Guest article: how London cycling policy can drive good economic growth

by Peter Murray

This article is written by Peter Murray, who is chairman of the influential New London Architecture forum and of the executive committee of the London Society, a friend of this website. He has recently become one of the London Mayor’s Good Growth Design Advocates. He is also a dedicated cyclist.

The Mayor’s Draft Transport Strategy (MTS) makes much of the forthcoming benefits of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) and of Crossrail 2 for delivering economic growth in the capital, as well as new housing. Crossrail 2, for instance, is expected to support some 200,000 new jobs and unlock the development of the same number of new homes. But tucked away at the back of the MTS – and not even included in the executive summary, which is what most people will read – is a page entitled “Creating high-density, mixed use places”, which holds the potential to permit cycling infrastructure to support Sadiq Khan’s desire to deliver”‘good growth” for London, at a smaller scale than the Crossrail projects, but nevertheless important.

I have been interested in the development potential of cycling since I rode across the United States a few years ago, looking at how new biking infrastructure was changing American cities. On the outskirts of Minneapolis, my guide from the Department of Transportation pointed out a number of new intermediate housing developments located next to the Greenway, an old railway line transformed into a cycle track that takes riders safely and quickly into the heart of the city. It meant that younger people were able to access affordable homes through cycling.

On another cycle trip, this time to Copenhagen, I ended up at 8 House in Oresund, a ten storey block designed by BIG architects with a spiral ramp that allows residents to cycle right up to their front doors. Sitting right on the edge of the city limits, it provided easy “active travel” links into the centre.

I’ve also noticed changing habits at home. I live in West London near Turnham Green Tube station. Every time the local council (Hounslow) provides more cycle parking round the station it is immediately filled up with bikes ridden largely by local people who live a bit too far away from the station to walk to it and find cycling much more direct and convenient than using the bus. (Local parking restrictions now make the journey impossible by car).

“Living a bit too far away from the station to walk” has its own definition in transport planning. It means you have a low Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL) rating. If you look at a PTAL map of the capital, poorly served areas are picked out in blue. And they cover large chunks of Outer London.

PTAL ratings are graded by calculating the walking time from a “point of service” – ideally, 640 metres for bus stops and 960 metres for rail stations, which correspond to a walking time of eight minutes and 12 minutes respectively at the standard walking speed of 80 metres per minute.

The important thing about a good PTAL rating for the owner of a development site is that it sets the building densities for a site permitted in the London Plan. With a rating of just one you can develop at 35 to 55 units per hectare in suburbia, while with a rating of six you can go up to to 130 units per hectare.

Land with a rating of one is likely to be cheap. But if you include cycling in the equation the PTAL rating changes dramatically. In eight minutes a cyclist can cover 2.1 kilometres at a speed of 16 km/hr (10mph) – nearly three times the distance of the pedestrian – and all the blue bits of the map start turning pink.

When I started talking about this, cyclists were supportive but others were sceptical. I tried it out on a couple of developers with zero response and I got the impression that Sir Edward Lister, Boris Johnson’s head of planning, thought I was slightly deranged when I suggested it. But I had heard rumours that bright people hidden away in the Transport for London planning team were working on revisions to PTAL and its relationship cycling. That work is now included in Mayor Khan’s draft MTS.

On page 197 it says that “high-density development further from stations can be supported through improved bus and cycle links; such networks can dramatically increase the catchment area of a station, providing greater employment opportunities and reducing Londoners’ dependence on private motor vehicles”.

The page includes two maps of PTAL ratings in some unnamed part of Outer London. The first shows a couple of small areas of good connectivity coloured red and large areas of grey and blue; the second map, which includes cycling, has much more red, and the blue has all but disappeared.

Bingo! – at one fell swoop planners can increase the density of sites; the Community Infrastructure Levy from these sites could fund new cycling infrastructure as well as help deliver the Healthy Streets agenda that form a key part of the rest of the draft MTS.

While the impact of such changes will not be on the scale of those the Elizabeth Line, Crossrail 2 and, for that matter, HS2 will produce, neither will their cost. These easily activated changes can play a major part in providing access to jobs, linking into the public transport network (as part of the active travel policy the Mayor so rightly espouses) and making more productive use of urban land.

Read the whole of Sadiq Khan’s draft Mayor’s Transport Strategy via here. It remains out to public consultation until 2 October 2017.

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