Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.
When it comes to how we use, and get around in, our towns and cities ‘normal has broken’. Two changes seem certain. For the foreseeable future, public transport (particularly commuting) is not going to be as efficient as it used to be. Breathing and coughing into people’s faces as we squeeze armpit to armpit was never pleasant. Now it will not be acceptable. And there is not space for everyone to drive – to say nothing about the consequences on air quality. Secondly, we have all learnt what work does not need to be done in physical proximity to our fellow humans. Zoom meetings are great and very efficient but it’s hard to hire someone or form a new and trusting business relationship purely online. This will mean that employers will be looking for more adaptable and flexible space to meet the needs of a more remote workforce when commuting into city centres may reduce to two or three days a week.
Two changes are perhaps slightly more tentative – the corona effect may fade with human memory. Starved of other possibilities for amusement, many of us have to come to appreciate, contribute to, or rely more on, our local neighbourhoods – both physically (the small local park) – and those who live close to us. And the profound naivety of the case for ‘superdensity’ developments (a.k.a. tiny flats in large towers or ‘groundscrapers’ with no gardens) as made by, for example, the London Plan is also now plain for all to see. Gardens matter and the reality is that the best places combine the advantages of physical proximity to our fellow humans, but also the personal private space that we all crave. Create Streets calls it ‘gentle density.’
The consequence of the pandemic that ‘stick’ will be ones that enhance trends that were already underway, perhaps most notably the growth of remote working, thanks to technology, and the renewed interest in the quality of life and beauty of what we build due the profound frustration with the desolate places we have created and the lives we lead in them.
So what steps can central, city, or local government take to make the ‘new normal’ work quickly, support the rapid resumption of economic activity, but also make lives not just bearable but better than before? The good news is that Grant Shapps’s important announcement takes some very welcome steps in the right direction. But there are other de-regulating and ‘pop-up’ steps which are cheap or even free. We can do this. Here is an easy to do10-point plan.
- Councils should create pop-up bike lanes or car-free hours along major arterial routes that have hitherto relied on trains, buses, and tubes. Grant Shapps’s announcement yesterday that he expects councils to do this is incredibly welcome. In most situations, this can be done immediately and will not always even require so-termed Traffic Regulation Orders. By the end of May, 75 per cent of major commuting arteries should have safe cycle options. That should be 90 per cent by the end of June and 100 per cent by the end of July. In the short term, the cost can be counted in traffic cones. In the medium term bike lanes should be beautiful not garish and use street trees and urban greening not just day glow yellow.
- Not everyone will want to, or be able to, cycle. The Government should pass primary legislation to legalise the use of e-scooters on roads. At present the Road Traffic Act 1988 treats e-scooters like any other motorised vehicle, requiring insurance, MOTs, and would perversely require them to have more powerful motors. The Houses of Parliament have shown that they can pass legislation within days if necessary. The government’s increased focus on this is welcome but should not be restricted to rental e-scooters. Privately owned E-scooters should be legalised for us on roads, and their speed limit raise to 20mph, by the end of the month. They should be able to use cycle lanes. We need to catch up with other countries here.
- Councils and employers should fund pop-up bike storage by homes, high streets, and stations, as a lack of storage space is a major practical deterrent to cycling. Cycle hangers cost about £2,500 but the price is falling and clever designers are coming up with cheaper options. A bit of public money could go a long way here. A few tens of millions of pounds (chicken feed in the current situation) in the right places would transform options for hundreds of thousands of commuters.
- Not everyone knows how to ride a bike. Councils and government should fund free bike training on demand to give to those who have never ridden a bike, to start this summer. Again, a few million pounds here would go a long way.
- Train companies and Transport for London should use pricing to spread the rush hour peak. The most popular way to do this is to reduce fares for “pre peak” travel with either free or very reduced fares. Cities that have done this (Singapore, Melbourne, Hong Kong) have found it works.
- Government should make it far easier for shops, restaurants, and cafés, to trade on the pavements outside their premises. The current process under Section 115E of the 1980 Highways Act should be replaced with a blanket permission to make use of the public highway up to a certain depth in public squares or pedestrianised high streets above a certain width. On thinner or busier roads, councils should use traffic cones or planters to widen pavements and control speeds. Then they can provide the same blanket right to shops and restaurants to trade on their own doorsteps without unnecessary form-filling.
- Government should help high streets be more flexible with a new flexible use class. For high streets and town centre to ‘work’ in future they will need to be flexible. And the internet Gods are making viable new types of pop-up shop or office that were not conceivable a few years ago. Government cannot and should not try to predict what precise combination of shops, bars and office space will be optimum. But they should create a new Flexible Use Class for high streets and town centres which could combine A1, A2, A3, D1, D2, B1 and others such as artist’s studios. This would permit flexible uses of urban space at different times of the day or week though should not permit destruction of shop facades in high streets. Upper limits on factors such as hours of operation, air quality, noise and parking could be set through planning condition or by amending The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. This should be available within weeks to give commercial property owners more flexibility for the future.
- Government should plant two million new street trees, re-green our streets, and introduce more parklets. Examples in Waltham Forest, Amsterdam, and Vienna show how it can be done. People provably walk and cycle more when it is not just safe but pleasant. Everyone I have spoken to has enjoyed the greater awareness of nature in the last 6 weeks. It would be lovely not lose that as we emerge from lockdown. The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I co-chaired with the late Sir Roger Scruton set out a series of detailed steps including two million new street trees, urban orchards, green corridors, garden squares and bee and bird bricks.
- Government and councils should continue to support creating healthy streets for people. A series of actions will provably help town centres and high streets revive. These include supporting a blanket 20mph speed limit in town centres, wider pavements, pedestrianising more streets and introducing ‘shared space’ where cars are ‘visiting’ or only permitted at certain times in far more town centres.
- Cleaning urban air. The debate has changed on air quality. And it is not going back. A generation of parents has seen the data on diesel fumes and young lungs. And now they have seen the difference as well. Car free days, more air quality sensors and networks of safe streets and ‘school streets’ where traffic is restricted at pick up and drop off time will make life more pleasant in thousands of places. Again, the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission made detailed suggestions.
There are many longer-term questions I have not yet touched on. As a society, are we really still comfortable with segregating elderly people away from the rest of us? I am not. What other models might be better; places with plenty of outdoor space, fresh air, and part of a mixed-use community, perhaps near local primary schools? What will be the future balance between city centre and local centres? Create Streets is kicking off various programmes of work on ‘the new normal’ particularly focusing on poorer towns and communities. Do please send us any ideas or corrections.
To flourish in the ‘new normal’ our local centres will need to rediscover their true purpose as a place for people profitably to congregate for business and pleasure. And that will normally mean helping them become cleaner, more pleasant places in which it is easier and cheaper, to live, work, spend time, set up businesses, and raise children.
Of two things I am utterly certain. We can do this. And if we do it well, our village, town, and city centres will be better places than they were before the crisis: more humane, more beautiful, and more liveable. Good consequences can flow from awful situations. For three generations, a diabolical alliance between cars in town centres and modernist architecture (I call it ‘traffic modernism’) combined to make our human settlements less pleasant, less prosperous, and less popular. This can now change. And this should be a point of inflexion. There is every reason to have faith, hope, and confidence in the future. I do.