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.
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 men and women 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?
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 cycling-friendly 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?
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.