Take a look at the picture above. A couple of car parking spaces on St Martin’s Lane in the heart of London’s theatre district have been removed and given over to an outside dining area for an adjacent restaurant, helping the business re-open while enabling customers to maintain social distancing. Now, take a closer look; there are more customers who have arrived by bike than there would have been cars parked there previously, and whose occupants would have headed elsewhere for a night out.
It’s been long documented that taking space away from motor vehicles and giving it back to people who arrive at their destination by bike or on foot – the latter, perhaps, after taking public transport to reach the general destination they are heading too – benefits the restaurants, bars and shops based there.
And if there is one positive emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that we can now see in real time the benefits of the reallocation of road space.
As a cycling website, clearly we are in favour of interventions that make it safer for people to get around towns and cities when they are on their bike, so seeing emergency infrastructure being deployed on Park Lane, under the Westway, or on Hammersmith Road near Olympia – shown in order in the pictures below – is most welcome.
(Forgive the London-centric nature of this post; I haven’t left the capital since lockdown began at the end of March, even though I officially live elsewhere. But I could provide plenty of examples from elsewhere of people's excitement about how the streets where they live are changing for the better).
But it’s not all about the bike. Making our cities friendlier for both pedestrians and cyclists, and putting interventions in place that make those with cars – only just over half in Greater London as a whole, and far less in the Inner London boroughs, whatever impression the mainstream media gives – rethink their way of getting around – can only make them more liveable.
Take Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, for example. When I posted the above picture of St Martin’s Lane to Twitter earlier today, among the replies was video of residents of Northcote Road in Wandsworth celebrating the closure of streets to through traffic.
And here’s another video posted to Twitter today of people living near Old Ford Road in Tower Hamlets enjoying the road closure there, something unimaginable a few months ago.
Such interventions aren’t just happening in London, of course – they are taking place in other cities across the UK, and further afield you may have seen videos posted to social media of cyclists taking to the Rue de Rivoli in Paris in numbers usually only seen on the final stage of the Tour de France.
This is how our cities could, and should, be.
Returning to London, there is no reason why the streets in areas such as Soho – below, there’s a picture of Old Compton Street where for years Saturday night revellers have had to part ways for drivers coming through – or in and around Covent Garden, such as St Martin’s Lane – shouldn’t be taken away from the motor vehicle.
Both those areas, by the way, as many others in the centre of the city, have one-way systems in place that are all but impenetrable other than to those who regularly drive there for a living – perhaps one of the reasons black cab drivers oppose them?
Of course, businesses need to be supplied, but that can be done within quieter periods, and inside a set window. And no campaigner for safer streets for cyclists or pedestrians would argue that cabs shouldn’t be allowed to enter a quiet zone to drop off a passenger with mobility issues, an accusation cabbies often throw around.
Almost four months after the UK entered lockdown, and with restrictions now being eased particularly in England, the pace of introducing street closures and other initiatives aimed at enhancing social distancing and protecting vulnerable road users is frustrating for many of us.
Slowly, though, it is happening. True, there has been kickback on emergency bike lanes installed in places such as Trafford, Filton and Reigate, where councils have swiftly removed them following complaints from motorists.
> How are the UK’s pop-up bike lanes being received?
But is it too much to hope that as more and more low traffic neighbourhoods are introduced, and more local residents get used to their streets being closed to rat-running drivers, there is a future around the corner in which people are encouraged out of their cars – if they have one in the first place – and use cycling or walking as their default way of getting around?