From Bogota to Bristol, policymakers and community groups are devising creative ways to break the stranglehold that cars have over city roads, says Peter Murray
Cycling through central London recently I was turning into the nearside lane, momentarily slowing down a motorist. He leant on his horn, accelerated in front of me and stopped abruptly. “You f***ing c***t!” he screamed as he got out of his car. “You f***ing c**t! Get off the f****ing road!” he spat at me, before returning to his seat and revving off.
My assailant is one of a small percentage of drivers who still believe that roads were designed for cars, vans, lorries and buses, not for cyclists, and only for pedestrians in controlled zones. He is wrong of course. As Carlton Reid has described in his excellent book, “Roads were not built for cars”, it was in fact cyclists who lobbied for properly surfaced tracks long before cars were commonplace. Changing the culture of road users and providers, and creating the appropriate infrastructure is a slow job, but not without hope.
Reversing the catastrophic pro-car policies of the 20th century should be a priority of modern planning. Cities like Bordeaux, Seville and Nantes are making great strides. Signs in London are positive. According the Ben Plowden, director of planning at Transport for London, very few mayoral policies of recent years have been aimed at improving the lot of the motorist – most have been designed to improve the quality of place and the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. There is a real shift from streets in central areas being perceived as mere conduits for convenient vehicular movement, to being places for people.
One of the most encouraging moves has been the adoption of ideas about “link and place” first developed a decade or so ago by Professor Peter Jones and Dr Stephen Marshall of University College London. Jones developed a classification for streets based on their “link” requirements – movement by all modes of transport including pedestrians and cyclists – and “place” functions, which describe the various economic, social and cultural activities on and adjacent to the street. The mayor of London’s Roads Task Force has used the concepts to develop a system of classification dubbed “the family of streets”. This will allow a more sophisticated approach to analysing what particular streets are used for – whether as fast-moving arterial roads or public spaces favouring pedestrians. It will assist in deciding what sort of cycling infrastructure is needed on each street and enable street designers to respond the local requirements.
In the US, the Complete Streets movement has long been campaigning for streets to accommodate all users. The Senate agreed in July to an amendment to the Highways Bill that would require states and metropolitan planning organisations to plan and design for the safety needs of all users – regardless of age, ability or mode of transport – in all federally-funded projects.
Above: On three consecutive Saturdays in August, nearly seven miles of New York City’s streets are opened to the public to play, run, walk and bike
Ciclovía events have taken place in Bogotá since 1974
Increasingly roads are being closed temporarily for other uses. Ciclovias or open streets, famously pioneered in Bogota, Colombia, are now taking place in cities around the world; some 40 US cities regularly organise them. London’s first Open Street was organised this May. It was a modest, community affair, but a start.
London closes off quite a few streets on various occasions but only if an event is organised to fill the empty spaces. This is in contrast to New York’s Summer Streets, billed as a celebration of the Big Apple’s “most valuable public space”. Seven miles of NYC’s streets are opened for people to play, run, walk and bike and to encourage New Yorkers to use more sustainable forms of travel. In London we always need an excuse. We close the roads for mass bicycle rides and the Mall for tourists; Regent Street closes for Summer Sundays, not to celebrate the street per se but to use it as an event space for fashion catwalks, markets or art installations where, incidentally, cycling is banned. All well and good, but as a project it fails to deliver the joy of the unencumbered space experienced in a traffic-free Park Avenue. One of Summer Sundays’ major benefits is that it substantially reduces the street’s total weekly CO2 emissions.
Playing Out in Bristol is an inspiring community project where mothers seeking somewhere for their children to play closed of their street – just like that. The scheme was such a success that they now provide advice to others who want to follow their example; their website includes an invaluable resource of standard letters and notices to assist anyone wanting to keep the cars at bay in their street.
All these activities help to change the culture of streets and the perception of what they are for. Over three decades the ciclovia in Bogota and Medallin have had a massive impact on the infrastructure and the social life of those cities. Using streets for different activities on different days of the week and different times of the day is a smarter way of using this major resource. New technologies can make it smarter still – road pricing, where drivers pay more to access crowded areas at busy times of the day, and smart signage, which changes depending on the use of the street, can deliver flexibility and efficiency.
But well-designed spaces can also have significant impact. I take immense pleasure in standing in Leonard Circus in Hackney, east London, where the borough has turned an untidy crossroads into a shared space with trees, variegated paving and seating, and watching the various road users use the space. At lunchtime local workers queue at the street food vans that congregate there; white vans and taxi drivers slow down and weave between pedestrians and cyclists. The message of Leonard Circus is clear: with a bit of consideration for others, with care and appropriate design, streets can be for everybody. Although I’m not sure my foulmouthed assailant is quite ready for such a radical change in his driving habits.