CROYDON COMMENTARY: A recent report on the state of the borough’s unhealthy streets has caused dismay for DAN MAERTENS
That was my first thought when reading the report on Inside Croydon about our borough’s poor rating as far as “healthy” streets.
My dismay was not because of what the article contained, but because it is all so depressingly familiar.
The links to previous articles on that page demonstrate that well: “A once in a generation to opportunity to shape a new Croydon“; “£20m for cycling strategy could get Croydon on their bikes“; and “Cyclists’ manifesto wants an end to carnage on Croydon’s roads“.
We still have the opportunity, but not the strategy, at least not in terms of anything that brings real change on the street, as opposed to wordy aspirations.
What is going wrong?
Lack of money or lack of vision? Apathy and inertia or push back?
If one thing, the recent lockdowns have shown it’s that people will take the opportunity to get out and about under their own power on two legs or two wheels if they can. But the mantra now is increasingly about getting back to “normal”. I’m not sure I really liked the old “normal”.
The car-centric infrastructure that we’ve created doesn’t appear to work very well for everybody anymore. It no longer provides a sustainable template for our futures. You have to ask: what were we thinking?
Sure, I know the car represents a vision of freedom for those with the means at their disposal, but it isn’t equitable for those whose preferred or affordable mode of travel is not car-based. If we don’t start changing our collective mindset very, very soon, how will we safeguard our physical and mental health and wellbeing, our local environment and meet the imminent climate change challenges?
So for me, doing more of the same just doesn’t cut it.
A look at some of the data in the Healthy Streets Scorecard report shows some very stark numbers for Croydon. The percentage of physically protected cycle track compared to the total length of borough roads is 0.6 per cent. In neighbouring Bromley, the figure is double that. Sutton has six times as much protected cycle tracks as Croydon, and their provision is still some way short of the Greater London average at 4.1 per cent.
Even when you take a look at what passes for a physically protected cycle route in Croydon, you’ll quickly find that some are practically impossible to use and many are functionally next to useless (see photo, left).
Some of the painted road markings are just pointless and lead nowhere.
We’re missing opportunities to make small incremental differences. Or deliberately ducking them.
What happened to the Brompton bike hire dock that used to be opposite East Croydon Station, and which was still being promoted with a banner on George Street until fairly recently?
In the long absence of any London-wide bicycle hire scheme coming this far south of the river, surely Croydon can at the very least ensure that the one we used to have is replaced? Even Sutton manages to provide one.
Perhaps Councillor Stuart King can provide an update to his “improving access to bikes” challenge on page 15 of his cycle strategy document that’s gathering dust on the shelf?
How are we encouraging alternative travel and cycling?
Coombe Wood School has recently started to rent out its sporting facilities at weekends. On a recent Saturday, the 3G soccer and netball pitches, basketball court and dance studio were all full. So was the car park, despite the proximity of Lloyd Park tramstop. There were just two bicycles.
A number of residential streets in Addiscombe have been fully resurfaced for the first time in I don’t know how long. Some of these roads have been the subject of comments about the negative impacts of through traffic, but nothing is done to discourage their use as rat runs.
So where are the “Green Side Street” entrance redesigns (as outlined in the Croydon Green Recovery Plan) to discourage vehicle access by anyone other than residents and to encourage anyone who does use the route to really slow down to the 20mph speed limit?
The road casualty figures for cyclists show Croydon to be the third most dangerous borough to ride a bike in Greater London, and more than twice as dangerous as the average.
That’s no surprise. It’s a place where I have experienced all of the close shaves that I’ve had in the last 10 years, and I cycle all over London and the south-east. It’s a place where my teenaged daughter won’t accompany me unless she can ride through the centre of Croydon on the pavement, exacerbating a problem that manifests itself in the number of cycle couriers delivering fast food who operate to a similar strategy for the same reason.
It’s the kind of behaviour that is largely absent in places with decent, safe cycling infrastructure, such as Brighton. Of course, pavement cycling upsets pedestrians, and not without reason because it’s illegal. It is a direct result of the quality of infrastructure that deters anyone who isn’t inside a car.
Conversely, my daughter is quite happy to accompany me on a cycle ride across the middle of London from, say, Finsbury Park down to London Bridge, or from Clapham to Barnes and Richmond. Ask her to run the gauntlet of Fiveways, the A23 or A232 with me, and you can forget it.
Croydon is still a place that pays lip service.
Remember the jacket that Melania Trump wore with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” emblazoned on the back as she boarded Airforce One? That’s pretty much the attitude in Croydon.
Some of the recent coronavirus restriction-inspired initiatives that have been rolled out to increase the number of walking and cycling journeys are alright in parts, but now they’re poorly maintained and don’t really add up to a coherent borough=wide whole.
The fragmented and piecemeal approach is the problem, coupled with the type of physical infrastructure or lack of it.
The Dutch started making the changes in the 1960s, and many of the large conurbations in other parts of Europe and North America have cottoned on to the societal advantages of freeing up space once the exclusive preserve of the car so that everyone can use it. But it’s a leap of faith to take a lead rather than just tag along behind.
I’m not advocating banning car use, and recognise that making any sort of transition away from the car won’t be an option for everyone, but there are some stark choices that we’re going to have to face all of which will involve compromise and a much more frank discussion about what we want our collective future to look like.
When you consider that a typical electric car has a 90kWh battery that weighs over half a tonne, yet that same battery capacity will power between 120 and 200 electric bicycles (and before anyone asks, I don’t own one) you get the picture.
Can we afford continued profligacy?
Croydon is winning apparently – we still have the highest “cycling potential”. At the moment I can’t help thinking it’s a bit of a hollow victory.
- Dan Maertens lives in Addiscombe. He works as an advisor to corporate clients, following a 30-year career in construction and civil engineering, including environmental and health and safety audit and compliance roles
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