Friday, 29 July 2016

Towards a Fine City for People

Reflecting on transport policy and practice in London over the last 15 years the high point must surely be 2004. The Mayor had introduced the congestion charge, the London Bus Initiative was transforming bus services, Trafalgar Square and the Shoreditch one-way system were radically overhauled to prioritise the sustainable modes: walk, cycle and bus.

Gehl's Towards a Fine City for People, 2004

Topping all of this, the world’s foremost urbanist, Jan Gehl, had been commissioned to develop a blue print to make London a liveable city for people. His report, Towards a Fine City for People was a masterpiece. It was a simple programme of change, but at the same time a sophisticated analysis of that which is far from obvious: people like living in cities in close proximity to other people if there are good quality, legible, human scale, clean environments that are not dominated by motor vehicles. 

Gehl’s formula is simple: 

creating a better balance between motorised vehicular traffic, pedestrians and cyclists;

and in practice means incrementally improving the streets with good quality materials and creating attractive places where people want to be. Clear away the obstacles to walking, improve cycling and public transport. Reduce the amount of on-street parking and provide public seating - it should come as no surprise that if you provide seating people will use it to enjoy public space! 

The then Mayor, Livingstone, made steady progress with this agenda. In Hackney great improvements were made transforming what was once a poor streetscape for the better. Jan visited in 2013 and described the Mare Street commercial area as a ‘great city street’. 

But progress on transforming London into a liveable city slowed dramatically when Mayor Johnson first chose to remove the western extension of the congestion charging zone, then ‘smooth traffic flow’ (a code for enabling private motor vehicular transport), all but abandoned a bus priority programme and latterly focused almost exclusively, and at considerable expense on movement by cycle. 

This short blog post is an appeal to Mayor Khan and a reminder to others that although movement is important and cycling is important, cities are for people and ‘place’ is as important as movement. I commend Jan Gehl’s Towards a Fine City for People as a great route map to a more liveable London.

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