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Road changes 'a necessity for London to have an economic recovery'

Jack Elton-Walters
18 May 2020

If people choose cars as an alternative to public transport it will choke off London's recovery, says Will Norman. Photo: Twitter - @TfL

London's walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman is understandably busy as he oversees the implementation of changes to London's roads - wider pavements to faciliate social-distancing, new pop-up cycle lanes to encourage more people away from crowded public transport and out of their cars.

He took time out of his schedule to give Cyclist a call to discuss what's been going on.

'We’re delivering in days and hours what usually takes months and years,' Norman explains. 'Park Lane went in last Wednesday night, we’ve already created over 5,000 new square metres of footway – that’s just TfL’s roads, and then you’ve got a huge amount of stuff that’s happening with borough roads: closing them, filtering them, creating the walkways.'

His remark 'that’s just TfL’s roads' is interesting in itself. Transport for London controls just 5% of the capital's roads with the vast majority of the rest under the remit of the boroughs.

From a positive point of view, this means Norman and TfL are making a lot of decisive changes with relatively few roads to make them on.

Negatively, and something that has plagued his time as commissioner, 95% of London's roads are under the control - and subject to the whim - of individual borough administrations.

'This has been one of the challenges throughout. If you look at some of the examples where our plans for pedestrianising Oxford Street, which were jointly developed with Westminster City Council, fell down, that was because the borough didn’t want to do it.

'Similarly, the plans for Holland Park Avenue fell down because the borough reacted and pulled their plans before the consultation was finished.

'The Mayor and TfL only have control over 5% of London’s roads; 95% of London’s roads are managed by the highway authorities of the boroughs.

'We can’t just say "do this", we’ve got to work with people. That’s why, throughout my job, I’ve always taken this approach of collaborating with boroughs, and what you’re seeing is boroughs really responding well to this.'

It's this approach, Norman says, that is working now as most boroughs recognise the significant challenge of allowing people to move around safely while adaquately distanced from one another.

Opportunity in adversity

With the roads less busy, some motorists have seen this as an invitation to break the speed limit. But for other people, the quieter roads have become accessible in a way that they weren't before.

'You can see how families have been enjoying the quieter streets as part of their everyday exercise as well as those doing essential journeys,' Norman says.

'The key thing is that people feel safe. We need to do to sustain that change to make the roads feel safe.

'But this is not an opportunistic thing,' he stresses, 'it’s a necessity for London to have an economic recovery, to be able to restart. With social distancing here to stay for the foreseeable future, the tube and the buses could end up carrying just 15% of the capacity they had before.

'You’re talking millions of journeys, if a fraction of those goes to cars then London’s going to be gridlocked in no time, which would both choke off economic recovery.

'The other point is that we’ll end up having a toxic air crisis and the last thing you need in a time of respiratory disease pandemic is a toxic air crisis, so we’re going to have to change what we’re doing so that’s why we need to tackle this now.

'It’s going to be vital for London’s recovery and potentially as a silver lining to a very, very dark cloud that we’re in at the moment.'

Temporary measures to see what works

Much of the infrastructure and the changes to London's roads in the last couple of weeks have been termed 'termporary', a pattern that's been repeated across many UK towns and cities.

You could speculate on why the changes have been called this, but Norman is quite clear why, for London, that's the case.

'This is temporary stuff that’s going in. In my view we need to put in this stuff as quickly as possible, speed is completely of the essence. We’ve got this space on our streets, we need to free it up for people to use it.'

The approach is something Norman's equivalent in Greater Manchester, Chris Boardman, has called 'reverse consultation'. Once the temporary measures are in place, Norman and his TfL colleagues will see what's working, and what isn't.

'We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of people’s behaviour coming out of this [coronavirus lockdown]. We’re going to have to review it, we’re going to have to monitor it.

'There’ll be some stuff that won’t work at all and that will have to come out. There will be other stuff that might work brilliantly and can be there for a longer period, but there needs to be a process behind all of that,' Norman explains.

'My priority at the moment is to get stuff in as quickly as we possibly can because it’s needed. You can’t go to your local shops safely at the moment if you’ve got people queuing on the streets to get in and other people potentially stepping into a lane of motor traffic so that people could be hit.

'The urgency is now, which is why we’re doing this as temporary measures and as time develops we need to review that and see what’s working and what isn’t.'

Boost for bike shops

Away from his own work, Norman has been in touch with cycling businesses throughout Greater London with many reporting sales spikes and a change in the bikes they're selling.

'When I was speaking to the bike industry they were saying how bike shops are reporting 70% of new sales being people who are either new to cycling or coming back to cycling. You can tell from the sorts of bikes they’re buying, cheaper models, kids’ bikes, that sort of stuff, which is great.

'But also some of the parts that they’re ordering like inner tubes, chains, essentially all the parts that you would need for bikes coming out of hibernation from sheds and balconies.'