The Highway Code is dead. We need a new movement code

Piccadilly Circus, c1970, when the Highway Code still worked. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

The battle for space on London’s roads and streets seems to be getting worse. Every day our crowded public transport network accommodates not only millions of people, but the varied fabric of our lives – from luggage to gym bags, pushchairs to tool kits. Technology-enabled personal mobility – from Uber to home deliveries – have put even more vehicles on the road. The welcome and much needed uptick in cycling adds another layer into the mix.

Our daily frustrations are regularly aired: from aggressive driving to phone zombies; pedestrians in bike lanes, to bikes cutting lights. Tube riders who won’t make space, loud telephone conversations or music percolating from earphones, man spreading… We all have our lists. 

Cities are complex ecosystems that work, in part, through a series of unspoken codes, negotiation and accommodation. If everyone is to have a place in the city, for us to move safely and in harmony, it’s time to look afresh at how we support and guide people on the rules, their rights, and responsibilities on London’s roads and streets.  

When the motorcar first traversed our streets, someone walked ahead waving a red flag, to warn pedestrians. As cars became ubiquitous, we created the Highway Code, focused on the ‘rules of the road’.

Over the intervening decades our city, priorities, transportation choices and population have changed enormously. Increasing numbers of people now eschew driving all together, so fewer Londoners actually know the Highway Code. This means we are moving around our busy city with different needs, assumptions and knowledge. And though the Highway Code has been updated, it has not kept up with the pace of change.

We need a ‘new movement code’ – a new platform for sharing our city, based on how we live and travel now. Much more than a cycling or a pedestrian campaign, it would offer a refreshed and a fit-for-purpose protocol, information and behavioural campaign, designed to better guide the daily interaction between different users.


It could embrace trip planning tools and road user training, and may well need lead to changes in the official rules, if the current ones prove wanting in the face of societal change. But for now, it simply surfaces what exists already, overlaid with a voluntary guide.  At its most basic, it should help people understand what we can legally expect of each other as we go about our daily lives.

Mark Twain reminded us that we are not making any more land. Yet we are building more homes, workspace, bike lanes, widened pavements, and adding more people in a space constrained city. If our city is to accommodate that pressure it needs help, from us. 

It’s worth remembering, though, just how far we’ve come since the days when Trafalgar Square was a traffic clogged roundabout. When few traffic lights had pedestrian walk times, dropped kerbs were the exception and public space was lined by tracts of ugly guardrail. We’ve unravelled one-way systems, prioritised good design, pedestrianised streets and softened urban edges with planting and public art. We made London more liveable, easier to walk, much more pleasant to linger and soak in the city. 

But we can’t just rely on the built environment to change and inform our travel habits. A new movement code would be based on mutual understanding, common courtesy and respect. It would be known and used by all road users, of all ages and abilities.

Through generosity and empathy for our fellow Londoners, we can all help make this amazing city, and its busy streets and spaces, work for everyone. 

Patricia Brown is a director of consultancy Central, and a member of the Independent Commission on the Future of London's Roads and Streets.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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