Traffic-free streets are a utopia worth striving for

    19 May 2020

    Strolling along the busy Marylebone Road yesterday I was reminded of that touching scene in The Shawshank Redemption, the one where the elderly lag Brooks is released into a world he no longer recognises after decades of imprisonment. In voiceover we hear him ruminating about life on the outside, ‘I can’t believe how fast things move…’ he complains, narrowly missing a speeding vehicle ‘I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.’

    After eight weeks of blissfully suspended animation, that ‘big damn hurry’ is back but I’m not sure if we are ready. The gentler pace of life many of us have embraced of late seems to be far more in tune with our natural rhythms. The return of the noisily intrusive ‘infernal’ combustion engine feels out of kilter with how things ought to be now that the scales have fallen from our eyes.

    For a brief moment, the manic need to be anywhere but where we are seemed to be on the wane. Lockdown showed us that wherever we happened to be was just fine. But now we are being encouraged to embrace the stress of our former lives. This is supposedly a return to ‘normality’ but it’s a normality that no longer feels, well… normal; I’d even go so far as to say that the pre lockdown world has never seemed so abnormal, like a throwback to a hysterically deranged past some of us would prefer to forget.

    My shock at seeing all those vehicles tearing along the Marylebone Road only goes to show how desensitised I had become to the tyranny of four-wheel, get-out-of-my-way travel. With Boris encouraging commuters to avoid public transport, many are being forced back into vehicles long since overrun by cobwebs. This feels like a depressingly retrograde step on both an environmental and mental level. Apart from the inevitable rise in pollution, do we really want to return to the horror of tailbacks, ill thought out one-way systems and authoritarian red routes? Shouldn’t we be weaning ourselves off this ludicrously outdated form of transport by fast tracking the pedestrianisation of our inner cities?

    My apartment backs onto Gower Street, which has just undergone a major transformation from one-way gridlock to two-way cycle-friendly shared space. That was the plan anyway. In reality, the changes have been woefully inadequate. Apart from being far too narrow, the cycle lanes end abruptly at junctions, precisely where they are needed most. On certain sections of the street, the lanes disappear without warning leaving cyclists stranded in the fast lane. It’s a typical example of local authority half-arsery. We have dedicated cycle lanes where they aren’t needed – through quiet parks – while busy thoroughfares such as Oxford Street are forgotten about.

    Commuters are happy to get on their bikes but the infrastructure has to be in place for them to feel confident. Halfords, the country’s largest chain of cycling shops, has seen a huge increase in sales since lockdown with many stores across the country struggling to meet demand. Shares in the company have soared by 23 per cent. The appetite is there if only the roads would follow. Bristol is setting a trend for pedestrianisation that London may well end up following – the council is currently considering plans to pedestrianise one of city’s main dual carriageways after residents put forward a proposal to turn it into a communal space with bars, businesses and shops.

    Boris has promised to revolutionise urban cycling in the capital to help ease post-lockdown overcrowding on public transport but his last cycling initiative, the east-west superhighway, implemented when he was London mayor, took forever to complete and remains patchy to this day. Marylebone Road for instance is one of the most dangerous arteries in Europe and yet it still has no provision for cyclists.

    People will always need to travel to work and the circumstances of Covid-19 were unprecedented. But let’s not waste what we have learnt from lockdown with an unthinking embrace of our former, mechanistic world. My fear is that the oft-repeated ‘new normal’ will be nothing more than the old normal, with masks.

    The Seven Ages of Man: How to Live a Meaningful Life by James Innes-Smith published by Little, Brown later this year.