Radical roads rethink is vital but shouldn’t be rushed
24 July, 2020
THE powers that be are known for taking advantage of crises to realise long-held ambitions. The coronavirus has been used in some more authoritarian countries to curtail citizens’ rights and entrench authority.
In the early phase of the lockdown, roads blocks were introduced to widen pedestrian space in Camden Road. There was no consultation, just a statement that the measures were being put in place to help with social distancing.
Of course, it wasn’t for that at all. They wanted, really, to encourage more cycling and lower traffic pollution by making life difficult for drivers.
The Mayor of London, unveiling the “streetscape” plans in May, predicted that the impact of the virus would be a tenfold increase in walking and a fivefold increase in cycling.
With public transport running at around a fifth of pre-crisis levels, the Mayor feared “millions of journeys a day will need to be made by other means”, adding: “If people switch only a fraction of these journeys to cars, London risks grinding to a halt, air quality will worsen, and road danger will increase.”
The stated aim was to “reduce traffic on residential streets, creating low-traffic neighbourhoods as has happened during lockdown”.
This is no doubt a worthy cause. The air we breathe in London is thick with toxic chemicals and the impact on lives is demonstrable.
But the way the crisis was used as a cover to get it done has jarred with many people.
On top of frustration for drivers stuck in traffic jams, the roads where the blocks have been put in place also feel more polluted than ever. It is a confusing consequence that anti-vehicle measures are worsening the quality of air around us. This may be only temporary, as time will tell whether the changes may lead to a new dawn of cycling and walking as predicted.
The psychological impact cannot yet be fully understood because, as it stands, people are still scared to use public transport because of the virus.
No one wants to sit on a long tube journey at the best of the times, but especially not in a mask. The car remains a safe space in a time when we are used to cocooning ourselves away from others. It is no wonder that seemingly arbitrary decisions on removing lanes from heavily used roads without consultation has led to chaos and now agitation.
The impulse that led the drivers in Parkway – there must have been more than one – to take back the streets is understandable.
What the situation shows us is the need for a proper London Plan. The future of the capital must be mapped out in a comprehensive way, not done in a piecemeal fashion.
There needs to be more pedestrianisation. Public transport has to be improved. But with changes of this scope you have to take the people with you, and it is not clear whether councils or the Mayor are up to it.