When the UK went into lockdown, we were forced en-masse to disband our routines. Like many others, my new normal now included a daily walk. Using the initially allotted exercise hour, I would stroll from Shepherd’s Bush to Hammersmith River, cross Hammersmith Bridge, lap the perimeter of a small lake, and return back the way I came. As restrictions tightened, visual signage obstructed any pretence of normality. Council mandated posters demonstrated the 2-metre distance. Handwritten notes were tacked to lamp posts, reminding runners of the potential vulnerability of those around them. But there were other changes, too. After about two weeks, one-way walking systems were implemented. More space was carved out for pedestrians. Enforced restrictions felt oddly freeing.
Months later, as we navigate the “unlocking” of the lockdown, it is clear that any post coronavirus landscape will require urban spaces to be fundamentally reimagined. The immediacy and impact of the crisis has ensured that any opposition to structural redesign has melted away. If the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that ‘impossibilities’ are remarkably rarely so.
London’s pedestrianisation battle
We have become increasingly aware of the corrosive effects of air pollution on both the environment and our health. Indeed, evidence shows that dirty air is turbo-charging the pandemic: there is a stark overlap between coronavirus hotspots and high levels of air pollution.
Before COVID-19 struck, Oxford Street was one of Europe’s most polluted streets. While air toxicity levels across our capital have been significantly reduced in recent years, 2019 data from the London Atmospheric Emission Inventory showed that 2 million Londoners still live with illegal levels of air pollution, with 400,000 children breathing toxic air.
Yet, until the pandemic catapulted our priorities, little headway had been made in establishing sustainable solutions in London. Urban planning has in recent years shifted towards the prioritisation of low or no-traffic neighbourhoods. The practice has been reflected globally; from Madrid to Oslo to Bogotá; yet has failed to gain real traction in our capital. Early in his mayoral premiership, Sadiq Khan promised to pedestrianise Oxford Street by 2020. Yet, by 2018, the plan lay kaput: blocked by a resistant Westminster council. Khan labelled the decision a “betrayal” of millions of Londoners.
A new era
Now though, blueprints for carless cities are fast emerging. As lockdown eases, Sadiq Khan has announced that huge swathes of London city centre are to be closed to cars and vans, giving people the chance to walk and cycle safely as lockdown is eased.
Main streets between London Bridge and Shoreditch, Euston and Waterloo, and Old Street and Holborn, will be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists. Officials are working with boroughs to implement similar restrictions on minor roads, while plans to close Waterloo and London Bridges to cars are also under consideration. Our city is being entirely reimagined.
It’s not just our health that will benefit. Pedestrianisation may also represent a lifeline for embattled high streets as footfall increases. The Living Streets charity says that businesses grossly underestimate the value of the ‘pedestrian pound’: shoppers on foot can spend up to six times more than those who arrive by car. Space wise, too, the thinning of parked cars could be transformative. The Centre for London has found that despite only 56% of Londoners actually owning a car, on-street parking takes up over 14km2: the equivalent of 10 Hyde Parks entirely covered by cars.
Away from London, other cities are making similar strides. Bristol is set to pedestrianise part of its historic centre, and will widen pavements in busy shopping areas. Manchester plans the pedestrianisation of parts of Deansgate, while a £10million Scottish fund will transform space in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The core of Brussels is to become a pedestrian and cyclist priority zone, while Milan is giving over a whopping 22 miles of road space previously used by cars, to bikes and pedestrians.
On your bike
According to Cycling UK, riding a bike is no more dangerous than walking per mile travelled. Yet the psychological optics fail to reflect that reality. Data collected from Department for Transport surveys indicates that 61% of people feel that cycling on the road is too dangerous. For anybody who’s been forced to contend with heavy traffic or a distracted or impatient driver during rush hour, it’s an understandable perspective.
As such, new cycle lanes, wider pavements and low traffic zones in residential areas are among emergency measures being funded through a £250 million ‘emergency active travel fund’. The money is part of the extra £2 billion set aside by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps which aims to put walking and cycling at the heart of our transport network.
In recent weeks, councils across London have rolled out measures aimed at increasing space for walking and cycling. So far, changes include widening pedestrian footways, installing road filters (plant containers and bollards) to block off motor traffic, and crucially, the creation of temporary protected cycleways.
An interactive map found at www.sustrans.org, allows users to view street changes in their area and to offer feedback to their local authority. In facilitating participation and local democracy in a real time manner, the tool illustrates the potential for the genuine repositioning of our streets; and an end to motor-oriented city planning; should that be what the people want.
Useful resources for walking and cycling
Safety first: always check the Highway Code (www.highwaycodeuk.co.uk) for the latest up to date guidance for cyclists, cars and pedestrians.
The aptly named bicycling.com is an excellent resource, offering everything from simple videos showing how to pump a tyre, to guidance for parents whose children bike to school.
Head to Cycle Streets (www.cyclestreets.net/journey/) for a comprehensive journey planner. Mobile apps such as Strava are also brilliant for personalising requirements and finding routes to fit every requirement.
TFL is also a great resource, with route planning options, maps, guidance on bicycle parking and much more. Head to www.tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling
Walkit.com is also handy for general urban route planning. To add a mindful element to your stroll, download the Walking Meditations app, just £1.99 for iOS, and £1.23 for Android users.
Finally, TreeTalk is a delightful, informative and intelligent tool which generates local walks from an inputted address and informs users about the trees on their route. Head to www.treetalk.co.uk