London’s roads are not working. Anyone who uses them can see barely a traffic street is free of torment. Barriers, cones, skips, piles of dirt, temporary traffic lights and diversion signs fill the view from every corner. London has never looked so squalid. TomTom traffic data for last week showed congestion up 30 per cent on pre-Covid levels and rising.
It is back to the old days of 2010 when Boris Johnson was mayor and declared a “war on roadworks”, after it was discovered that Oxford Street had been dug up 176 times in a year. Five West End streets had 550 roadworks. Johnson made every contractor seek permission and pay fines for overrunning. It did not work.
An Economist map recently showed roadworks in central Paris compared with London. It was a joke. In Paris there were just under 100 spots within the peripherique ring road. London’s map was like a measles outbreak, with some six times as many.
No one seems in control. Main roads belong to Transport for London and lesser ones to the boroughs. Private utilities can dig up any road they like if they claim it is essential, and pass on any “lane rental” to their customers.
Last summer, I heard of two Thames Water vans stopping in Regent Street, calmly taking out cones, closing the northbound carriageway and proceeding to dig a hole which they left empty.
Buses had to divert to Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street ground to gridlock. The vans returned three days later and filled in the hole, leaving and returning days later to restore the tarmac. For almost a week a major London artery was closed. A friend of mine called Transport for London to complain and was thanked for drawing attention to it. Nobody cared. This was Libertyville London. Firms such as BT Openreach are now clogging up whole neighbourhoods as they lay private broadband cables across London. No one can be asking about the traffic, the cost in delay and inconvenience. Ten years ago Justine Greening as transport secretary estimated this cost was some £4 billion a year. That cost is paid by users of ambulances, police cars, buses and taxis, not to mention residents.
The old rules of traffic management seem no longer to apply. It was once ordered that Euston Road and the Embankment were always to be kept flowing. The roadworks at Euston and the entire Embankment lane devoted to bikes have ended that.
Likewise Hyde Park Corner was always to keep moving. In the evening rush it can now take 10 minutes to penetrate it, thanks to the Mayor, Sadiq Khan’s, cycle gridlock in Park Lane. I am all for bikes but this is crazy. As and when London emerges from the pandemic it will be fascinating to see how it returns to a new normal. An intriguing side effect is to see activity moving from main roads to side streets. The roping off and tenting of pavements for outdoor eating has proved so popular that councils are making it permanent. Soho has gone virtually pedestrian.
London has fallen in love with its lanes and alleys, its old markets and once tumbledown buildings off the main track. It is not Oxford Street, Regent Street or the Strand that are crowded. You can hardly move on a weekend in Brick Lane, Camden Lock or Portobello Road. The same goes for the back streets of Shoreditch and Bermondsey. Covent Garden prices will soon be challenging Bond Street. The smart money goes to Marylebone Lane not Wigmore Street, to Westbourne Grove not Notting Hill Gate.
We can perhaps forget those awful Eighties “retail hubs” of Elephant and Castle, Hammersmith and Aldgate, of Westfield and Canary Wharf. Tatty Borough Market is where it’s at, now virtually impassable with football-like crowds of shoppers, while 100 yards down the road, the streetscape around the Shard is a bleak wilderness of plate glass and security guards. That is modern town planning for you.
Lockdown London has been learning a new sort of city. Sadiq Khan may plead like all mayors that he lacks the power to control his roads. But a mayor’s job is to fight for such power, as in Paris and New York. Khan’s city is a mess.
Londoners are avoiding the mess. They are hiding away from the wide shopping boulevards and fuming main roads and colonising the city’s old quarters. They are using the open air, the pavements, the courtyards, filling them with market stalls and canteens. They are fashioning the city to their needs as a vast souk, and the city is responding.