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.



13 comments:

  1. Yeah, that will be Westminster's parking income business taking priority then...

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  2. It's not just in Westminster. Southwark council has a policy of zero car parking in developments at major transport hubs. The developers for the Heygate estate proposed 600 car parking spaces and it was granted.

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  3. @elliot: indeed, southwark 'has' policies and southwark blissfully ignores them at a drop of a developer's hat

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    1. To be fair to Southwark, those 600 spaces are iirc for a development of nearly 2500 homes. Seems reasonable to provide at least some in a development on that scale for blue badge holders, deliveries/tradespeople, visitors from out of town etc.; 1 space per 4 households is a lot lower than the overall rate of car/van ownership per household in the borough. How much parking was provided in the old Heygate, anyone know?

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  4. I have lost track of how many times I have asked Westminster about permiability through the west end. It seems perfect for them that to get from from a major piece of cycling infrastructure (hyde park/park lane crossing) heading north east by bike there is no way to get up into fitzrovia without mixing it with hanover square cross rail traffic and then three lane gyratory of Cavendish Square. This is due to Westminster blocking cycle routes and banning turns on practical routes for cyclists. It's not just parking, it seems Westminster want to do zero to aid cycling through the borough.

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  5. Do you know which Westminster councillor's in particular have been pushing this deeply flawed and idiotic policy?

    It might be helpful to name and shame them on the internet so next time they are more aware how pursuing policies that promote traffic congestion will lose them votes and office in the future.

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  6. I agree with the complaints about this policy, but don't see that it's Boris's fault: he doesn't have control over Westminster's planning policies. He can set a London-wide plan that they have to comply with, but can't interfere with their individual policies, which are for Westminster as the planning authority.

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  7. There are some useful links here:

    http://westminstertransportationservices.co.uk/projects/projects_list.php?project_type_id=6
    http://www.westminster.gov.uk/services/transportandstreets/cycling/cycle-stands-and-locks/

    To contact the Council regarding cycling issues, please email The Cycling Team (http://transact.westminster.gov.uk/forms/emailform.cfm?aliasid=167)

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  8. Apologies for jumping in here: I'm not sure how much of what you're saying is meant to apply only to these boroughs of London where, as you say, car ownership is low.

    I disagree on the issue of residents parking. Like it or not, people need cars for a lot of things. Not necessarily every day, but that only exacerbates the problem of car-storage, because if the cars aren't in daily use they will be permanent features on the street at all times of day.

    This is typical of a lot of streets in this area of Cambridge: http://goo.gl/maps/4mM6i Over 50% of the population in Cambridge cycles, so I expect that at least half the people living in this area cycle when they're travelling in Cambridge. They might enjoy cycling, they might use it as their primary way of getting to work and doing the shopping. But they might also need a car, for irregular longer journeys for work, or to see relatives, or to transport less-able friends and relatives.

    I can't find it now but there's a photo of a nearby street from the recent days of snow which demonstrates that a significant number of the cars on the road had obviously not been moved in days during the week because the snow was still on them. These people do have and do use other forms of transport.

    This development was designed to be practically car-free: http://goo.gl/maps/aA2GH. There is a small underground car park for residents, but it doesn't cover all of the properties on the site and there's no more than one space per property for those that have them. Consequence: those blissfully empty streets in the photo now have cars parked along them. This estate has no through-traffic for motor vehicles, but is through-access for pedestrians and cyclists to the shopping complex behind it, and now those pedestrians and cyclists have to navigate around the parked cars.

    Rather than banning new developments from having car storage, we should be encouraging the opposite: that developments should be required to have sufficient car storage *off-road*. Preferably underground, out of anyone's way.

    If there is a shortage of residential car parking, then everywhere it is not explicitly forbidden (and some that are) clogs up with cars. The people on those streets in Cambridge knew the car-parking situation when they bought and rented those houses, and if it had any effect on their decision to own a car, it certainly didn't have enough of one, because there are the cars now.

    When we're told nationwide that 83% of cyclists have access to a car, that means they need to store it where they live while they use their bike.

    By all means, make driving in urban areas difficult. Take away the on-street parking, take away the additional filter lanes, take away entire roads and make them through-routes for non-motor traffic only. Driving should be difficult: that's what causes the congestion and pollution. But I fear we either need to make car ownership much much harder, or we need to accommodate it as a reality while making the use of alternatives easy and attractive in urban areas.

    If we can get the cars off the streets then we can reallocate the road space to dedicated segregated cycle lanes.

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  9. It is probably fair to say that you can't deal with off-street car parking capacity in isolation. I think there is probably something in what you are saying, that if people aren't supplied with an off-road space, they will hunt around for an on-road, and quite possibly park in a manner which is inconsiderate or inconveniencing for their neighbours. That is certainly true where I live, in a small Surrey market town.

