The imbalance of traffic (Or: This Westminster crap – I saw it coming)

It’s not that I’m some kind of mystical psychic – anyone who heard Councillor Edward Argar speak at the Living Streets event in March must have known that Westminster council’s plan for cycling would be dire.

Other bloggers have covered the plans already – As Easy As Riding A Bike, Cyclists In The City, and Rachel Aldred – so I will let you read their scrutiny of the document (key phrase: “where feasible”). I had already half-written this post after the Living Streets event, and now seems like a good time to finish it.

Cllr Argar is the cabinet member for transport at Westminster Council. For those of you unfamiliar with local London politics, just know that the capital is a disjointed mess of territorial factions.

As Westminster lies physically at the centre of London, Cllr Argar is in a position of influence and power, and the decisions he makes will affect not only those who live and work in his patch of London, but also the huge number of people who have no option but to pass through the exhaust-choked hell hole.

I’m sure Cllr Argar will go far, a seat in the Commons isn’t out of the question. To me, he seemed like the stereotypical smooth-talking career politician who smiles as he tells you what you want to hear, while really meaning the opposite. He reminded me of Tony Blair.

Many things he said were pure motor-centrism, lightly dressed in eco-friendly terms. He even trotted out the bullshit “narrow streets” excuse as if it bore any relation to reality. (See this and this on As Easy As Riding A Bike if you think Cllr Argar is correct.)

Another annoying phrase of his was “we need to maintain the traffic balance”. This suggests that Cllr Argar thinks Westminster already has some kind of “traffic balance” rather than the total motor dominance which they have been planning and engineering for decades. This is clearly just a way of saying ‘Westminster ♥ Cars’ while sounding like he wants to embrace cycling.

A graphic of a scale. On the left is a car with a crown on top, which weighs much more than the right-side, which contains a wheelchair user, people walking, and a bike.

“The balance of traffic” as seen by Westminster council. They could have this on their wall for all I know.

This belief that the current system is normal and natural (and that any change is an unfair aberration which mustn’t affect the human right of rich people to drive absolutely everywhere) is one of the fundamental stumbling blocks which campaigners for better streets frequently face.

It’s clearly nonsense. The current road system was created by people in thrall to the motor car, to encourage more driving. It intentionally marginalises anybody using any non-motorised method of travel. For Cllr Argar to suggest that Westminster’s streets are designed with any sort of balance is preposterous, and I expect he knows it is.

London’s left ventricle is blocked but the hospital won’t operate

When the topic of parking in Soho came up, Cllr Argar spoke of residents parking cars outside their homes as if that’s a reasonable thing to do. IN SOHO! For those of you who haven’t visited London’s famous Soho, it’s an area of narrow streets full of cafés, bars and sex shops. It’s packed with tourists on foot, yet the council thinks it’s some kind of fundamental right for the few (no doubt wealthy) people who live there and own some huge 4×4 to park it on the street outside.

Who the hell needs a car in Soho? This is a neighbourhood slap bang in the centre of one of the world’s great cities, pretty much everything you could want is within walking distance 24 hours a day, anything else is just a short bus or tube ride away (Soho is surrounded by bus routes and London Underground stations in all directions) and there’s no shortage of taxis around there either. In short it’s the type of location which most people can only dream of, and with fantastic transport links too – and yet it’s seen as acceptable to own and keep a car there. Why is this?

A photo of Great Pulteney Street in Soho, London. Three cars are parked in residents' bays, one of which is a large Jeep 4x4 car.

Westminster’s streets are too narrow for cycling, apparently, but they’re wide enough for huge fucking Jeeps. (Photo: Google Maps)

If you are able-bodied, live in Soho and keep a car there, you are a selfish bastard and I hate you. If you want to keep a car outside you should have moved somewhere else instead. There’s plenty of houses with driveways in Doncaster.

But I must reserve most of my ire for Cllr Argar and his fume-loving cronies. Why do they encourage keeping cars in the very centre of London? (Though to be fair to Westminster, even usually slightly-friendlier-to-cycling Camden is pandering to central London car owners, too.)

Surely the vast majority of Soho residents don’t keep a car on the street, and almost all visitors will arrive on foot. So why give such prime land to a lazy over-privileged minority, when the bulk of residents, visitors and business owners would benefit from reclaiming the streets for humans?

I was Dick Whittington’s cat

When I moved from the suburbs of the Motorway City of the 1970s (aka Leeds) to central London, I was pleased to be selling my car. It was a burden lifted from my shoulders. No more MOT, no more insurance, no more VED, no more parking charges, no more servicing, no more wondering if the mechanic is a cowboy, no more worrying about car thieves. I was moving somewhere which has buses running all day and night, somewhere with fast trains to the furthest reaches of the city and beyond, somewhere a car would be more hassle and cost than benefit. And then some workmen came and installed two dozen blue bikes over the road – heaven! Who would want to own a car here?

