Sunday 22 April 2012

The Open Road

Recently I have had to travel by car for work quite extensively. It isn't something that I particularly enjoy, and driving is no longer something that can be defined by most as pleasurable - certainly not anywhere near London.

I have had to drive from E17 to the M4 / Chiswick roundabout and back again a couple of times in the last week. None of the journeys were without severe congestion, even though I was travelling outside the rush hour. Indeed if one wants to travel around the North Circular without fairly serious queues you will need to do this before 6 in the morning or after 10pm at night. I have even been stuck in tailbacks at around midnight at Henley's corner. I frequently travel this road at 5:30am and, even at this time, traffic is building heavily.

To illustrate the issue, my last trip from E17 to M4 was started around 9am. I averaged 11 mph for the whole trip - a journey time of not far short of 2 hours. To re-iterate - this was 11mph average outside the standard "rush-hour", on a road that is generally 40mph or 50mph speed limit. On my cycle I manage a better average.

So it is with a certain incredulity that I learn the government are predicting a 42% rise in traffic in London over the next 25 years.  What average speed is likely if this comes to pass? I should imagine it to be speedier to abandon my car in the queues and walk to my destination over the top of the gridlock. If this predicted growth is accurate (and there are doubts over whether the government understand the change in dynamics with travel), then no amount of road building will stop the whole system grinding to a halt.

I am unclear as to what the government plan to do about their predicted growth in traffic. Anyone who isn't completely car centric must see that the situation is unsustainable now, less still if we are going to add half as many cars again to the system. No amount of tinkering around with traffic lights in the name of "traffic smoothing" is going to change matters - what is needed are significant changes in attitude to travel, from individuals who currently decide to cover a couple of miles in a car to planning which allows offices and homes to be constructed far away from transport hubs, and roads constructed in such a way to make travelling by car easy and every other mode difficult.

Attitudes have to change. I heard a woman on the radio the other week say that fuel price increases have meant that she has a choice between driving the children to school or buying food. Not only are attitudes like this incredible, but the fact that they aren't challenged even on public radio is even more amazing. We are so emotionally tied to the car, that any alternative is simply viewed as crazy. How has it come to this? How can we think that we can add another 43% to the road networks in London?

I do see changes in attitude starting to happen. This year I saw more cyclists during the winter than previous winters - and now the weather is getting better I am very much heartened by the numbers of cyclists I see on local roads. My heart was lifted when I went to the shops in Walthamstow this weekend to find that all the spaces for cycles were completely full (shortly before becoming rather irritated that I had to try and find somewhere else of course!) But to wean us all from cars needs so much more. New offices and homes shouldn't just have the odd cycle stand as a sop to environmental guidelines, they need to be considered in relation to train stations, bus routes, shops and existing dwellings. The lady on the radio the other day has to be shown other options, and those options have to be made as easy and attractive as travelling by car.

It is all perfectly possible. In fact, if the alternative is another 42% traffic on our roads, any alternative to this is the possible, and simply trying to cater for more traffic is the impossible.

I will be back on the cycle tomorrow. And despite the sometimes horrible infrastructure, the challenging roads and delights such as Bow flyover, I cannot wait to get back onto a mode of transport that doesn't trap me for hours on a journey that should take a fraction of that time.

As a finale, let me share with you two videos taken around Tottenham Hale in the morning. One shows the chaos caused by a single accident, the second shows that the standard state of affairs isn't much better. Surely we can do better than this?

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