Monday, 28 January 2013

Why has Boris Johnson let Westminster Council get away with a transport policy that will drive central London back to the 1970s? Even Kensington & Chelsea blasts new Westminster policy as "inevitably producing additional traffic congestion within central London".

Last week I spent a very frosty evening in Hackney touring various cycling schemes with the folk of Hackney Cyclists. Hackney, as many of you know, is the most-cycled borough in London. The council is aiming for a 15% of all journeys to be made by bike by 2030 (and nearly 25% of all journeys to work) and 65% of the borough's households are car-free, up from 56% in 2001.

Hackney is a borough that has gone through huge changes in recent years. Its population has shot up from 181,000 to nearly 250,000 between 2001-11 and it has become one of the most walkable and cyclable parts of London with some hugely improved urban areas all around the borough.

A bike street in Dalston, Hackney. Minimum fuss, maximum
benefit for people on bikes and on foot. This road used to be a
car rat-run. Not any longer. 
A regular sight in Hackney streets are streets like the one pictured left that are bike and pedestrian-only routes. Creating simple filters like this, turns what would otherwise be unpleasant rat-runs into calm, pleasant streets that feel safer to walk and cycle in.

And hey presto, that's exactly what happens. There are miles and miles of routes in the borough where you can choose what feel like safe, quiet routes with minimum diversion. And the real point is that these "bike streets" actually connect up in a meaningful way that makes sense when you're on a bike.

Probably the most impressive is the (relatively new) Goldsmiths Row which was formerly a rat-run for cars taking a short cut out towards the A12 and is now a bike and pedestrian-only street.

But these streets aren't only about bikes. They're about safer streets for everyone. They're also hugely more 'liveable' places. I think that's because what Hackney is creating is a proper balance between people on foot, on bikes and in cars.

But there's something else going on in Hackney as well.

What's been taking shape in Hackney for many years is a concerted effort between planning and transport to make the place easier to get around for everyone, not just for car drivers. One very clear example of this is Hackney's policy on providing car parking in new residential developments, for example. Council policy is for "Reduced or preferably no on-site parking in areas of good accessibility". So, a brand new development like Pembury Circus in Hackney Central has 280 flats but no car parking. There is a similar policy in the City of London as well where "Developments in the City should be car-free except for designated Blue Badge spaces".

Goldsmiths Row, Hackney. Formerly a rat-run for cars cutting off the
main roads. Now a bicycle-street. Bikes and pedestrians only.
Truly impressive infrastructure. Courtesy Hub Magazine
This matters. And it matters for one key reason. Deny people the chance to easily keep a car in the garage and they will quite probably opt for bike, bus or foot instead. Make it easy and safe to cycle and they might ditch the car altogether. With this sort of policy, it's not altogether surprising that only 35% of households in Hackney now own a car.

This stuff really matters. It matters all the more in central London.

The City of Westminster, a borough which has a pretty toxic history (in my view) when it comes to encouraging cycling takes a completely different approach. Like Hackney, the City of Westminster has also seen healthy population growth in the last decade, albeit less than Hackney. There are actually significantly more people per hectare in Hackney than there are in Westminster (129 per hectare in Hackney, 102 in Westminster). But unlike Hackney, Westminster suffers from what it calls areas of "car parking stress". What that means is that Westminster council is worried that its residents don't have anywhere to park their cars at night. This, despite the fact that 63% of Westminster households don't have a car (up from 57% in 2001).

So, to counter this 'parking stress', what did the council do? It re-wrote the parking rules. Where Hackney forbids parking in new residential developments, Westminster actually requires developers to include car parking in its new buildings. Not only does it require new off-street car parking, but Westminster is so toxically addicted to providing car parking for the 37% of its households that own a car, that it can't and won't build safe cycle routes. The "need" for car parking means Westminster can't build the sorts of contraflow bike lanes that are normal in most of London these days. Why not? Because it would impede car parking: "Contra‐flow cycle lanes will generally not be provided as they usually result in the loss of loading and parking facilities adjacent to these cycle lanes".

Cycle-friendly streets in the City of Westminster.
Not exactly. 
The parking policies at Westminster seem to me so retrograde, so utterly 1970s-dominated in their thinking, that even the neighbouring Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (not known for being particularly progressive on things cycling-related) slammed them in a letter last year: "Westminster’s [new] policies on residential parking policy and public car parks...would greatly increase the number of off-street car parking spaces in Westminster and, it is considered, would inevitably produce additional traffic congestion within Central London including the Royal Borough." 

Yes, that's right. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea officially objects to Westminster's parking policies because it believes the borough is generating motor traffic congestion in central London.

If you want to create an environment where you can cycle and walk rather than take the car, you need streets where the balance between car, bike and foot is restored. And Westminster is very deliberately acting to ensure more cars on its streets and, as a result, more congestion. The result of all this? Westminster is a grim, forbidding place to cycle. And one which won't get any better for years to come. What really beats me is why Boris Johnson, who funds a large part of Westminster's traffic plans, has allowed Westminster to vote in planning standards that actually encourage more traffic congestion and less cycling.

I think the City of Westminster is addicted to car parking. It is so addicted it can't see a way out of building for yet more cars. The City of Westminster is drafting a cycling strategy as we speak. If that cycling strategy doesn't address seriously whether the streets of Westminster should be full of cars, or bikes and people instead, then it might as well not bother.