The councils could help more people feel this way. I can’t imagine that many people who live in Soho stay there for decades. Why couldn’t Westminster council say “no new parking permits will be issued”? That way, anybody moving to the area knows that they can’t keep a car on the street there, and must either pay to keep it on private property or live without a car (the horror!).

The council could even say to existing residents “all parking permits will be invalid in three years’ time” – that would give people plenty of time to sell their car, or move elsewhere if owning a car is that important to them.

I can’t see landlords losing out, as flats in Soho must so incredibly in demand that there would be plenty of people willing to live there car-free.

So why does Cllr Argar talk of these Soho car owners’ right to park as if it’s inalienable?

So let me say this now: Pedestrianise Soho!

While I’m on the subject…

I might as well mention that Westminster seems to have more than its fair share of junctions without any pedestrian light phase – so there are always cars coming from somewhere, and people on foot are expected to run across the road with their fingers crossed.

Who designed this? Why is this acceptable in 2013? How on earth do people who can’t run tackle these streets? This is motor-centric design in a nutshell, the physical manifestation of the 1950s vehicular wet dream.

Is this the “balance of traffic” which Cllr Argar is so keen to retain?

A photograph of Portman Street and Seymour Street in Westminster, a crossroads with traffic lights for vehicles but nothing for people walking.

I’ve no idea how people with impaired mobility cross here. Also, nice stopping, dickwad! (Photo: Google Maps)

Westminster aren’t the only highways authority who do this, but for a council which is in charge of an area packed with tourists wandering on foot, this type of design feels criminal, death and injury waiting to happen.

As children we’re all taught to wait for the green man, but if we put this into practice here we’d be waiting forever.

(Also, look how wide that street is!)


P.S. I hope nobody minds, but I just read this comment on Cyclists in the City’s post about Westminster’s plans for cycling and I think it’s relevant and so well-put that it’s worth repeating here:

Jim 6 May 2013 15:24

I don’t see it as all that contradictory, as there’s a certain crazed consistency to Westminster’s approach here. The target of 5% mode share is laughably low, but the only way to ensure cycling remains so unpopular in a place where its speed and low cost give it such an advantage over other modes of road transport is to have strongly anti-cycling street design and overall transport policies – which pretty much describes the strategy as a whole. If you understand that they’re planning to fail, then it starts to make lots of sense.

Having said that, they’re obviously hoping that TfL will come up with something high-quality enough on a couple of main roads to fool some people into thinking that Westminster really is a ‘national leader in cycling provision’, without Westminster itself having to do anything to earn it. And if that happens, cycling numbers will continue to grow in Westminster while the streets they control remain as dangerous as ever. Which means that casualties will continue to rise.

I hope Andrew Gilligan and TfL don’t fall for it: Westminster have to change, or the Mayor’s cycling vision won’t succeed.


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19 responses to “The imbalance of traffic (Or: This Westminster crap – I saw it coming)

  1. Paul

    I haven’t read much of the draft Westmonster Cycling Strategy, nor do I intend to – I have read enough to know that it is the same tired old ecofluff mouthing good intentions without any real committment to follow through on them. Westminster is not alone in that respect.

    And it is not hard to see why. WCC is top of the league table for generating a revenue surplus from on-street parking – £30m pa or thereabouts, compared with my own local borough of Waverley (SW Surrey) around £2m. That surplus enables WCC to drive their council tax precept down to the lowest levels imaginable, quite possibly the lowest in the country. That, in their view and I suspect they are not far wrong – is what keeps the Tories in office there – that and naked social engineering by packing off their welfare cases to the north of England and “gerrymandering” of ward boundaries such as reached its zenith (or should I say nadir) in the days of Shirley Porter. Westminster is a place for rich people and WCC wants to keep it that way, indeed gentrify it even more.

    However, remember that Boris Johnson was equally immovable on any real cycle friendly or indeed traffic-mitigating policies until very recently (if indeed he has truly reached Damascus) but individual campaigners and bloggers, followed by the major campaign groups and then newspapers and some politicians, have sarted to move things along.

    That is what Westminster needs – a bit of agitation. Other central boroughs are by no means perfect but to a greater or lesser extent they are trying. Hackney has Goldsmiths Row and Pitfield St, and wide spread 20mph. Camden has the Torrington Place Scheme. Even the City is making progress with permeability and contraflow measures, even if they do only produce a ziggy zaggy squirl through the city. Westminster is totally unreconstructed, a complete dinosaur and it is ctritical to the whole scene so merits individual attention. Perhaps that will “enourager les autres” as Voltaire might have said!

