by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 4
August 2020

The coming struggle for space on our streets

by Peter Franklin
Some typical London cyclists. Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

The Covid crisis that emptied our streets has now sparked a war for their control.

I don’t mean the occasional battle between police and protestors, but a gruelling conflict between three everyday armies: motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

These factions — and others — are expanding and there’s not enough space for all of them. Social distancing is hard to do on public transport and that means greater reliance on modes of personal transport. If that primarily means the car, then lockdown will be replaced with gridlock.

An alarmed government is now putting serious resources into cycling. Writing in The Times, Edward Lucas notes the “£2 billion of taxpayers’ money [for] more cycle lanes, better parking, vouchers to fix old bikes and subsidies for new ones.” Clearly, two-wheeled transport is going mainstream, but Lucas implores the worst of his fellow cyclists not to let the side down:

However much you may despise cars, cycling at night with no lights and dark clothes is not just silly but wrong… Cycling on the pavement, even slowly, annoys and frightens the frail (and people with impaired vision and hearing, and those managing pets and toddlers).
- Edward Lucas, The Times

Of course, it’s not just these “devil-may-care” cyclists causing the problems, but also fatally dangerous drivers and smartphone-focused zombie pedestrians. As we get more of all of them, the problems will get worse.

In theory, infrastructure investment should enable traffic segregation, but there are complicating factors. Lucas mentions the growing popularity of e-scooters, electric bicycles and other novel modes of personal transport that are blurring distinctions. These gizmos have a lot of potential, but where on the street do they belong — pavement, bike lane or road?

Other complications include the conflict among pedestrians between walkers and the sweaty, puffy runners who are so much thicker on the ground than they used to be. Meanwhile, among motorists, there’s another slow-fast conflict: the ever-expanding, stop-and-start fleet of delivery vehicles versus through traffic (or can’t-get-through traffic, to be more exact).

The tarmac turf war isn’t just about transport either. Extending pavement space to make room for outdoor dining, drinking and retail has an important part to play in saving shops, pubs and restaurants from the strictures of social distancing. But more space for café culture has to mean less space for everything else.

I should also mention another group of people with as much right to use our streets as anyone else: children. One of the few cheery things about lockdown was the sight of kids reclaiming the traffic-free space outside their homes. Deprived of their schools and playgrounds, they took to the pavements instead, coloured chalks in hand. In a lot of places they’ve now been forced back inside — as if their right to play free from the fear of death, injury and pollution counts for absolutely nothing. And yet, I suspect the months of lockdown have reawakened an old instinct — which is that streets aren’t the exclusive property of those who want to be somewhere else, they also belong to people who only wish to inhabit the places — public, not just private — where they already are.

So from every direction (except public transport, for the moment), we see growing competition for the same amount of space.

It’s all very well for the government to give people choices. But a quart into pint pot won’t go. Street-by-street, we are going to have to decide between conflicting demands.

Join the discussion

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up