Pavements are being widened, parking bays suspended, new cycle lanes installed, crossing times changed to favour pedestrians and rat runs blocked off to create new outdoor space.
We can hope and expect that many of these initiatives will become permanent as our lives change and adapt in the years ahead.
The Mayor of London has announced a “London Streetspace” programme in response to a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking.
Merton Council has now launched its own Covid-19 Active and Health Travel response in the face of a growing clamour for action. The ambition is strong – “Merton Council will repurpose some of our borough’s streets and key locations to serve this unprecedented demand for walking and cycling in a major strategic shift to meet our long terms sustainability and active travel goals”
But the accompanying delivery falls well short of what’s needed.
There are only 14 proposals for immediate action across the entire Borough. The document itself is undated, hard to navigate, full of links which don’t work, missing information on most of its proposals and even lacks a Merton Council logo.
We’ve identified a number of shortcomings:
1. Geographical bias. One of the standout problems with the plans is that eight of the 14 proposals are in Wimbledon. The only place in Mitcham to benefit is London Road between the White Hart and Mitcham tram stop, with plans for first a temporary cycle lane and then a permanent cycle/bus lane on opposite sides of the road. The other places outside Wimbledon to benefit are confined to three proposals on the A298 Kingston Rd/Merton High St and one for Haydons Road bridge. Without a dramatic shift in emphasis the inequalities between the east and the west of our borough will be perpetuated.
2. Whose roads? Most the main roads in Merton are the responsibility of Transport for London and not Merton Council. The plans are silent on which of the proposals can be delivered by Merton Council and where a green light is needed from Transport for London. We need a clear strategy for what Merton Council will be delivering itself as well as what it depends on others to permit.
3. Selection criteria. The plans are silent on how the first 14 proposals have been selected. Are they the easiest to implement or those which will bring most benefit? Have choices which will slow traffic down been ruled out? Are they the schemes most likely to get funding or those which will most improve lives? What proposals have already been rejected and why? We need to know the basis on which decisions have been made as well as what has been decided.
4. Funding choices. The plan includes the commitment of £80,000 Merton Council funding but the costed proposals add up to only £19,000. It remains unclear whether the rest, and any additional proposals that might follow, are entirely dependent on funding from Transport for London or off the back of development taking place in the Borough. Given the ambition for a “major strategic shift” we need to see more than a funding bid to Transport for London as the main commitment by Merton Council to deliver change on our streets.
5. Collaboration vacuum. Local authorities across the country have tapped into the knowledge and expertise of local communities in devising their Covid-19 transport plans. Many have collaborated online and gathered ideas and proposals from the communities who know their area best. A wide range of collaboration and mapping tools are now available free of charge to local authorities to help. None of this is visible in Merton Council’s plans. Instead they are based on a seemingly haphazard mix of, says the official online document, “officer observations, feedback from business groups, local councillors and picking up residents’ concerns via social media.” Far from reaching out to involve people the plans promise to “accelerate” the limited consultation already carried out on street works.
The approach perpetuates the misguided belief that consultation causes delay and that it is about navigating the legal procedures necessary to gain permission rather than a source of ideas and inspiration. Merton Council is way behind the curve in its attitude and approach.
6. Publicity drought.The lack of publicity for the transport plans is striking and they were placed online without any announcement. Even Merton Council’s lone tweet set a strange tone in stating it was “working with” the responsible Cabinet Member Martin Whelton. To his credit Councillor Whelton was the first to announce the proposals and has engaged in the subsequent discussion on social media. Nevertheless, we need a communication strategy based on more than the social media following of a Cabinet member and we need the future of our streets and public places to be higher on Merton Council’s priorities.
7. Limited choices. The plans focus on a very limited number of ways to improve our streets and public spaces in a very limited number of places. There is so much more that can be done than replacing parking with pavements in five locations, widening pavements in five more, providing cycle lanes in four locations and putting some stickers down on the pavement outside two shops to help manage queues. Every neighbourhood should be benefiting from such measures and more space being provided in every one of Merton’s high streets and shopping areas. The phasing of traffic lights and the timing of crossings should be changed to favour pedestrians wherever possible. Existing pedestrian and cycle routes should be promoted and the plans extended to block off some roads as through routes for cars and make them available for pedestrians. Existing controls over travel plans, fly parking, pavement parking and vehicle speeds should be better enforced. We need a much more comprehensive and ambitious approach.
For Cricket Green having just one short cycle lane and an even shorter bus/cycle lane on the opposite side of a small stretch of London Road is a very slow start. Our Cricket Green Charter already provides a way forward for both immediate and longer term plans:
“Pedestrian routes should be enhanced throughout the area, including more pedestrian priority at road crossings and new links through Benedict Wharf, the Wilson, Worsfold House and the Birches, and to the Wandle Trail, Watermeads and Morden Hall Park. Highways investment should support measures to reduce, calm, pacify or eliminate road traffic and reduce air pollution including: ending Lower Green West’s isolation as a traffic island; improving conditions for pedestrians in Cricket Green Road (east), Church Road, Church Path, Three Kings Pond and at Jubilee Corner and the cricket pavilion; and closing King George VI Avenue to cars.”
Immediate priorities should also include rephasing traffic and crossing lights and taking action to create space for people around Mitcham Junction station, Mitcham tramstop and central Mitcham. Heavy lorries should be banned from the narrow part of Church Road and more space provided for pedestrians along London Road from Cricket Green into Fair Green. This can all be achieved without harming the character of the area or losing green space. Let us know if you have others and they can be fed in direct to Merton Council via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The “major strategic shift” envisaged in Merton’s plans is ambitious and welcome. Its benefits need to be felt in every neighbourhood and to make it happen we are asking Merton Council to listen harder and collaborate more.