Amy Priestley, Urban Designer
It’s been a turbulent summer for London’s streets and the people who use them, and people and politics are at the centre of it. In Bow, Tower Hamlets, a trial of modal filters was sadly cancelled after the first day due to the intense reaction of those inconvenienced by the scheme. Neighbouring Newham Council also ‘paused’ a traffic management experiment in the face of opposition from local people. In Kensington and Chelsea, the Council’s decision to withdraw its support for a new cycleway on Holland Park Avenue/Notting Hill Gate was at least partly due to residents and traders vocalising their opposition. These events all illustrate the challenges that politicians experience in delivering real change to our streets and improved environments for walking and cycling.
I recently contributed to the Urban Design Group Journal (Issue 151) themed around politics and urban design. Writing with Cllr Clyde Loakes of LB Waltham Forest, the article is essentially a list of illustrated advice on how to deliver change; how to support and encourage local councillors, politicians, officers and interest groups to deliver ambitious and visionary projects that will make our streets better, healthier and more sustainable places for people and movement.
Of course, ‘politicians’ vary considerably in their views, principles and prejudices. For some, walking and cycling may be part of their individual political identity (whether pro or con); others may have vocal supporters who hold strong views on certain transport issues; others may simply not understand or (more worryingly) appreciate the wider issues around transport, health and sustainability; and still others may understand the issues but fear whether they can gain public support for change. All of them want to get re-elected.
Whatever the starting point, I think there are three key facts that any politician needs to be clear about in considering the changes we need to see in street design and transport. Understanding these facts won’t automatically clear the path to delivery; but (changing the metaphor) grasping them is vital to navigating the choppy waters.
Firstly, streets are a finite resource. Giving more space to walking, cycling and public transport will inevitably take space away from cars, moving or parked. This can’t be avoided.
Secondly, enabling walking and cycling will almost always require a ‘stick’ or two, not just ‘carrots’. People won’t readily shift to walking and cycling if driving remains easy.
Thirdly, the ‘target audience’ for projects that aim to encourage modal shift away from cars is, by definition, people who currently don’t walk, cycle or use public transport much (or at all). It follows that the very people we’re designing for are those most likely to feel the ‘stick’ and be frustrated or angered by our proposals.
As a final word of advice, I think it’s best to avoid using the ‘C-word’ wherever possible. Talking about cycling or cyclists will typically alienate or provoke those who do not currently cycle. Streets are places for people and communities; they’re part of neighbourhoods. Start the conversation from that point, bring in some wider issues (such as public health, climate change, the costs of transport, congestion, air quality and future growth) and the narrative for people-focused design has a better chance of gaining traction.
It’s exciting and pleasing to see and hear about many local authorities and councillors who are starting to think about streets and transport differently, and how they might go about spreading the word, building support and delivering change. But it won’t be an easy ride, and making change happen requires a good amount of grit and determination from all involved. Keep the above in mind, and don’t forget why you started!