Sunday, 13 September 2015

Place is as important as movement: a tale of two high streets

As mayor Johnson's Cycle Superhighway proposals progress the look, feel and operation of these schemes as they affect the first busy high street is becoming clearer. Why this matters is that in London, as in many major cities, 80% of public space - space that is available for all the public to use - is not in parks or anything that is specifically set aside, but rather is public highway - our streets. 

For too long it had been assumed that the only function of streets was to be movement corridors, and that too primarily for motor vehicles. However, in the early noughties, in London, that assumption began to be questioned, and practical changes made to the way streets were thought about. Architect Richard Rogers was commissioned by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to promote urbanism and Jan Gehl (the world's foremost urbanist) was commissioned by the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone to report how London might be made into a more walkable city with better public spaces that were pleasant to walk through or linger in. As an early exemplar, Kensington High Street became an icon for good street design.

The regeneration of Kensington High Street changed how we looked at our streets - 'place' became as important as movement.
The more progressive local authorities followed the example of Kensington High Street. They cleared the clutter on the streets and footways, so that pedestrians did not have to dodge around obstructions of all sorts, they widened pavements, introduced single-stage pedestrian crossings and used high quality paving. They recognised that creating streets and places where people wanted to be was as important as seeking ever more effective movement corridors. It became increasingly clear that segregating pedestrians from motor traffic by using pedestrian guardrail and other devices detracted from the look and feel of the street and moreover made the streets no safer, from a road safety point of view.

London's high streets are used by almost all Londoners and visitors to shop, travel, enjoy and just watch the world go by, London's high streets are some of its most important places. They are, to use Gehl's terms, public places for public life. We should be mindful that our high streets are a vital part of London life and continue to improve them if we are to live together in ever higher numbers in our city.

However, creating movement corridors for cycling has emerged as a new priority and we are at risk of forgetting how important great streets are. The cycle bloggers, cycle safety campaigners and friendly cycling journos have promoted a world view in which liveability has come to mean cycleability, and a particular form of cycleability, (characterised by kerbs and physical segregation) at that.

Whitechapel High Street is the first of London's High Streets to get the full separated cycle track treatment which some campaigners claim is the only way to make cycling safe and attractive. It is therefore interesting to look at Whitechapel as London's first busy high street cycle superhighway starts to appear. The approach to Whitechapel High Street contrasts with the approach to the development of Dalston's Kingsland High Street nearby. In the latter case developed primarily to regenerate Dalston and improve it as a 'place', as well as being one that is safer for all users of our streets and modes of transport.

Kingsland High Street, Dalston

Dalston's Kingsland High Street is a thriving shopping street by day and one of London's most important (and coolest) night time economy destinations. It's a busy bus corridor and arterial road into central London. It was regenerated only a few years ago to give the street an uplift. Whilst nominally a TfL road, the borough, Hackney, and the local cycling group had a great influence on its redesign.

Kingsland High Street performs multiple function including being a great place to eat and cycle.
It is now still a busy motor vehicle street and an important bus corridor, but the balance between movement and place has been tilted in the direction of its 'place' function. The pavements have been widened, paving material improved, clutter removed along with the removal of the central white line. Its now a more pleasurable street for people to visit, shop, linger and enjoy. Like Kensington High Street before it is an exemplar streets scheme that attracts professionals to visit. It is regarded as a good cycling environment by the local cycling group - the lane width is wide enough (4.5 metres) for cycle to safely pass bus and bus pass cycle. Formal pedestrian crossings are provided for, while informal crossing is also easy. 

Informal crossing is easy. Removing the central white line is known to slow vehicles.

It's not perfect, it is congested sometimes. But it is a fine approach to a busy high street recognising the multiplicity of needs and functions that a high street fulfils, and enables all people and functions to rub along together with a degree of equity. It teems with cyclists, the pavements are crowded with pedestrians and it works as a vibrant London street and most importantly it is a place people want to visit both by day and by night. 

Whitechapel High Street

Like Kingsland High Road, Whitechapel High Street is also a busy bus corridor and arterial road into central London and most importantly, is also the local high street, with the diverse mix of shops that should be found in any thriving high street environment. However encouraged by the cycle bloggers, some cycle campaigners and journalists, it is having a kerb separated cycle superhighway inserted along its entire length. The argument that holds sway at present is that in order to encourage more cycling, regarded as a public good, kerb separated cycle tracks are the only way to make potential new cyclists 'feel' safe - called subjective safety by the cycle bloggers.

Whitechapel High Street will remain a busy street, dominated by motor vehicles, with London's busiest bus services using it. Unlike at Dalston the balance between movement and place has been tilted further in the direction of movement. Pavements have been narrowed, reduced to 6 feet (narrower than many residential streets) along some sections where there is a huge amount of pedestrian movement. And it is the first busy street in London in which cycles are routed around the back of newly installed bus stops - so that cyclists cycle between the pavement and those getting on and off the bus. These so-called bus stop bypasses are designed to facilitate high speed cycling with cycle priority, so that cyclists do not need to slow down, nor need to overtake a bus which has paused to pick up passengers. Visually impaired pedestrians and passengers will be most disadvantaged.

Cyclists dip into the cycle lane depending on traffic conditions. Some use the new lane, others prefer to stick to the cariageway. All maintain their speed.

The bus lanes have been retained, but off-peak parking within the bus lanes will mean slower bus journeys and more congestion off-peak. There is less space on the street now to stop or linger and enjoy the street. Informal crossing of the street is made more difficult because of multiple additional raised kerbs on which one must perch before crossing. Wheelchair users, buggy pushers, luggage pullers and cycle pushers can no longer informally cross the street without having to navigate these additional obstructions. 

A new breed of pedestrian is developing on Whitechapel High Street - the percher, pusher-througher and up-and-over-mum

Some clutter has been removed as part of the scheme, but some has been added in the form of plastic bollards, coloured paint and traffic islands introduced into the carriageway

Poles have been removed and poles have been added

In conclusion

The cycle bloggers, some campaigners and friendly journalists have changed London's streets policies and successfully demanded kerb separated cycle tracks. They claim that more people would cycle in safety and this would improve our streets.  The first of these tracks, along a busy London high street, is being built at Whitechapel. The kerbs detract from the look, feel and utility of our streets for other users. The main losers are users of other sustainable transport modes - the pedestrian and the bus passenger. The usable space available to pedestrians has been reduced. Boarding and alighting the bus now means dodging cycles travelling at speed around the back of bus stops. The consequences for those with businesses on Whitechapel High Street remain to be measured, but the street is being made a less pleasant environment in which to linger - so it is conceivable that fewer people will visit to shop. 

The introduction of segregated facilities may attract more commuting cyclists, but won't achieve its other expressed objectives - namely use by 8 to 80 year olds, not clad in lycra, and a reduced casualty rate. Tilting the balance further in favour of movement (primarily high speed cycle commuting)  will not attract more, slower cyclists who will visit, use the shops and just linger. Improving all of the sustainable modes and improving public transport, cycling and walking and creating great London streets is an objective we shouldn't retreat from. Only time will tell whether these changes will result in lower casualty rates. In the meantime, life is made less convenient for the myriad other users of streets. For my money Kingsland High Street beats Whitechapel High Street hands down!