Over the next few weeks, I plan to examine West Sussex County Council’s Transport Plan 2011-2026, looking in particular at how it is going to affect cycling and walking in my area, Horsham, and at how what has actually happened here matches up to what was proposed in the previous transport plans.
We are met, very early in the document, with this bold paragraph –
The Department of Health and Department for Transport have jointly published a new Active Travel Strategy. The strategy highlights plans to put walking and cycling at the heart of local transport and public health strategies over the next decade. The guiding principles for the strategy are that walking and cycling should be everyday ways of getting around – not just for their own sake but also because of what they can do to improve public health, tackle congestion, reduce carbon emissions and improve the local environment. The Local Transport Plan takes on board the challenges this sets.
WSCC Transport Plan 2011-26, p.10
That seems, on the surface, like a commitment to put cycling and walking at the heart of local transport policy. But I suspect that what will actually happen is that the “challenges” will be “taken on board” (note the flexibility of this sentence) while the Council carries on with business-as-usual – that is, putting the motor vehicle first, with token bits of tinkering around the edges for genuinely sustainable modes of transport. The rhetoric, in other words, is probably not going to match up to the delivery. Judging by what the County Council seems to think qualify as already existing ‘cycle routes’ (of which more, in gruesome detail, over the next few weeks) I think my pessimism is well-grounded.
But to show that I am not a complete miserabilist, I am going to start with a positive. A genuine improvement to the Horsham environment – East Street.
Up until last year, the street looked something like this –
That is, a narrow, one-way street for motor traffic, with a cycling contraflow, and a large number of on-street parking bays, set up against narrow pavements on each side. For motor vehicles, the road does not actually go anywhere – the one-way system that the road meets effectively places any vehicles that travel down this road right back where they started. So the road was primarily used as a quick route into the town centre, usually to drop off/pick up passengers.
The cycling contraflow itself was very useful indeed. Although it was actually impossible to legally access the start of it by bicycle, it provided a quiet route eastwards out of the town centre. Unfortunately, due to its proximity to parked cars, the narrowness of the road, and the failure of many oncoming drivers to appreciate that there actually was a contraflow there (I have virtually been driven into on at least one occasion), it was rather hazardous. So for both pedestrians and cyclists, the street environment was not particularly pleasant.
A large number of the shops on this street were rather fed up with the condition of the street – they felt, quite rightly, that the narrowness of the pavement was not justified, given the infrequency with which the road was actually used, compared to the number of people on foot. So an experiment began, in which the street was closed completely to motor traffic between 10 am and 4 pm. For most shoppers, this was a genuine improvement. The street was quiet, and safe, and they were free to wander rather more calmly than they could when previously confined to the pavements.
A small number of the shops, however, were not exactly in favour, feeling that they required continued 24-hour vehicular access, either for deliveries, or for customers picking up items. So what has eventually transpired? Well, this –
I have to admit that I was sceptical when I heard that the road was going to be turned into a “shared space” environment. I was doubtful about how carefully vehicles would be driven down here. But I think that it has worked out rather well. As you can see, there are a large number of hard objects that anyone who wishes to drive down here has to carefully negotiate. In the six months since the road opened in its new form, I have not witnessed anyone driving down here at anything more than a fast walking speed (in fact, a number of drivers progress with their hazard lights on). The street is usually quite busy with pedestrians, and this, combined with the furniture, has effectively neutralized the street.
So I was wrong. Shared space can work. I still don’t think it can work everywhere – it remains to be seen how it will work on much busier London streets, that do actually go somewhere (Exhibition Road, for instance). With heavier traffic flows I’m not sure how much of a look-in pedestrians are going to get. East Street, on the other hand, works because a “pedestrian majority” was already in place. Where motor vehicles dominate, I’m not sure how merely rebranding the space as “shared” is going to make much of a difference.
One final point of note is that the contraflow for cycling has been maintained*, although it is not marked anywhere on the road. The road is officially two-way for cycling (with pedestrian priority) and one-way for motor vehicles. This works – I can happily cycle up and down this street, carefully avoiding pedestrians. When it’s too busy, I just dismount. I am happy to sacrifice just a little bit of my time in getting to my destination for the good of the street environment.
*I have it on good authority that this is, in fact, largely due to local cycling campaigners, who helpfully pointed out that the contraflow had effectively been removed from the initial plans to convert the street to shared space.