Monday 19 October 2009

Backward London

Gehl's message is straightforward: "If we wish for lively, safe, healthy cities we must improve public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists."

Fat chance.

30 per cent of Londoners jaywalked, perhaps because the railed-off, staggered pedestrian crossings were so poorly designed. Along Regent Street, Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, there were 74 unnecessary footway interruptions. A lack of dropped kerbs hindered wheelchair users. The typical noise level of a main London street was 70-75 decibels – too loud to hear a normal conversation.

The list of minor irritations grew: narrow footways, poor access, rubbish bags spilling their contents, broken paving, poor cycling conditions, cluttered streetscapes.

Indeed, cycling in London was deemed "generally quite dangerous" [did you hear that, Chris Peck?] and only the "skilled, agile and dedicated took up the challenge".

To cross St Giles' Circus, the intersection of Oxford Street, New Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road in the shopping hub of the West End, 23 per cent of people used the underpass, while 77 per cent preferred to dodge four lanes of traffic.

Gehl's argument is that this chaos is the inevitable product of a chaotic urban environment: "Given the same opportunities, Londoners will make the same choices as people in other cities."

In Britain we have been conditioned to believe that cycling is something that can be done only in special places while wearing specialist safety equipment and clothing.