by Mike Hakata
The article, reprinted with permission, first appeared in medium.com (13/5/20)
Until a few months ago I had cars in my head, driving around, pumping out fumes, parking in my already limited head space, colliding with my good thoughts and I never questioned the idea things could be any different. Cars are meant to be here. Streets are for cars, towns and cities are full of streets, cities and towns are for cars. What would we do if we didn’t make sure they had all the available space? Life would be hell, right? And even if it wouldn’t be hell it just wouldn’t function.
It took some reading, research, discussion, educating and I began to feel the cars disappearing from my head. When the cars start disappearing your head space becomes quieter, your worldview more peaceful, less hectic, less dangerous. The cars were disappearing not simply because I was learning how to disappear them in my own head but because this is the way the world is going, this is the direction of travel.
When the cars start disappearing your head space becomes quieter, your worldview more peaceful, less hectic, less dangerous
In five to ten years the internal combustion engine will have disappeared from our streets. In that same time-frame active travel will be standard in urban design. This is the way the world is going and no amount of kicking and screaming is going to stop it.
I live in a ten-story block comprising fifty flats, fifty families in a block on a housing estate of several hundred more. Our block has a parking lot strictly for residents or their visitors. It has eight spaces. Free parking for residents.
During a normal week it is always half empty. It only fills up at the weekend when people come from out of the area to visit friends and family. Let that sink in.
Fifty families and more than enough space in a car park of eight spaces. You can always find a place to park in the streets of the wider estate too. When I had cars in my head I never noticed this, never saw it as an anomaly. Now I see it every day. Car ownership increases along with income.
Millions can’t afford to run a car but those people are also statistically more likely to experience the negative effects of cars though living in or near busy and congested roads and traffic arteries, poor air quality, noise and road accidents. Most probably those people have cars in the head too and believe they have a right to pollute their air and clog up their roads.
Let’s roll out a few stats and figures. 1/3rd of car journeys in London are for less than 2km. 4.3million daily trips by Londoners could be done by either walking or cycling. 60,000 additional years of healthy life could be enjoyed by Londoners if they walked or cycled 20 minutes a day delivering an estimated economic health benefit of almost £2bn per year. Congestion costs London’s economy an estimated £9.5bn annually. Cycling and walking infrastructure can increase retail sales by up to 30%. So London and Londoners will see life-expectancy, productivity and sales rise dramatically as this shift to active travel builds.
If we look at the darker side of national statistics then looking at government figures for 2018 there were 160, 597 casualties of all severities from road accidents on British roads (the lowest on record as it happens) with 25,511 classed as serious injuries and 1784 deaths. That reads like military casualties during a war except the reality in terms of numbers is quite different. As of July 2015 a total of 454 British forces personnel had died in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001 and a total of 7,436 hospital admissions for all types of admission were recorded in the field. It was safer to serve in Afghanistan over fourteen years than it was to use Britain’s roads in one, statistically speaking.
Here’s a positive fact: Car ownership decreases when other good options are available. In the UK the other options have historically been public transport. Also, car ownership increases as public transport becomes more scarce. And here’s a worrying prediction: as people in London return to work post-lockdown a 40% drop in public transport use is expected. If there isn’t the infrastructure to ensure walking and cycling is safe and desirable people will get in their cars. The Mayor’s walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, warns that if just a small percentage of the journeys in London switch to the car the capital will grind to a halt. Gridlock like never before. The prospect is a terrifying one.
The 2017 Green Lanes Area Transport Study which took a comprehensive look at traffic flows through my ward, St Ann’s, revealed that over half the traffic was through-traffic with some sections recording as much as 90% of vehicles breaking the speed limit. This is a ward with numerous primary schools and nurseries, a hospital, clinics and a park. Regardless of whether there is a collapse in public transport use do we really want the residents of Haringey who are major users of public transport to put their lives and the lives of TFL staff at risk by crowding onto buses and trains?
The stark reality is that when the lockdown eventually ends there will be thousands of Haringey residents attempting to get to work and the shops. Those with cars will opt to use the car and those without will cram into buses. Carbon emissions will literally be the least of our worries.
There is another way. It is in our power to design our way out of catastrophe and we must. Urban design which successfully prioritises walking and cycling achieves two goals simultaneously. Goal 1: build it and they will come. Goal 2: build it and they will leave. Goal 1 applies to people on foot and bike and goal 2 applies to people in cars.
We are facing an emergency. We don’t have time for long consultation periods and debate. We need to implement solutions now and assess them as they’re in use. We need to implement long-term solutions with temporary tools as we have been with pavement widening which is being rolled out across the Borough as I write. A network of protected cycling paths using weighted cones and barriers needs to follow along with further pavement widening on key routes to green spaces, clinics and schools.
Just as important is the creation of low traffic neighbourhoods with streets blocked to deter through traffic. This can be done with planters as in other boroughs and can be adapted through the assessment period as feedback and traffic flows are analysed by residents and council officers. Low traffic neighbourhoods are essential because of their effect on through-traffic. Evidence reveals that rather than push traffic onto other routes, closing off paths to rat runs leads to traffic evaporation. Having recognised that there are no short-cuts drivers are more likely to find other more sustainable means to travel. By ensuring most local traffic opts for the new pedestrian routes means that the local streets are freed up for those who must drive, public transport and emergency services.
The use of temporary materials for these interventions means that they can be changed but also that finance is no longer the biggest obstacle. It is actually critical that finance is not made an obstacle. Capital funds must be released regardless of whether the Borough receives the extra funding promised by the government and the Mayor. So what is the biggest obstacle? I think I know… The cars stuck in the gridlock of our collective mind.