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London’s main roads need action now

10 ways to improve our main roads

‘Smoothing traffic flow’ has been at the heart of roads transport policy in London for, well, pretty much ever. This policy of facilitating journeys by motor vehicle has infected everything – and negatively from the point of view of Londoners wanting to walk short trips, or cycle, or have clean air. 30mph and higher speed limits were largely unquestioned; pedestrian crossing timings were geared to keeping motor vehicles moving; signalised pedestrian crossings were removed; and road capacity was increased, for example by adding more lanes, narrowing pavements or building wide turning radii at intersections.

Since the introduction of the current Mayor’s Transport Strategy in 2018, things have moved on and new mantras have come to the fore including:

  • Fewer people driving cars, more people walking, cycling and using public transport, especially encouraging ‘active travel’ as a means to healthier lifestyles
  • ‘Vision Zero’ – working towards (by 2041) zero human casualties on London’s roads
  • ‘Healthy Streets’ with its ‘wheel’ illustrating the ten characteristics a street should have to be regarded as fit for purpose for all users and not just drivers
  • and most recently, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and ‘School Streets’
Image: Lambeth Council
Image: Lambeth Council
Image: Lambeth Council

Guided by real-time navigation software like Waze, drivers are encouraged to leave main roads and cut a few minutes off their journey by driving through residential neighbourhoods instead and this, along with a general increase in traffic has led to the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods where bollards are used to prevent motorists from taking these ‘rat-runs’ (while allowing cyclists and pedestrians through). Once installed, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods become popular with residents because they experience quieter local streets, cleaner air, and much safer conditions in which to walk, cycle, shop, accompany children to school and so on.

Some people fear Low Traffic Neighbourhoods will result in even greater numbers of motor vehicles on main roads – but evidence suggests the impact isn’t as great as some fear. Read London Living Streets’ recent blog for more evidence and experience.

The real issue is – we need urgent action to improve London’s main roads for a whole host of reasons. Here’s why, and what we need to do.

Main roads are London’s arteries, leading towards, or running through, London’s many local town centres, as well as the City and the West End and are the roads on which most buses, HGVs and other commercial vehicles travel.

But they are also places where many people live, many people visit (if they are high streets), many people use as walking or cycling routes and where many children attend school (a significant number of schools are situated on them).

But by and large they are dangerous, polluted, unwelcoming places especially for people walking or cycling.

The measures we advocate for our main roads are those designed make high streets safer, less-polluted, less congested, quieter, more pleasant places to be. For the most part, they do this by discouraging car trips in favour of walking, cycling and public transport. Many of these measures have multiple, sometimes unexpected, benefits, for example cycle lanes reduce pollution and make streets better for pedestrians too, while also of course encouraging people to make more trips by bike and fewer trips by car.

Here are 10 things we want London Boroughs and the London Mayor to do improve our main roads.

1. Remove car parking bays on main roads, particularly free or uncontrolled parking. While disabled and loading parking bays are essential, much of the parking provision on our high streets is not. Removing parking discourages car trips and creates space for greening, seating, tables & chairs for cafes, wider pavements or ‘parklets’. It can also create space for cycle lanes. High streets can become places people go to socialise and linger. Evidence shows high street businesses do better when parking is removed as part of improvement schemes, despite concerns it might damage business.

Before image of Grey Street, Newcastle: Google Maps
After visualisation: Ryder Architecture

2. Introduce bus gates and bus lanes. Prioritising space to keep buses moving is vital to encourage people to use public transport.

3. Establish 20 mph speed limits on main roads. This will dramatically reduce danger, pollution and noise. Speed limits need to be enforced and automatic speed-limiters used by responsible fleets. Find out more at Living Steets and 20’s Plenty.

4. Put in extra cycle and pedestrian crossings and make side-roads running off main roads easier to cross. These measure all contribute to making walking and cycling safer and so promote ‘active travel’ and in doing so and reduce car trips.

Photo by Kevin Grieve

5. Improve existing crossings and junctions. Improvements should focus on safety but should also include shorter wait times at pelican and ‘tiger’ (combined cycle and pedestrian) crossings. Prioritising cyclist and pedestrian safety will encourage walking and cycling. ‘Island’ crossings, where people must wait in the middle of the road for a gap in traffic are particularly dangerous and polluted and should be replaced with safe zebra, pelican or tiger crossings where people can cross the whole road in one go. Read more on how crossing and junctions can be improved.

6. Install wider pavements. This promotes walking and makes a place more pleasant to be and every metre away from the kerb means less pollution for pedestrians.

7. Reduce the number of lanes on the road, reclaiming space for bus lanes, pavement and protected cycle track. Many of London’s main roads are extremely wide, take an enormous amount of space but are allocated entirely to general traffic, often with unnecessary lanes. This space can be redeployed to much better effect (for bus or cycle lanes, wider pavements, trees and greening, parklets and so forth). But recent research on reducing road danger in Oslo also showed the key role reducing road lanes can have on the numbers of casualties.

8. Put in protected cycle track on main roads to tap latent demand for cycling by dramatically improving safety. This also reduces pollution and improves the pedestrian environment.

There is a lot of evidence on the positive impact of protected cycle track particularly on safety. But there are also other positive impacts. When protected cycle track is put in:

  • Pollution levels decrease. Evidence is available for Waltham Forest Mini Holland and the Embankment. In both cases, main road pollution decreased after cycle tracks went in.
  • Pedestrians are moved further away from the traffic, pollution and noise, making their experience more pleasant.
  • Safety increases. When cycle tracks go in, junctions become a big focus in general, so most cycle track schemes have seen:
      1. Improvements to main road junctions with: safety for cyclists; more green-man crossing and time for pedestrians
      2. Improvements to side road junctions with: continuous footways; priority for pedestrians crossing the side road; raised surfaces; shortened crossing distances
      3. More crossings – zebras, tigers (for both pedestrians and cyclists), parallel, signalised, ‘mid-link’ (crossings between junctions), etc.
  • Side roads often become calmer
Photo by Alex Totaro

9. Other measures to discourage car trips. Other measures are needed to discourage car trips in favour of walking, cycling and public transport. Key ones we support are: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods; strong borough-wide parking controls (including Controlled Parking Zones and a workplace parking levy which covers public as well as private sector work places); expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone initially to the north and south circulars (October 2021) and then as quickly as possible in all 33 London Boroughs; smart road-user charging in all the 33 London Boroughs; planning policies which require car-free development; development of sustainable delivery/consolidation hubs to reduce the number of vans using main roads; secure, affordable cycle parking; incentives for car clubs to help people transition away from car ownership; and Low Emission Bus Zones.

10. Where no bus or cycle lane exists, green screens and other “mitigation” measures may also reduce localised pollution impacts of main road motor traffic by creating a division between the road and pavement, taking the form or hedges or screens to separate pedestrians from vehicles. The closer pedestrians are to traffic the more exposed they are to pollution and road danger. Every metre away from traffic reduces exposure to pollution. However, these measures really should be a last resort only where simply reducing main road traffic capacity isn’t possible.

This blog is adapted from London Living Streets’ blog by Robert Molteno and Jeremy Leach published December 2019 and was created with input from Healthy Streets Scorecard coalition partners.

Main image: Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

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