On my way home from a trip to the South of France last week, I had to make a transfer from Gare de Lyon to the Eurostar terminal in Gare du Nord. Instead of taking the Metro, I decided to walk the four kilometre journey.
It’s been a few years since I spent any time in Paris, and I was struck by how the way people move around the city has changed. Dedicated bike lanes now run down all the boulevards and many of the smaller streets. Squares and other public spaces have been given a green once-over, making walking and jogging more enticing. And Paris seems to have embraced new micro-mobility technologies in the way London has not yet done. E-bikes and e-scooters appeared to be everywhere, alongside the more familiar pedal bikes, rollerblades and skateboards.
I found myself on super-alert, trying to make sense of the new rules of the road. Do cyclists have right of way over pedestrians in all circumstances, or do pedestrians take priority when the bike lane is continuous with the pavement? Is the kid using an e-bike on the pavement breaking the rules? And what about the guy on the electric unicycle thing?
But it’s not just we tourists that need to be aware of these changes. London and other cities have seen similar ones and there will certainly be more ahead. New policy imperatives – the need to address congestion, pollution and climate change and to get more of us off our bums – is resulting in a push to reduce car use and promote public transport, walking and cycling. At the same time, innovative technologies will continue to offer new ways of getting around, including not just e-bikes and other micro-mobilities but also, potentially, connected and autonomous vehicles, drones and delivery robots.
It seems obvious that these developments will in turn demand that we rethink the rules and norms that currently govern our roads and public realm. The Highway Code was first developed back in the 1930s to manage the rise of the car. It assumes a simpler world of motor vehicles and pedestrians (when it was widely assumed cycling was on the way out). Almost the whole of the Code is addressed to car drivers. It has nothing to say about, say, how e-bikes should be driven, or whether drivers and cyclists need to give way to autonomous vehicles or the other way around.
No doubt the Department for Transport will tell us that, even now, they are thinking about how to revise the rules for the new world ahead. And no doubt we need national regulatory change. But national reforms need to be complemented by regional and local approaches. A one-size-fits- all national Highway Code was just about alright in the 1950s and ’60s, when everyone expected transport systems to work in fundamentally the same way, but it won’t work for the world we are now entering. Take-up of new micro mobilities is likely to be much more extensive in London than in rural areas. Autonomous vehicles could pose very different challenges in crowded cities than on motorways. Delivery robots and flying taxis present issues which can only be addressed through agreements negotiated at the local level.
Two years ago, Centre for London’s Commission on the Future of Roads and Streets argued that Londoners need a Movement Code to complement the Highway Code – an idea conceived and developed by Patricia Brown, an important contributor to a variety of improvements to the capital’s public realm over many years. This got quite a bit of media attention, with journalists assuming that the point of a Movement Code would be to encourage pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and passengers to behave more considerately to each other. That would indeed be part of its purpose. Transport for London does not do a bad job of articulating rules that should inform passenger travel: stand on the right hand side of the escalator, give your seat up to people who need it more than you, etc. But we are hopeless at articulating how pedestrians, cyclists and other road users should behave.
A new London Movement Code would do something more important than this. Unless we are careful, the arrival of some of the emerging transport technologies could play out in very negative ways. Our pavements are already littered with dockless hire bikes (in part because councils unthinkingly forbid these bikes from being parked on the kerbside). It’s not hard to imagine autonomous car companies lobbying for laws that would prevent cyclists and pedestrians impeding the free movement of their vehicles, or the drone companies lobbying for the right to land delivery drones in the public realm.
The development of a Movement Code would give us the chance to discuss as a city what we want from the new mobilities coming down the tunnel and, more fundamentally, the sort of city we want to be. It would lay down new principles to govern the growing pressures and demands on London’s roads and streets.