‘THE FISH DOESN’T SEE THE WATER’ 

How we’ve designed car-centric streets without even noticing

  — Article originally submitted to the Wandsworth Society Newsletter

Many Wandsworth Society members will be familiar with the streets around our meeting place, West Side Church, at the junctions of Allfarthing Lane, Heathfield Road and Melody Road.  

The locality is a good example of how our streets have been incrementally shaped to accommodate motor vehicles.

Perhaps most obvious of these is pavement parking. It was Shirley Passmore who told me that, in Japan, proof of off-street parking is required before city dwellers are allowed to own a car, a regulation recognising the fact that our streets belong to all and have a variety of uses. Many residents approaching West Side Church from Allfarthing Lane – experiencing the annexation of space from pedestrians to storage of motor vehicles on the pavement – will wish the same applied here. One can’t comfortably walk sociably side-by-side, or even pass a family group without one having to step aside. And if you use a mobility scooter and meet someone in a wheelchair, or with a double buggy, who gives way? Walking is the original zero emission mode of transport; why do we treat it with such disrespect? How is the public good served by making walking harder and less safe?  

1. West Side Church – general view of streetscape
[junctions of Heathfield Road, Wandsworth Common
West Side and Melody Road SW18] Note the
mini-roundabout design and large’ junction envelope’
– both of these increase road danger to people
negotiating these junctions on foot or pedal cycle.
2. Family walking past pavement parking, Allfarthing Lane on approach to West Side Church Wandsworth Council-sanctioned pavement parking encroaches on space for pedestrians, creating a poor walking environment. There’s pavement parking on both sides of the street here.

Leaving aside this egregious reallocation of pedestrian space, some local streets have narrow pavements, which, whilst allowing access, make walking less attractive than it could, and should be. Indeed, Wandsworth has been identified as a borough with amongst the meanest pavements in London. Pavements are always seen as the default site for street furniture – even when it’s a new form of infrastructure for cars, as with electric vehicle charging points (EVCPs). Paris puts EVCPs in the road; why not Wandsworth?  Observing the numerous signs near West Side Church shows that much pavement clutter is car-related – whether parking signs, mini-roundabout warning signs, signs to explain how to use a mini-roundabout, signs – with flashing lights! – to warn of nearby Allfarthing School… plus bollards to remind drivers to keep off pavements, including even at junctions, where good sight lines are essential for all users’ safety. At least the recent introduction of widespread 20mph limits for motor vehicles reduces the need for some signage.

3. Poor quality public realm near Allfarthing School: Illegally advertised car for sale on the public highway in London and an apparently abandoned chopped-down tree suggest a lack of priority given to maintaining a high quality, attractive public realm – so important for encouraging and enabling residents to walk.

Turning our gaze to the road itself, much of the infrastructure is aimed at drivers – whether it’s ‘SLOW’ road markings, central hatching marking, or speed humps. Like their bigger cousins, mini-roundabouts such as that outside West Side Church are designed to speed the flow of (motor) traffic, reducing the priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. The wear and tear of our roads and pavements resulting from high volumes of motor vehicles is illustrated by worn-out ‘signing & lining’ on our roads, recurring damage to street furniture, and uneven pavements – a major trip hazard, especially for elderly and frail residents.

The wider network of streets around West Side Church has, since the ‘60s, been designed to favour storage and flow of motor vehicles, such as one-way streets, like the northern end of Wandsworth Common West Side and, 20 years ago, Allfarthing Crescent.  

Slowly, slowly, steps have been taken to improve matters, including the commitment in Wandsworth’s Environment and Sustainability Strategy to put walking, followed by cycling, at the top of the transport hierarchy, a set of priorities re-stated in Wandsworth’s draft Walking and Cycling Strategy.  What will this mean in practice for our streets?

Susie Morrow            17/11/2021

Data on pavement width of London boroughs can be found via UCL May 2020 press release at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/may/most-london-pavements-are-not-wide-enough-social-distancing

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