The Big Stink

London 1858 absolutely stank.

For many years the practice of dumping our sewage into the Thames and open cesspits had gone unchallenged but as the population of London had grown so had the problems that come with such an arrangement. The stench had made life intolerable and Cholera was rampant.

“The summer of 1858 was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons …. Heavy rain finally ended the heat and humidity of summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to end the problem.” – Wikipedia

I suppose it is telling that it was not until the conditions affected the workings of the state that action was finally taken. Try to imagine the misery of living a life in what must have been little more than an open sewer across most of London with conditions worsening each year as the city grew.

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains designed originally to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.” – Wikipedia

The solution? Sewers. Big new ones. Step forward Joseph William Bazalgette, visionary engineer who delivered the bulk of the sewers we are using to this day. This was a massive civil engineering project, with the attendant disruption and costs but it had become clear for all to see that a significant investment in new infrastructure was what was needed to deliver a city that was fit for purpose now and in the future. With hindsight we can see it as one of the greatest public health interventions in London’s history. It has paid for itself many many times over and no one would ever question the need for continued investment.

This ability to innovate our way out of problems, to adapt to change, is part of why we are strong today. Do we still have that kind of clear vision that looks to the future need?

London faces new challenges. Congestion, pollution, sedentary lifestyles (obesity) all play their part in draining the life out of the city in terms of cost and utility and premature death. Average vehicle speeds are around 10mph (often much less) with queuing traffic backed up to the suburbs. Driving is hell! (because of all the other cars) and its costs rise day by day despite its massive subsidy. The tube is rammed and expensive (but free of cars). The bus is slow (because of all the cars) and often rammed too. Many more would consider cycling if it looked an easier option (but it doesn’t, because of all the cars) Around 1 Million more people are arriving over the next decade or so, who will all need to get about too…. Where will the extra capacity come from with everything maxed out now? What if they all decide to drive…?

Paraphrasing the quote above:

“Part of the problem is due to the introduction of mass car use, replacing the bicycles that many Londoners had used. This dramatically increased the volume of large vehicles that now poured into existing main roads. These often overflowed into side streets designed originally to cope with only a few locals, but now also used to store the vehicles and carry output from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying onto the M25/Dartford Crossing.”

Car Storage

So many cars need to be stored here that the residents accept loss of their pavement for all in return for parking for some of them. This is the new “normal”.

The solution? A return to cycling. Cycle infrastructure in a coherent network along with some other measures can make cycling into an easy choise for the many. Building such a network is a fairly large bit of engineering and money will need to be spent to do it right but it is no less of a necessary intervention than Bazalgette’s sewers. Although a well designed network would help existing cyclists, the main benefits would be felt by all Londoners. Less cars means more safety, better air, lower congestion (for those who MUST drive) and more money and more time to spend it in local economies for those who begin to cycle. More cycling will ease overcrowding on public transport too. What other mode can increase its capacity so readily whilst simultaneously improving the efficiency of use of the finite street space?

School run hell

It’s the school run and this car is parked! Nowhere left to leave it and the children have to get in to school don’t you know. Other parents with children have to walk in the busy road to get around it. The fact is there are too many cars trying to use the space at the same time. If only people felt they had other choises….

To those who doubt the existence of a mass of “latent cyclists” just waiting for conditions to change before taking to the streets, I say this:

As a cycle trainer, I meet person after person who, “would like to use my bike to get about” but is, “frightened of the traffic”. I can help most of those who want the training but there must be many others who will not give it a go with or without training. I never meet them but I know they exist. It is well established that fear of traffic (despite almost always being overstated) is the reason people don’t cycle. Instead of “latent cyclists” think of them as Londoners. Londoners under pressure. Pressure to get to work, to get over, to get by, to get ahead, to go get some milk, to get on with it, to go go GO!!!! For our sins, that is who we are. As individuals we make transport decisions that balance utility/cost/risk/etc. each time we plan a journey. Providing space and priority for cycling creates more cycling because of the pressure that is driving us. On aggregate we will do what is easy, cheap and looks safe/normal. Transport demand flows into and fills new capacity following the path of least resistance, provided there is demand for those journeys. Making clear space for cycling is the right next step.

There are historical and economic forces that are driving the growth of cycling in London that have nothing to do with anything TfL may or may not be doing. Quite apart from trying to grow cycling, there are compelling arguments for re-engineering our road spaces simply to accommodate current use and what future growth would be like. Cycling in London has outgrown the marginal road spaces it has existed within for years. As it claims more and more space, the arguments in favor of reallocation become more compelling still.

We hear a lot at the moment about the need to invest in big infrastructure projects like HS2 or new motorways but these are only additions or patches to our existing system; like adding more cesspits. I propose that it is past time to re-imagine our transport system as a whole with an eye to the future health and security of London.

Back in 1858, Conservative PM Benjamin Disraeli (no less!) declared, ”That noble river (The Thames) has really become a Stygian pool, reeking with inevitable and intolerable horrors.” Who amongst the current Cabinet or within City Hall has the stomach to offer a response to such an exclamation, were it even being uttered today?

It’s time for thinking big! Step forward our new Bazalgette! We need that kind of vision and the political integrity to do what is right despite opposition from those who would resist such change.

Here are some quotes from evidence given at the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group this week:

Living Streets said: “simply painting white lines on the road is not generally helpful. It can sometimes put cyclists and pedestrian in conflict.

Urban Movement’s John Dales said: “communities must start designing roads for people who aren’t already cycling. We must be very ambitious.

Transport Planning Consultant Phil Jones said: “The approach must be dependent on local circumstances. Segregated lanes are not always necessary. If we’re going to segregate, we should only do it when we can do it properly.

Reducing pedestrian conflict, being ambitious and building for new riders but only doing it properly. I like the sound of that, particularly given this country’s woefull record with respect supporting cycling by design. Since we begin at virtually zero we have nothing to gain by compromise. The designs must be subjectively and actually better than what we now have. London should have the best cycle facilities in the world for the benefit of everyone.

I hope our leaders take heed of the excellent evidence being presented to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. Please follow @allpartycycling and #GetBritianCycling to stay abreast of developments.

– L

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