By Deborah Talbot
One of the interesting aspects of being in London, according to Jonathan Raban, author of the 1974 book Soft City, is trying to mentally encompass, and navigate around, the entirety of this city. Of course we always fail, so instead we create inner personal maps of London that represent our everyday lives and imagined culture. These mental maps can be quite small. It is perhaps no coincidence that London, even though it is a global city, is in fact made up of small localities, and often micro localities (see, for example, Chatsworth Road).
It is noteworthy then that various schemes, such as the Jubilee extension into South and East London, and Crossrail, which runs from East to West London, are finding ways to connect very culturally different parts of the city. It is almost as if we are being encouraged to think bigger (the recent Brexit vote notwithstanding).
One example of this is the new ‘cycle superhighways’ connecting East and West London, with a smaller route from North to South London (from Elephant & Castle to, eventually, King’s Cross). The central bit of the East to West London route was opened by outgoing mayor Boris Johnson (to a ‘hail of abuse’ from passing cyclists) on the 6th of May. Passing through the city centre, the route runs from Tower Hill to Lancaster Gate, with a proposed extension to Acton.
The cycle superhighway will be fully segregated from traffic—hugely important, given London’s cycling accident rates. The plans seem overwhelmingly popular. During a nine-week consultation on the scheme, 84 percent of those consulted—over 20,000 people and some key groups—were in favour. The cycle superhighways were supported by Boris, while opposed to the plans were the Canary Wharf Group (the PLC who own, build and manage Canary Wharf), Westminster Council and the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, all formidable opponents. Nevertheless, the scheme was approved, and the end of construction is in sight: while completion of the route was anticipated by March 2016, and then by the end of the summer and then autumn, the full east-west route is now (hopefully) scheduled to be finished, according to Transport for London, ‘by winter 2016’.
It cannot come too soon: pollution from traffic has been found to be running dangerously high in some areas of the city, and London’s air pollution has recently been blamed for up to 9,000 deaths a year. Although the congestion charge has led to a 30 percent drop in traffic in central London, the glut of vehicles continues to be such a problem that even traditional proponents of the view that market forces should prevail admit that radical action is necessary.
For the young, cars are no longer the status symbol that they once were. Across the UK and Europe, planners seem to be waking up to the idea that cities are not the best places for cars. The new phrase on the horizon is ‘peak car’, meaning our urban environments simply can’t handle any more.
Hopefully, the new cycle superhighways mean that more of us will be able to ‘get on our bikes’, without finding ourselves under a bus.