04 Dec London’s roads are clogged up and dangerous – to fix them we need to look back 100 years
Image 1: English socialite and activist Florence Priscilla was given this Autoped (similar to a modern-day motorized scooter), as a birthday present by her husband, Sir Henry Norman in 1916. She used it to travel to her office in central London. Source: Mashable
London is the 6th most congested city in the world. In 2018, traffic crawled along at an average speed of just 7mph. It’s a dire situation for motorists, especially commuters who rely on the roads. It’s a seemingly overwhelming problem, but the solution may be a hundred years old.
Let’s go back to 1903. A dense traffic, consisting of mainly horse-drawn vehicles is driving through familiar areas of Hyde Park Corner, Parliament Square and Charing Cross. On one hand, the footage emulates the familiar rush hour traffic of today. But there’s one exception.
Watching the footage carefully, you begin to notice a slow but steady move of pedestrians walking across the asphalt. Men in boiler hats and suits are seen casually crossing the busy road with little hesitation.
This intermingling of people and cars is unheard of today. If you were to try this in Piccadilly Circus today, you would be flat as a pancake.
The pivotal change over the past hundred years has been the emergence of the car as we know it. Cars have become faster, bigger and heavier. They have transformed into a symbol of personal freedom and wealth, and they dominate the roads. The horse-drawn busses are long gone, and they’ve been replaced by big red diesel-powered machines.
Streets have evolved to keep up with this change, but in doing so they have become hostile for pedestrians. To cross, we wait endlessly for the green man, yet even then, we are not guaranteed a safe crossing.
It’s time to fix our streets. This means kicking the car from the top of the hierarchy and embracing a new philosophy that values all forms of transport equally.
Here is where the notion of Complete Streets comes in. Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be designed with everyone in mind. It’s a concept that enables cars, pedestrians, bikes and even electric scooters to get around safely and efficiently, similarly to the streets of the 1900s.
Image 2: This graphic is taken from the complete streets design manual for the city of Boston in Massachusetts. The manual is intended to reflect an ideological shift at City Hall in which the “car is no longer king”. Source: Utile Design
Although it’s an idea that originated from the United States, it is one that we should adopt here in the United Kingdom. The philosophy doesn’t feature a strict set of design policies, but often prioritises everything on the road that isn’t the car. This includes:
- Improved pedestrian infrastructure
- Accommodation for micromobility such as bicycles, electric scooters and electric skateboards
- Infrastructure for public transport
Apart from making London easier to get around, complete streets can also solve other major problems facing the capital, such as pollution.
London is a highly polluted city. The most recent data shows two million people in London are living with illegal levels of air pollution. This particularly affects children. A study published last year, conducted with more than 2000 school children in London, found that that diesel pollution is stunting the growth of children’s lungs, leaving them damaged for life.
Complete streets have also been linked to other benefits, all of which have been well researched. Implementing complete streets has been found to increase safety and improve public health, as it promotes walking and cycling.
Many areas that have implemented complete streets in the US have also seen positive effects on the economy of the area, such as the opening of new shops and the creation of more jobs.
Image 3: This street in the Dutch City of Utrecht is called Maliesingel. It was transformed in 2016 to be more bike friendly, following the ideals of complete streets. Source: Bicycle Dutch Blog
We can look to the Netherlands as a European country that has fully implemented the ideal of complete streets. The country has more bikes than people and this has led to more bike-friendly streets. The Dutch city of Utrecht for example, is so compatible with its many cyclists that earlier this year it unveiled the world’s largest multi-storey parking area for bicycles. This has the capacity for 12,500 bicycles.
The Netherlands is a country that has knocked the car from the top of the hierarchy and in turn has made their cities safer, less polluted and more beautiful. It is a country that we should look to for inspiration going forward.
Next time you head out onto London’s streets, take a moment and think about the 1900s. Maybe our grandparents were getting it right all along?
Notes and sources
Image 1: Suffragette on a scooter: https://mashable.com/2015/06/15/1916-suffragette-scooter/?europe=true#dssDuciXSZOn
Image 2: Utile Design: https://www.utiledesign.com/work/boston-complete-streets-design-guidelines/
Image 3: Bicycle Dutch: https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/utrecht-reclaims-ever-more-space-for-people/
Old footage of London; compared with new https://youtu.be/O_me3NrPMh8?t=488
Old London street scenes (useful) BFI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVQiEJW7RWg
Curbed piece about complete streets https://www.curbed.com/word-on-the-street/2018/7/13/17246060/scooters-uber-lyft-bird-lime-streets
Market street San Francisco video: https://www.loc.gov/item/00694408/
Oxford street pedestrianisation rejected: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/revealed-alternative-plans-for-oxford-street-after-pedestrianisation-rejected-a3965036.html
Pictures of what Oxford street would have looked like: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/11/06/plans-unvieled-to-turn-londons-oxford-street-into-a-traffic-free-art-filled-pedestrian-zone-by-end-of-2018/
Exhibition road London, example of shared street; failure? https://www.dezeen.com/2017/10/09/exhibition-road-accident-review-shared-vehicle-pedestrian-space-emma-dent-coad-london-uk/
Shared streets can work! https://archpaper.com/2017/10/london-exhibition-road-shared-space/
2 million living w/illegal air pollution: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/01/air-pollution-falling-london-millions-still-exposed
Written by: Richard Haas