New London Architecture

Pedalling in the wrong direction?

Monday 14 August 2023

For the last decade, NLA's Active Travel Summits have exhibited a feeling of optimism that London’s roads were changing for the better. In the past, NLA supported Mayor Johnson’s Mini Holland programmes. We liked the idea of a walking and cycling commissioner as part of the Good Growth agenda and cheered when Will Norman took on that post on the election of Sadiq Khan.

High points in the Summits' programmes came with the Government's Gear Change and Active Travel Fund in 2020 to facilitate the rapid implementation of LTNs during the pandemic. Then, in 2022, the setting up of Active Travel England.

So far so good. But a sense of concern was tangible at this year’s event in the aftermath of the Uxbridge By-Election when the Prime Minister confirmed he had ordered a review into LTNs in England, saying he wanted to support people to “use their cars to do all the things that matter to them. I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them.”

Although Labour condemned the comments as "pure hypocrisy" for accelerating and funding LTNs before "denouncing" the policy, Keir Starmer seemed to blame ULEZ for the Tory win and urged Khan to "reflect" on the expansion. "We've got to look at the result. The mayor needs to reflect. And it's too early to say what should happen next."

Even Leo Murray of the climate action group Possible was in a sombre mood when he spoke to the Summit. He had proposed a fleet of lightweight autonomous electric shuttles to ferry people across Hammersmith Bridge, currently closed for repairs. Leo’s solution would cost less than £10m, a twentieth of the cost of repairs, which are likely to take up to a decade to complete. But Murray’s plans were recently kiboshed by Hammersmith Leader Steve Cowan when he refused to support a grant application for further research into the proposal.

During question time, there was expected criticism from a local councillor in the audience of electric hire bikes and poor parking by users. Alice Pleasant, Lime’s public affairs manager, lived up to her name, providing a polite but robust defence of the bikes’ problems while announcing that improvements to security were on their way to reduce the number of stolen bikes (recognisable by the clicking sound they make as they race by). 

Perhaps the most positive part of the Summit was the presentation by Bruce McVean of the City of London on progress at Bank Junction, where wider pavements have improved conditions for pedestrians, and better-designed junctions have made cycling safer. All this in the face of robust criticism from the taxi lobby.

But such is the cut and trust of the politics that surround the radical changes that need to take place in our streets to make them healthier and more sustainable. I remember speaking to Mia Birk, who led Portland, Oregon’s bicycle revolution in the 1990s. Mia said that progress sometimes faltered with political changes but then got back on track. Right now, Portland is going through a bad patch; as blogger Johnathan Maus writes, "Right now our traffic culture is so toxic and dysfunctional that it's erasing all of PBOT’s  (Portland Bureau of Transportation) infrastructure investments, overwhelming their educational campaigns, scaring away bike riders, and lowering the standards for behaviour on our streets.”

But it’s not all bad in London, as I said to the delegates at the end of the Summit: go out and see the improvements to Bank Junction,  go up to Aldwych and see the fantastic pedestrianisation scheme and on down the Strand to Trafalgar Square,  redesigned 20 years ago. It started a revolution of creating places for people, a change which will not be stopped, even if every now and then, weak politicians take backward steps.

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