Kensington High Street is an icon for urbanists. In the early 2000s, local councillor Daniel Moylan, now Lord Moylan, re-wrote the book on what one might do to the street, using the principle of, “less is more”. Simple design, high quality materials, attention to detail and de-cluttering would became the “new normal”. Or so some of us hoped. Most importantly, Moylan took the brave decision, against highways engineering advice, to remove swathes of pedestrian guard-railing and “pig-pen” staggered crossings. Railings had been assumed to be a road safety imperative. In fact, segregating pedestrians from drivers led to a disconnect between driver and pedestrian with no quantifiable safety benefit.
On London‘s analysis of Kensington & Chelsea Council’s (RBKC) recent review of their decision to remove cycle lanes temporarily installed on Kensington High Street last year leads to the question: What next? The council’s leadership team unanimously supported an option to consider “alternative schemes”. I listened to the meeting, which seemed choreographed to bring out points councillors considered important. They said they want to support cycling, of course. Why wouldn’t they? They also wanted to support local business, specifically business loading, and there was definite interest in the bus. There were also concerns about access for disabled people. Importantly, they were considering a post-lockdown High Street.
Let’s look at these issues and what we know. Cycling is, of course, a sustainable and an active mode that one would want to see grow while bearing in mind that the risk of injury when cycling is second only to that of motorcycling. But it’s a small mode for RBKC. Only 2.5 per cent of trips made by borough residents are by cycle. The officer report states various figures of between 2,235 and 2,897 for the number of cycles a day using the street over the period before, during and after cycle tracks were in place. Because cycle numbers vary substantially from day to day and week to week, depending on the weather and season, it is just not possible to get an accurate fix on the impact, if any, of the changes that were made on-street.
Next up, bus use. Helpfullym the leader of RBKC was particularly keen to draw this out. The officer report shows that 26,000 bus passengers used Kensington High Street every day before the pandemic. We also know that buses are important to RBKC residents generally – they are used by 14.5 per cent of all the trips they make.
Moving to the largest travel mode gives a sense of why the street had so much thought put into its previous remodelling and why priority was given to “place” over “movement”. The largest mode is, of course, walking. Forty-three per cent of all trips undertaken by borough residents are by foot. Walking is also a vulnerable mode. It is generally safer per mile than motorcycling or cycling, but there are more casualties because there are just so many more pedestrians.
Council members considered the impact on businesses on the street. There are useful surveys undertaken by Transport for London investigating how shoppers have travelled to the shops over the years. Overwhelmingly, they arrive by foot or public transport. This will mean taking a bus to most London centres and the Underground and buses to regionally important centres such as Kensington High Street. Over 75 per cent of shoppers will travel to Kensington High Street by public transport and foot. Only two or three per cent will do so by cycle.
Business also needs access to the kerb for loading. Typically on streets such as Kensington High Street this will be done by allowing loading at less busy times of the day. At present, loading occurs off-peak, a flexibility that is not possible with a continuous cycle lane in place.
Local authorities must consider impacts on equalities when taking decisions about streets. Indeed, there is a duty to “advance” equality. Rightly, in my view, the RBKC officer report and impact assessment picked out the key point of access to the kerbside for older and disabled people. It also noted that should a future scheme include bus stops with cycles running through them there may be further impacts. The main weakness of the assessment was grouping all impairments together. Those with sight loss, for example, have particular needs getting around our streets.
So, what should RBKC do next in their search for an alternative scheme? Whatever it is, it will have to take account of all of the needs of users of the street. Pedestrians are the key users. Bus passengers and servicing High Street businesses would come second, alongside the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. And, of course, older and disabled people’s access should be assured and if possible improved.
Bus lanes would clearly prioritise both bus passengers and cyclists, who can use bus lanes too. Cycle safety therefore would be well served and reasonable access to the kerb maintained for businesses and others who need it. Slower speed initiatives with bus-friendly speed tables and and raised side road treatments (or even closures) would improve safety for everyone, particularly two-wheelers of all kinds, which are vulnerable to turning collisions.
Bus use in London is massive. Their passengers have kept this city going during the pandemic, but we don’t hear enough from them. Prioritising the bus makes transport sense for London and would mean prioritising both a major transport mode and those groups who are the most transport disadvantaged – something we really need to do more of. Bus lanes in Kensington High Street would be a great place to do that.
Vincent Stops is a Labour councillor in Hackney with two decades of experience working on streets policy. In the past he has led on transport for the borough and he has chaired its planning committee for the last 15 years. Vincent’s blog, Cycling and Walking in Hackney, is here. Image from Kensington & Chelsea Council.
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