  2. Gordon

    There was a similar set of lights in Edinburgh, with no pedestrian cycle – it ‘only’ took three fatalities for the council to reconsider!

  3. Dave H

    Not everyone who lives in Soho is rich – a relative of mine has a flat in Wardour Street along with a number of neighbours who work in the area, and they work very hard in the media industry which has a strong presence in the area (film, music etc).
    Clearly with less than 50% of Westminster Households owning a car the Council is failing in its duty to deliver a balanced mobility policy which reflects that detail. Instead we have an artificial position where a car in Westminster is the real estate bargain of the decade, as it is clearly chaper to pay ground rent (parking fees) and live in your car than find a flat at anywhere close to that price.
    One detail which does distureb me is that you say Westminster makes a profit from the exploitation of road space. In many places the solum (the land on which a road sits) belongs to a frontager or other land owner and only the road itself is ‘owned’ by the roads authority. Thus if a road ceases to perform the function of moving traffic between 2 places (ie if the property on the entire street is owned by say a University) the it can be stopped up and cease to be an adopted road. near to me we have a number of examples, including one where the road for moving traffic is adopted but the parking spaces are owned and managed by the University.
    The detail is clearly spelled out in the Road Traffic Acts, that a Roads Authority cannot make money from the use of the road, with a caveat (added when parking charges became a means of road space management) that any charges made for parking which generated an income should be used solely to cover the costs of road management (nice and woolly and why a number of Roads Authorities are pocketing healthy sums from parking revenues, along with parking management companies – Westminster has its own parking management company)
    A quick assessment in most towns and cities will reveal a roughly 50:50 split between the road area used for parking and the road area actually used for the sole puprose that an Roads Authority is legally obliged to maintain it (the passing & repassing of traffic). Thus it could be argued that road maintenance costs could be reduced or the limited budget better focussed by repairing and maintaining ONLY the road surfaces required for moving all traffic (ie on foot and on wheels) and any surplus areas which can be disposed of returned to the owners of that land for use within a defined limit of purposes, or passed to an organisation to manage parking – if of course the road space is not required for the use of moving traffic – ie cycles.
    I wonder if there is a case to make that with a certain level of cycle traffic, the failure of the Roads Authority to provide for cycle traffic is a failure in their statutory duty (s1.9 I think)

  4. My commute takes me on a tour of some of the best and worst designed cycle provision in London (see here: and without a few minor but unpleasant spots, it’s the section through Westminster that gives me the most grief.

    The picture at the bottom of this piece is on my route (but isn’t as i was taking an Olympic mandated detour at the time) and yes, pedestrians do have to have eyes in the back of their head just to prevent being flattened, especially if crossing right to left, getting hit by a left turning cab is an ever present danger.

    What’s worse is that I cycle this as the advised ‘quiet cycle route’ through Westminster but for the entire route i’m in conflict with motorists somewhere, either cabs trying to beat the lights (or berating me for not) or being tailgated and abused as the street’s too narrow and parking on both sides prevents safe overtaking (hello Wimpole Street).

    Fuck you Westminster. Seriously. You even make Kensington High Street look good for cycling.

  5. Don

    Can somebody indulge me (a complete lay-person where traffic matters are concerned) and clarify why Boris, as mayor, can’t just take complete control of all the roads in London and not just those maintained by TfL? Is there something in law that prevents him from doing this?

    Sorry if this is a stupid question but I’d be interested to know why this isn’t possible.

    • I think the Ranty Highwayman’s comment below answers your question fairly comprehensively Don! But in short, TfL just don’t have the legal authority to do what they want on the roads which are controlled by the local London councils.

  6. Psychlist

    Re: “If you are able-bodied, live in Soho and keep a car there, you are a selfish bastard and I hate you. If you want to keep a car outside you should have moved somewhere else instead. There’s plenty of houses with driveways in Doncaster.”

    Oy! Leave the fuckers in London! We have neither desire nor need of Soho Tank drivers in the North, thank you very much. If you will live in a money grabbing city, at least expect the associated social dross.

  7. This is what happened when I complained to Westminster about two sets of traffic lights, invisible to pedestrians:
    WCC: “It is TfL’s responsibility”
    TfL: “No it is WCC’s responsibility”
    WCC: “No really, it is TfL’s responsibility”
    TfL: “No really, it is WCC’s responsibility”
    So now the matter is sitting with a Max Zindonga at Westminster.
    TfL has been kind enough to send me instructions on how to instruct my ten year old how to cross these junctions safely:
    “Whilst these junctions do not have formalised pedestrian facilities with red and green figures these are not a requirement and the layouts are in line with junction design standards; pedestrians can cross informally when safe to do so, guidance is given in Rule 7 of the Highway code in the form of the ‘green cross code’.”
    I asked what “pedestrians can cross informally” meant.
    “The term “cross informally” means watching the traffic and crossing in a suitable gap.”
    Which means that my ten year old should find a suitable gap, without knowing if it is green or red and if he misjudges and gets hit, it is obviously his fault because he must have crossed with a red light (which he couldn’t see).

