Realising the Healthy Streets for London vision

By Nicholas Sanderson,
Cyclists enjoying Quietways 1 route through south east London

Sadiq Khan’s new ‘City for all Londoners’ document gives hints at how London’s streets will develop under his Mayoralty; it sets out what will and won’t happen and marks some subtle and some more significant changes in policy. Here are five notable points.

A welcome focus on changing the way we travel

Khan’s new document recognises that it is not just increasing walking and cycling that will have benefits for London, but shifting the trips Londoners are already making to more space efficient, cleaner and healthier means. Re-engineering streets to enable this is a challenging task but one that London has been getting on with for some time.

The new moniker of Healthy Streets should mean that the benefits for all are more clearly visible from the outset, whether that’s wider pavements and safer, more accessible crossings or more greenery that provides shade and shelter from weather, pollution and temperature extremes. Of course, the rhetoric needs to be backed up by funding, leadership and resources to deliver. To find out whether this is the case, we must wait for the publication of Transport for London’s new business plan.

I will look to reduce traffic and encourage cycling and walking on ‘Healthy Streets’.

- Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

Building on success

Healthy streets will help us to be more conscious and explicit of the health benefits street improvements bring. Thanks to the previous administration’s leadership, we and our partners have a better idea than ever before of what works for cycling. The two new protected Cycle Superhighways are seeing up to 8,400 trips during the morning and evening rush hours, cycling has increased up to 40 per cent on Quietway 1 and traffic levels in Walthamstow’s mini-Holland have halved.

The Mayor’s clear backing is now needed to bring these changes forward within the four year term. As he says, “I will use transport investment to make the most sensible use of space in London.” Sustrans Bike Bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf and the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street are marked out as the flagship elements of this strategy. Both will dramatically improve quality of life in the capital and mark London out in the global transformation toward liveable cities.  

Reaffirming existing commitments

I think his idea of a sensible use of space matches up with ours. Why? The document commits the Mayor to complete the zone 1 grid of cycle routes, deliver more Quietways and more Superhighways (with a focus on managing road works carefully). Before the election he ‘signed for cycling’ to triple the extent of protected space for cycling and bring forward a ‘mini-Holland’ for every borough. We keenly await the arrival of a Walking and Cycling Commissioner to City Hall to lead these projects and build consensus across London’s big community.

No new roads? Not quite

Perhaps most significant is what has been left out of the document. Previous ideas from TfL included an orbital underground road for London, new traffic flyovers and bigger road junctions. It was argued these would help ease congestion as London grows. We pointed out that they were both undesirable and unrealistic to London’s sustainable development and they have quietly, pleasantly disappeared, though the Silvertown Tunnel still looms, potentially significantly increasing traffic dominance in the east of London.

Pursuing Vision Zero across the board

Vision Zero is a target of zero road deaths backed up by the ethos that all deaths are preventable if we rid our roads of danger at source. Important steps have been taken recently to dramatically improve safety in London. Elephant and Castle is transformed, work continues on Archway, while plans are being developed for Old Street and Highbury Corner. Getting spades in the ground on these schemes and many more in the pipeline should be the first priority for the new commissioner.

On vehicles, a handful of ‘direct vision’ lorries can be seen on London’s roads and more should arrive with the proposed ‘star rating’ system. This work is vital and can’t come soon enough. While standalone junction improvements might not uplift cycling and walking as dramatically as network and routes do, they halt the loss of life that casts a long shadow over London. The Mayor’s explicit reference to a ‘Vision Zero’ approach is welcomed. If it is a true priority, we need only look over the north sea for examples of what to do.

The right approach but at the right scale?

Reflecting on the scale of the challenges facing London, the document is welcome, but make no mistake; the challenges are huge. A growing and ageing population putting pressure on space and services, an inactive population with bigger waistlines burdening the NHS and an uncertain political environment affecting our global competitiveness.

Perhaps most immediately apparent is London’s filthy air. It effects everyone, reducing children’s lung development, worsening asthma and burdening the people who live close to busy roads with the worst of it. It is estimated that 9,500 early deaths are the result of air pollution. Current proposals to clean up the air could see us meet legal limits 9 years from now at the earliest.

When it comes to traffic pollution, transport policy-makers must have a healthy scepticism of the term ‘essential journeys’ and its definition. With significant pollution generated by tyre and brake wear even from electric vehicles, reducing overall motor vehicle traffic and shifting travel to foot and bike will be vital and require nothing less than a transformation of London’s streets.

More than anything, ‘A city for all Londoners’ is a licence to focus investment on delivering healthy streets that shift London to active travel.

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