Some numbers are up, some are down. Up are sales of bicycles since the start of the corona crisis, but also up are the speeds drivers increasingly thinking it’s okay to travel at. Down are the numbers of people using public transport and of those heading to key destinations that are now restricted or closed altogether, whether it’s the shops on our high streets, libraries and leisure centres, or schools and colleges. Navigating our pavements has become an art to master as we perfect the corona-dodge, and peer around corners before we dare make the turn.
Safety and security lie at the heart of how the public bodies are responding to the current crisis, from the NHS to local authorities. And it looks likely that for some time to come we will need to do all we can to keep people safe and secure. At Camden Council, this has meant everything from our housing repairs officers switching roles, to sorting out making food deliveries to the most vulnerable, to officers volunteering on their weekends off to provide advice on safe social distancing in parks.
When it comes to our streets and public spaces, we need to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe from speeding and give pedestrians the space to socially distance. But we also need to respond to the likelihood that more people will get back in their cars, leading to streets that are even more congested than they were before the lockdown and air quality that worsens just as it was starting to get better.
For this reason, Camden Council has launched the Safe Travel in Camden programme to see Camden residents and visitors safely through the next six months and beyond. We have treated the current situation as an emergency, working rapidly on:
- Pavement widening, with the important thoroughfare of the Kilburn High Road being the first to benefit.
- Removing through traffic from rat runs, creating new space for people to socially distance and heading off the risk of new rises in traffic using and abusing those streets.
- Bringing in pop-up cycle lanes to encourage people to switch to cycling for short journeys within the borough, and help workers get to their jobs. We will also bring in more two-way cycling streets, roll out parking spots for dock-less hire bikes (thereby also removing street clutter for pedestrians), and extend bus lane hours.
In many ways, this builds on what Camden, where I am cabinet member for a sustainable Camden, was already doing. Resident safety is a core and explicit competence of the leader of the council, Georgia Gould. The council maintains a director of resident safety. And I was pleased last year to introduce our Road Safety Action Plan, which aims to ensure 20 mph speeds in the borough and do things like remove obscured sight-lines at street corners where many collisions occur.
We have also long sought to create space for people on foot as they travel to work, go to meet friends, or head to the shops. Our West End Project around Tottenham Court Road , with its wider pavements, new parks and reduced through-traffic is testament to this.
Elsewhere, cycle lanes on Tavistock Place in Bloomsbury, Royal College Street in Camden Town, and Prince of Wales Road connecting Chalk Farm with Kentish Town are just the start of what London needs for safe and green travel. Before the lockdown, we also wanted to trial pedestrianising part of Camden High Street and I hope this goes ahead – indeed, it now seems imperative as we look for space for social distancing and how to make our high streets pleasant for people to come and spend time and money in.
We now intend to extend the Safe Travel in Camden programme to more places, canvassing Camden councillors and residents for their grassroots insight into where we need to widen a pavement, restrict rat running, or make space for cycling. Our online Commonplace platform allows everyone to have their say.
But looking ahead, the sense of emergency that has galvanised action in Camden and other boroughs, along with Transport for London, will need to be something we keep stoking, powering the city ahead into a safer and greener future. It hardly feels a coincidence that in mid-March London Cycling Campaign released their Climate Safe Streets report.
What keeps Londoners safe on our roads in 2020 will also keep the city climate-safe in the decades to come. Cutting the carbon out of transport is now a core aim of the government as well as most London boroughs. The Covid emergency will end, and soon I hope. But the mobilisation it is bringing about must go on.
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