    However, what is different about Westminster compared with Cambridge and where I live includes the extreme congestion on its roads - and believe me, Cambridge has NOTHING on central London on that score - and the abundance of alternatives. No-one in Westminster is more than a hundred or two metres from a tube station or bus stop, or indeed more than one of each. Tubes and buses run from early morning to late at night - and are due to extend hours further at weekends - and with a travel card become relatively cheap to use. Then there are taxis, which in London of course can be hailed on the street and indeed that is by far the most common way of getting one.

    I knew an American lawyer who lived in Chelsea, a little off the Kings Road, in a beautiful town house on a square. She probably had a seven figure salary even then and certainly a nice house, but she didn't own a car. Why? Because apart from the fact that it would be a pain to find parking, it was very rarely worthwhile getting one out. Where a car was needed, most of the time you would hail a cab, and occasionally, for longer trips out of town, you would rent one from Hertz.

    And of course there is also the possibility of joining a car club - pay a subscription and then you can just go out on the street and look for a free car, access the keys from a key-safe to which you have the combination, and drive away.

    So the potential pressures to park on street are way lower in Westminster than they might be in Cambridge.

    Of course, if a London borough went about this in the same way as a typical northern European city, they would combine legal restrictions on private car spaces with other measures - as in Japan, refuse a permit to own a car if you cannot prove you have a parking space off road; apply filtered permeability so that car journeys go "around the houses" while people can walk or cycle in a straight line, tipping the odds in favour of the latter; provide decent separated cycle infrastructure so that cycling is the obvious, pleasant choice; make city centre parking away from home scarce, or expensive, or both. I am not sure that Westminster would need to do all of these to make an impression. A volte-face on their planning presumption about cars would be useful on its own. Tightening up on street parking, especially illegal parking across dropped kerbs and near junctions or on pavements etc, woudl be a good next step. Simply letting cycls contraflow, as the City of London is progressively opening up, is somehting they should have done years ago.

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  10. The reasons why Hackney has a lot of cyclists are three fold:
    1. A large and growing group of affluent, “green minded” residents.
    2. Until recently. very poor transport links. The Overground has started to change this.
    3. It is very close to the City and relatively close to the West End.
    Your advertorial for the borough’s policies is really just there to score points against Westminster.
    The borough does not maintain properly marked cycle lanes. In fact if you had searched around for a while you would have found some white markings have virtually disappeared. Makings things unclear for both cars and cycles.
    Hackney never properly enforces cars/lorries or other road vehicles illegally blocking cycle lanes. In the case of the road where I live there are regularly illegally parked cars on double yellow lines obscuring junctions making it very dangerous for cycles. When I wrote to the Mayor about this he sent back a reply claiming that wardens were instructed to issue penalty notices for this. They never do, preferring to pick of easy targets, rather than take on motorist sitting in cars which are an active danger.
    The photo you show near the Arcola Theatre is a token piece of infrastructure which should be part of a proper route to keep bikes off the busy Kingsland Road. The nearby junction of Dalston Lane/Kingsland was recently redesigned without a proper provision for cyclists. Which is why if you may have seen cyclists on the pavement there.
    And the new development above Dalston Station has an underground car park.
    Dalston and the area around the junction is a very tricky place for cyclists. The borough has been negligent in putting in proper measures to deal with this problem. Preferring to wait for TFL to provide the answer on the A10 with a super-highway.
    Move down the A10 and you will find two “ghost cycles” Nothing has been done to improve these junctions since these fatalities.
    The Mayor won’t put any pressure on the police to deal with the amount of illegally parked/pavement-parked cars. Or the endless stream of motorists making mobile phone calls with the phone in hand. But when a few residents complain about cycles on pavements (which in some cases are cyclists avoiding death traps) the police are expected to respond with fines.
    Hackney is a cycling borough. And that is great. But no thanks to the council. Politically motivated articles like yours just make them more complacent.

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  11. An advertised change in the date for the City's open meeting on its Draft Local Plan had me reaching for that document - all 214 pages of it. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/services/environment-and-planning/planning/planning-policy/local-development-framework/Documents/draft-local-plan.pdf

    The City's policy on car parking is set out in policy statements DM16.5 & 16.6, on pages 150-151. It is evident that their policy is that car parking will not be permitted at all in new developments, commercial or residential, apart from exceptional circumstances where the needs of a business require it. There will still be a requirement for disabled parking but these must be marked as such and kept exclusively for blue-badge use 24/7. Where exceptionally car parking spaces are permitted, except for "dwelling houses" the developer will also have to provide a minimum of 10 motorcycle spaces for each car parking space, half of which will have to be at least 2.3m x 0.9 m and the other half at least 2.0m x 0.8m. That should provide a fair disincentive.

    No new public car parks will be permitted, and existing ones are encouraged to be redeveloped for alternative uses, just as the NCP 220-space car park underneath the International press Centre in Shoe Lane has now gone, and will not return.

    I can't think of any obvious reason why City conditions should be so different from Westminster's, except that the City Corporation is studiously non-political, even if it is probably conservative with a small c. Westminster's approach does tell us very clearly that cars are political, even though I genuinely believe that bicycles are not.

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