If our aim is to identify examples “best practice” in transportation infrastructure which will support London’s economy, decrease carbon emissions in the city , and contribute to making better communities for Londoners, the context for that evaluation and the examples we can consider have – like so many things – changed radically in the past year. While it remains true that competition for the use of London’s limited street and public space is constant, the competitors have changed as we have lived more in our local neighbourhoods just as what we consider possible has changed with rapid installation of new cycle lanes and wider pavements.
Examples good and bad
Key differences between good and bad transportation infrastructure were highlighted by comparative reference to two recent London examples of small public realm infrastructure. The replacement of post-war one-way gyratory systems at Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly/ St James are well designed and coordinated public realm improvements supported by local authority, Transport for London and nearby businesses. Beyond immediate improvements to the public realm, the projects have delivered wider economic benefits, an outcome that should be measured and considered in the evaluation of similar potential projects.
By contrast, installations for rental bikes and electric car charging points have unintentionally degraded the public realm by creating barriers, trip hazards and general clutter. Recent Covid-related public realm interventions such as expanded cycle lanes and pavements, have been installed at speed with similar effects. A more controlled and coordinated approach can capture the benefits of such programmes while avoiding or reducing negative impacts. These examples reinforce the value of good design as well as the importance of good data, and good communication of data, in evaluating and explaining programme benefits particularly where proposals may be viewed with scepticism or hostility.
A Gap in our Knowledge: best practice for lower density
As the panel discussed these points, and infrastructure improvements which could build on our experiences under Covid, differences in the appropriateness of proposals for different areas of the city became evident.
Projects designed to limit cars, for example, to improve air quality and free public space for pedestrians and cyclists can be uncontroversial in parts of the city where private car use and ownership is limited and traffic congestion is great. This is particularly true if local consultation captures the views of an accurate cross section of residents. In areas of London areas where car ownership and use is higher, the same projects can be much more disruptive and therefore resisted as more harmful than beneficial. The term “Best Practice” can been seen as irrelevant to local conditions and needs, and mere justification for the imposition of ideas from the centre.
These observations reinforced the importance of consultation-based proposals, testing and post installation evaluation. It also pointed to the prevalence of centre city examples in professional discussions of improved transportation infrastructure and the need to find examples of “best practice” which both meet the objectives above and are suited to less dense parts of the city.