as the Queen’s Coronation. Five decades later residents in my street in north London applied for a street closure to celebrate the Queen’s 60thJubilee – only to have their application refused for the first time ever. Such is now the dominance of the car…
Our passive acceptance of these changes is astonishing. Indeed, during my Cwmbran days, anyone asked to accept the proposition that future typical UK streets should be crammed with parked cars would have rejected the idea out of hand.
We do of course continue to see progress in terms of cycle lanes and traffic calming, but the real encouragement that I took away from the London First interview was the breadth of thinking in Gareth Powell’s armoury. He has a brilliant mind, a great grasp of his brief, and a clear passion for transforming London’s streets into places of very real quality despite the traffic.
Hopefully, if Powell and his colleagues get their way to increase ‘self-propelled’ movement and, where vehicles are used, the exclusive adoption of clean energy forms, not only will the fitness of Londoners improve through cycling and walking, the frequency of respiratory related illnesses will decline. The population’s general health will benefit and London really will be first.