Most people support the idea of a more cycling-friendly city

This article was originally published in the Evening Standard

Andrew Gilligan, Former Cycling Commissioner for London, writes:

One of the things about the people who oppose making London less dominated by cars is that they believe, often quite sincerely, that they speak for the majority.

The main group against the “mini-Holland” street closures, cycle lanes and pavement-widening in the borough of Waltham Forest calls itself “E17 Streets For All”. The opponents of a similar scheme in Palmers Green, Enfield, claim that it will benefit only “one per cent of the population” and is “deeply unpopular”.

Well, the consultation results for that scheme are in — and it turns out that it’s not “deeply unpopular” at all. Almost 1,650 people responded, incredibly high for a local consultation.

Of these, 39 per cent opposed the plans and 60 per cent supported them. Given the level of misinformation and playing on people’s fears deployed against the scheme, it’s a fantastic result.

On thousands of leaflets and posters the people of Palmers Green were told that “cyclists will have priority over ALL other road users”, “local people wouldn’t be able to park to use their local shops” and “businesses wouldn’t be able to receive deliveries”. Not one of these claims is true. Parking for Palmers Green shoppers will in fact rise under the plans.

And of course, if the schemes only benefited “one per cent of the population” — the proportion of Enfield residents who cycle now — they would not have been so well supported. Nor would the plans in the other two mini-Holland boroughs, Waltham Forest and Kingston, which got similar levels of backing.

Residents in all these areas, the vast majority of them non-cyclists, want these schemes because they know almost everyone will benefit. The mini-Hollands will transform traffic-swamped town centres into places where people want to be, whether or not you are on a bike.

Take Enfield Town itself, the next scheme in that borough’s mini-Holland. It currently has the eighth highest retail vacancy rate of any London town centre. But you can see what vast potential it has. There’s a cobbled market place with a market cross and the 14th-century church tower behind. There’s an old water pump and a coaching inn.

Right now, for most of the week, the market is a car park. The centre is an all-day traffic funnel, buried under a double lane of trucks and cars, most of them just passing through. Our proposals take out traffic, except buses and bikes. We want to restore something of the lovely old country town that Enfield once was.

Until now, bluntly, many traditional town centres such as Enfield, Walthamstow and Palmers Green were playing in the wrong game, trying to compete with out-of-town retailers on ease of access by car — a contest they can never win. The only way they can prosper is to play to their strengths; to compete on the quality of the shopping experience. By, for instance, turning an historic shopping street from a noisy, fume-filled traffic pipe into a pedestrian-friendly space. By turning a market place from a car park into somewhere you can sit and have a coffee.

Everywhere else this has been tried  businesses complained it would cut trade. Everywhere it has done precisely the opposite. In Herne Hill, a road closure caused trader fury. The Herne Hill Society website now says it “has been crucial to the continuing regeneration of Herne Hill” and is “such a success that it now seems strange that it attracted so much controversy”.

“Most of those who gain from the street closures, pavement widenings and new public spaces will actually be pedestrians”

These schemes work economically. But they also work democratically. The key political fact about traffic reduction schemes — forgotten by too many politicians — is that in most of London, the majority, often the vast majority, of journeys are not made by car. In the centre, only about 10 per cent of journeys are by car or taxi. Ninety-three per cent of Londoners, according to a YouGov poll, seldom or never drive in central London.

That is why the congestion charge didn’t produce the mass political backlash that so many predicted. It is why the chauffeur-driven and taxi-using classes from the City and Whitehall found themselves relatively isolated in opposing our new cycle superhighways (which got 84 per cent support in the consultation and 67 per cent in an independent YouGov poll.)

Even in Enfield, 52 per cent of trips to the town centre are already made by public transport, cycling or walking. In Walthamstow it is about 75 per cent.

And if we’ve been guilty of anything, I think it’s been not making it clear enough that these schemes aren’t just for cyclists. Pedestrians sometimes feel overlooked in the battle for media and political attention. But most of those who gain from the street closures, pavement widenings and new public spaces will actually be pedestrians.

None of that means we don’t care about people who drive. We changed the superhighway plans to keep more traffic capacity. Most (I admit not all) of today’s delays are temporary, caused by the building works. And this may sound weird, but even drivers, in the end, will benefit from these schemes.

With London’s population growing by 120,000 a year, there are only two ways to stop the place coming to a halt. The first is to build more roads, which is politically (and physically) impossible. The second is to encourage more people on to vehicles such as bikes, which take less space.

Amid recent anti-cycling noise, a slight note of equivocation has crept into both main mayoral candidates’ statements about the issue. Sadiq Khan supports the superhighways “in principle” but says they have been “a disaster… for those who need to use their cars”. Zac Goldsmith has said: “I wouldn’t want to row back on the cycle superhighways. But where I would put the emphasis now is on the quietways” — backstreet routes with minimal intervention.

Well, cycling schemes often do create a lot of noise. But the lesson from Waltham Forest, Enfield and indeed the superhighway is that noise is not the same as numbers.

Quite often, our opponents accuse us of not listening. We should, and we will, always listen to objections to make sure we get the details right. But we — and our opponents — must also listen to the majority who say these plans are a good thing and want them to happen.

Originally Published in The Evening Standard:

 

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