The High Court ruling was pretty blunt. Transport for London’s Streetspace plan, introduced with a fanfare by Sadiq Khan last May as a super-speedy way to “serve unprecedented demand for cycling and walking” during the pandemic, was condemned as an exercise in opportunism, ineptitude and guesswork.
A programme that proclaimed it would save the capital from a “car-led recovery” was damned as “seriously flawed” and as “taking advantage of the pandemic” to push through “extreme” measures that could not be justified, even in terms of its own heroic modal switch ambitions.
It’s hard not to say I told you so. For many years, especially since the second mayoral term of Boris Johnson, the management of London’s streets has been influenced far too much by an active travel activism marked by a triumph of faith over evidence and justified by a moral evangelism that can alienate and anger at least as much as it converts.
Moved by that spirit, Streetspace has railroaded through a set of changes to road widths, access to residential areas and even the major artery of Bishopsgate without prior consultation or due regard to their possible impacts, including on disabled people. London’s black cab drivers, who brought the claim against the plans, have been entirely vindicated. I’m afraid the Mayor and TfL had it coming.
What will happen next? What should? The London Assembly transport committee is seeking enlightenment and TfL is apparently still considering an appeal. They should forget it and instead take the chance to reflect, re-consider and revise their whole approach to pursuing the unquestionably desirable – and, it seems, pretty popular – goal of making London’s streets greener, safer and more tranquil.
Achieving that will entail combinations of changes that seek to reconcile a range of sometimes conflicting good objectives and that fully recognise the interests of all road-users, not only those that have the loudest voices and get the most media coverage. It also means reviewing the acceptance of certain received wisdoms and facing some fundamental truths.
One of those truths is that cycling is the transport choice of a tiny minority of Londoners, most of them affluent male professionals whose lives tend not to involve physically tiring jobs or lugging bags of tools, small children or shopping around. That doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t mean cycling is a bad thing. But it does mean asking if the priorities of cycling policy are as consistent with enlarging London’s cycling demographic as they could be.
The emphasis has been on re-engineering roads, delivered in the form of dedicated, protected space and justified by the mantra “build it and they will come”. But the release of statistics tailored to suggest that big financial investments in this project are yielding rich road use returns do not alter the facts (which TfL is in possession of) that any increase in cycling in recent years has been small and probably largely limited to existing cyclists cycling more.
Road safety fears are real, but there are other reasons why people don’t cycle. The continuing statistical under-representation of young Londoners, black and Asian Londoners, female Londoners and low income Londoners among London cyclists points to cycling having an image problem that works against it becoming more popular. Segregated tracks are no solution to that while they are seen as Zil lanes for the middle-class.
TfL can take encouragement from polling that suggests strong support for low traffic neighbourhoods (which, as is often forgotten, have been around in London for decades). Although some of the Streetspace generation of LTNs have been abandoned – in some cases, it appears, with electoral anxieties in mind – there are good grounds for sticking with this strand of the programme. In its case, the lesson to be learned – both from the conspicuous fury of localised opposition and the High Court judgment – is that consultation and a gradual approach can often lead to better outcomes in the end.
It goes without saying that these are desperately difficult times for TfL to think ahead and make the best decisions. The pandemic has led to it being remotely controlled from Westminster by transport secretary Grant Shapps, who never misses a chance to fib about its Covid-inflicted financial plight, and Boris Johnson’s unqualified transport adviser Andrew Gilligan, who is a one-eyed, two-wheel fanatic (the High Court judgement, by the way, pointed out that Streetspace was aligned with national government guidance).
That said, the time has come to take a big step back and look clearly and afresh at how best to get the state of London’s streets from what it is now to what Londoners want it to be and what London as a place needs them to be.
What’s required is an ambitious yet practical and internally consistent policy mix, designed to slow, smooth, green and reduce private motorised traffic and to encourage all the “sustainable” alternatives to it – never, ever forgetting buses, the bedrock workhorses of London public transport – while recognising the needs and interests of all road and street users, and equitably reconciling tensions between those objectives where they arise.
It’s a big, difficult and complicated challenge. With a mayoral election coming soon, which candidate will respond to it best?
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