Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
British streets meet Dutch street design.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Dutch should be pretty pleased with recent plans underway in London.
Right now, the city is remodeling three new zones it’s calling “Mini-Hollands”—cycle- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that it hopes will act as flagships for the transformation of the rest of London. Introducing properly segregated cycle lanes, more pedestrian areas, and traffic-calming measures in ways that reflect long established Dutch practices, these zones secured up to £100 million ($155 million) in funding from Transport for London last year. This summer and fall, the first parts of the zones are being officially launched.
The plans are part of a brightening picture across London. It seems that when it comes to cyclist and pedestrian safety, the city is finally getting itself together.
Various plans across the new zones show the Mini-Holland process in action. New bike lanes are laid out with some segregation from cars. In the best places, this means a separating curb, though some may have to make do with a line of bollards. Key junctions get carefully arranged so cyclists no longer have to turn into busy traffic or tackle blind corners. Car traffic on major shopping streets is either halted or reduced to a trickle, and sidewalks swell out to take their place. Then barriers or bollards are strung out across residential streets to prevent their use as rat runs for through traffic—a common problem in a city where quiet streets very often run parallel to major road routes.
Beyond these general steps, each Mini-Holland has its own unique local plans. The most eye-catching is a project to create a riverside cycleway in the southwestern borough of Kingston upon Thames. This would float on the River Thames itself, opening up a pretty stretch of waterfront to cyclists. London fielded a grand, ludicrous plan for a floating path last year, of course. The advantage of Kingston’s more modest plan—beyond its actual modesty—is that it’s located further upstream than the river’s daily tide reaches, meaning it will at least stay put and not jiggle as the water rises and falls. This plan is due for consultation next year, but in the meantime Kingston has already begun to reconfigure key routes and junctions.
On the other side of the city, the borough of Waltham Forest has also been at work, calming traffic in a series of moves that, as this video from Londonist shows, has met with local resistance. When the new scheme launched officially this month, some 60 protestors turned up to demonstrate. The website Bikebiz wryly noted that the protestors took advantage of a newly pedestrianized route to stage their march.
While it’s clear than not everyone is in love with the Mini-Holland plans, there’s no avoiding the fact that London’s tide is clearly turning towards a genuinely cycle-friendly city layout. This is a refreshing change from years of half-measures that have resulted in a notoriously high number of road deaths. Often little more than paint on a road, London’s main bike highways have been accused of actually making problems worse, by granting cyclists a false sense of safety.
Thankfully, there has been some real change trickling through. A new exemplary cycle highway along the Thames Embankment in Central London is already partly in service. When it is finally rolled out to full capacity, it will form part of a fully protected superhighway stretching 18 miles across the city, east to west. A similarly protected north-south route is being built that will end the days of London’s “nastiest” junction being a death trap.
As this collision map of London shows, road accidents are still a major problem, but even here there is good news. According to the map’s creators, last year the number of people killed or seriously injured on London roads fell to the lowest recorded level. Records of slightly less death are not really laurels to rest on, but the tide does seem to be turning.
It certainly is for me. As someone who’s no fan of risking his life, I’ve decided that my local neighborhood, and London in general, may be finally getting safe enough for me to buy a bike in the spring. When easily scared, lycra-phobic people like me finally get tempted onto two wheels, a watershed may be close to being reached.