Running Repairs

Scrapping for space

Nick Cohen says hamfisted Covid road closures are dividing opinion

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

There are two groups of demonstrators fighting for control of the streets in my part of London. Extinction Rebellion, you will know about. Whatever it gets up to elsewhere, its supporters gathering in the Islington park up the road could not be more demure. Middle-aged to elderly, uniformly white and middle-class, they look like a book club out for a picnic. The urge to pass them cucumber sandwiches is close to overwhelming.

No one wants to ban cars; all we want is to make it easier to walk, cycle and run reasonably short distances

XR want to ban pretty much everything, but most of all cars. We are not in their Green utopia, but we are seeing the biggest change in the landscape of cities and towns of my lifetime. Covid-19 pushed the government to promise £2 billion for cycling and walking. Pop-up cycle lanes are everywhere. Bollards and planters have been placed across residential roads to kill off the rat runs. Councils are now free to do what some of them have wanted to do for years, and shift from car flow being the first and at times only consideration for transport planners.

Cycling and running round my neighbourhood, I see roads that look as if they have been returned to the early twentieth century: hardly a car passes; children could play in them if they wished. I wouldn’t be surprised see a horse-drawn carriage pass by.

I don’t give the Johnson administration much credit. But I will say this for our gang of deadbeat third-raters, dough-faced charlatans, quacks, crooks and pocket-lining sinecure seekers: in one respect at least it is trying to come to terms with the severity of the crisis.

To date Covid-19 is producing a world that is far from the dreams of Green campaigners. Public transport use has collapsed and millions see the car as the safest mode of transport. Unless the government encourages people to walk, run and cycle, roads will become jammed and city centres will die.

From a different part of Islington come taxi drivers, white van men, and people who expect to drive everywhere. If Britain ever has a gilets jaunes movement, they will provide its core. There have been demonstrations outside the town hall, as there have been across the country.

I can see why. People have built their lives and livelihoods around constant car use; now they’re being forced to change overnight. There hasn’t been time for debate and the lack of consultation has driven people wild. Add on the fact that after decades of thinking about cars, most councils don’t have the experience to implement new ways of managing transport and confusion is guaranteed.

I recently cycled along the Euston Road, which runs from just east of Paddington to King’s Cross. It’s one of the vilest roads in London: choked with fumes and stuck in a near-permanent traffic jam. Now they’re adding a cycle lane alongside the bus lane, leaving just one lane for cars.

The near-permanent traffic jam was now permanent and I was the only cyclist in sight. London never favoured walking or cycling, and those who did avoided the Euston Road. Perhaps more cyclists will come one day. But if I were a motorist stuck in a jam, and seeing only me cycle by, I would fume amid the fumes and wonder about the sanity of setting up a cycle lane hardly anyone used.

The majority of the public is probably happy with street closures. A poll in Islington found widespread support and the council is rather cannily mobilising nimbyism to help it gets its way. It has set up an interactive map online where residents can say what they’d like to happen to their streets. As few want to live on a rat run, thousands are asking for their streets to be blocked off.

But it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, as the Americans say, and in normal times the anti-closure protests would force many councils to back down. Inner London is a one-party Labour state. Its rulers know they will retain power whatever they do.

But what about Tory councils, who may sympathise with the demonstrators, or councillors facing a tight election who don’t want to alienate motivated minorities? Across the country, they are backing down.

As with so much else, government communication has been appalling. It ought to say no one wants to ban cars; all we want is to make it easier to walk, cycle and run reasonably short distances to the workplace or shops. And if that means some roads are jammed, well look around you: they’re jammed anyway.

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