  8. where do I start?

    As I always say, this is a political failure. We have signalised junctions in my area where there are no green men at all or on some arms (both TfL and borough roads) – I looked at one a few years back, but the green men would have caused severe traffic congestion and so was rejected by committee.

    Boris/ TfL – GLA Act 1999 brought TfL into existence (S154 onwards), their highways were set out from S259 onwards. (some of this has been altered by legislation over time). In order for TfL to take over borough roads, there would need to be a change in primary legislation transferring control to TfL. TfL has some powers over the Strategic Road Network where they are borough roads, but this tends to be from the traffic flow point of view.

    Stopping up of a highway can take 2 forms. First, if planning consent is granted for a scheme which needs to build on or alter a highway, then S247 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 comes into play with a formal stopping up process which ends up with the control of the area reverting back to the land owner (i.e. he who owns the sub soil) – local authorities can own land on which a highway exists, but the majority (in my experience) is owned by all different people and the highway exists as a legal and physical veneer over land and is as thick as it needs to be operate a highway or for things to be place on, in or under it (such as sewers).

    The other form is S117 of the Highways Act 1980 which essentially has the highway authority going to the magistrate’s court with a view that the highway is no longer needed by the public. S116 allows someone to apply to the highway authority to use its powers on their behalf, but the use of S117 is discretionary – in practice, the fact a highway may be used by the postman or have a telephone line under it will be enough to show it in use. Very seldom used.

    The responsibility for the installation, operation, maintenance and management of traffic signals in London on TfL and borough roads is TfL. The boroughs all pay an annual charge based on the amount of aspects (individual “lights” – red, amber, and green = 3 aspects) in their borough. There are design standards, but essentially, the borough is responsible for the design of road layouts involving signals, plus the timings on borough roads. TfL will approve the design and then install and manage the signals after. Many layouts are pre-TfL, but the lack of a green man on a borough junction is down to the borough. Of course a proposal to introduce a green man which will cause traffic congestion may be an issue for TfL if it affects their road network or a SRN road.

    I struggle to keep up half the time, so goodness knows how most users can pick their way through it all!

    • Phew! Thanks for the insightful comment as always, I don’t know how you keep all of that in your head…

      It seems odd that the boroughs have to pay TfL for traffic lights on borough roads. Do you know why that is? Do they have to pay for an extra 2 aspects for pedestrian signals too? Maybe that’s why Westminster is so lacking in them!

    • I know you’re one of the good guys, but I wonder about these committees who put traffic flow above people’s safety. I say sod the jams, people’s lives come first!

      Interestingly, the draft Lambeth travel plans have a hierarchy of modes, with walking at the top, followed by cycling, and the private car is at the bottom. If they genuinely intend to follow this it will make for some interesting and radical changes. Does it mean that they’ll put pedestrian crossings in at every junction? (And will they make Westminster Bridge Road a bus-only road with cycle paths down the sides? The private car is at the bottom of the hierarchy, remember!)

    • “the green men would have caused severe traffic congestion and so was rejected by committee” – but would they, though? Research tends to suggest that reducing motor traffic capacity tends to _reduce_ congestion: the bottleneck changes the dynamic balance of decision-making when people think about travelling, and slightly fewer people drive if the traffic is likely to be bad. More people will choose to walk, instead of drive, if the conditions are better for walking: also leading to motor traffic reduction.

      The trick with motor traffic design, it seems to me, is to have enough bottlenecks to throttle traffic on most roads. Here on the south coast we have nice bottlenecks on the A27 at Lancing, Worthing and Arundel. Consequently the A27 between these places is usually free-flowing and has plenty of space. If/when bypasses are built for these towns, I’d expect the A27 to rapidly look like the M27 or M25, consistently full of motor traffic most of the time.

  9. Let’s look at the economics of the parking spaces…

    The cost of a resident’s parking permit is £115 if bought online
    The average price of a Pay and display parking space is £3.25 per hour.
    The average occupancy rate of a parking space in the borough is 61.5%

    Therefore the value of a parking space is £17,509 per annum.
    3.25 x 24 x 365 x 0.615

    Meaning residents with cars are subsidised £17,394 per year

    Council tax is about £8-900 and further up Dave H says car ownership is less than 50%. If Westminster charged their residents just 20% of the market value of the space they could drop council tax to £0 for all residents, maybe the >50% of non car owning households would be interested in knowing this.

    Residents permits –
    Pay and display charges –
    Occupancy rates –

  10. Pingback: Car Parking | icycleliverpool

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