Town Planning - as if the car was not king. Mini Holland or Major Turkey?

The Cycle Enfield exhibition at the Fox last weekend was just the latest in a long-running series of consultation meetings  a cyclists cash mob and ongoing  discussions about re-thinking the road infrastructure of Enfield borough.  There has been considerable debate about Palmers Green High Street and particularly vitriolic exchanges about who should have priority over a couple of feet of pavement / cycle lane / road carriageway and a handful of parking spaces out side angry businesses.

Rather than repeat the debate here again I thought it might be useful to take a broader view and consider a longer-term vision for what we want our town centres to be. Retail is important, of course, but just take a look at the way Palmers Green, Wood Green and everywhere else has changed in recent years - Woolworths, Peacocks, Jessops and HMV all gone Marks & Spencer on the way out... High street Coffee shops and Charity shops increasing in number and size along with double fronted restaurants.  We are increasingly shopping online and working remotely and the way we use the High Street is therefore changing. 

An article in the current edition of New Start Magazine (available online) by Andrew Allen - policy analyst for Campaign for Better Transport - takes a longer term view he says: 

We know our reliance on cars is bad for us – bad for our health, bad for the environment and bad for the economy. Yet the way we plan and build continues as if it were still the 1950s and the car a watchword for freedom.
(New Start 20/07/2015)

Allen then goes on to consider some bold and innovative schemes which have planned for future shared usage, not relied on the backward-looking approach of planning for the car alone.  

A similar forward-looking and open-minded analysis of the future agenda for high streets and town centres is contained in a book by Julian Dobson "How to Save our Town Centres". Dobson takes a long hard look at how the relationships between people and places is changing, how business is done - and who benefits from doing it well. 

Dobson argues coherently for a re-thinking of Town Centres based on future usage, he says:

Car Parking despite the protestation of traders and motorists is neither a Universal right nor a free good. (Dobson, 2015 Policy Press Bristol) .

The issue of solid data and analysis about parking, cycling and shopping is often the subject of claim and counter claim, anecdotal evidence often clouds rather than clarifies the debate - for example in a recent piece of research just along the A406 in Waltham Forest (right Click to enlarge) it was discovered that businesses frequently over estimate the number and importance of their customers who arrive by car. Similar usage surveys show that customers who do actually use high street shops are keen to see a reduction in traffic in town centres.

Addressing this difficulty of basing long-term planning on insecure evidence Dobson's book cites the Welsh Assemblies 2012 Business and planning review:

We understand that parking in town centres is a complex and highly charged issue, but we have found the evidence in this inquiry to be mostly anecdotal. There is a need to grasp the nettle by planning for the much longer-term so that town centres can be resiliant in the face of rising fuel prices and energy scarcity (National Assembly For Wales Enterprise and Business Committee 2012). 

Current debate isn't advancing the cause of either tribe - instead of getting stuck in a battle of "my-car-park-outside-my-business" Vs "My-dedicated-Cycle-super-highway"  and it's subsequent stalemate; a focus on the long-term and drawing evidence from a wider base suggests that The Cycle Enfield scheme risks missing the point and becoming a white elephant if the original scheme is allowed to be whittled down to a futile argument about a couple of on-street parking bays and  an inadequate and therefore unused cycle infrastructure like that along the A406. 

It is time for articulating a bold vision and identifying some clear leadership in delivering it.

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If anyone is interested in the big picture with a raft of supporting data then the London Infrastructure Plan 2050 has just been published in final form. The Transport Support Paper to this, at over 150 pages, is not a quick read but does outline the immense issues London faces, some of the trends and what the expectations and plans are. It has pictures too.

Think cycles making over 10% of all trips; a huge increase in public transport trips; road pricing and an expectation that Town Centres in the main will shrink, often turning to housing when near good transport with the balance providing convenience items (plus I would guess non internet capable items such as cafes, restaurants and haircuts). You don’t have to look too hard to see that trend.

The Roads Task Force (RTF), a broad church, has been working to a nearer timeframe and again have excellent material about how our streets could look and the challenges to be faced.

There’s not a lot, if indeed any of “steady as she goes” in either set of documents.

I would say the very real Cycle Enfield debate is less about a cycle route and the “right” to have immensely valuable main transport route space outside your shop dedicated to parked cars but rather one that is more life as we know it and a future; and change is inevitably tough and can take short term casualties on its way. Looking widely and forward doesn’t come naturally when inbuilt instincts are ones of survival. So the fight taking place is for the here and now as we know it; it just happens to be positioned vs cycles as a visible representative of the trends. And it’s very real and I suspect is going to get quite brutal over the coming months. Then the future happens; it always does.


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