London is ageing. How can the city’s form and services keep up?

More of this. Image: Getty.

Walk round parts of central London and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a city of young people. This blind spot extends to the unthinking way those without mobility impediments get around the stairs, tube escalators, barriers, broken paving slabs and high pavements that crowd our streets.

Yet for the 1.2 million Londoners with a disability, these streets are not a helpful pathway but an obstacle course that may be simply impossible to traverse. Despite the Mayor’s £200m extra investment to make the transport network more accessible, by 2022 still only 40 per cent of Underground stations will be step-free. The next time you are on the Tube, try planning your journey using only the step-free stations and you’ll understand the extra time and trouble this one aspect of a city, designed without equal use in mind, can cause.

It is not only those personally affected by a disability who are impeded. It’s also the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who provide unpaid care for their loved ones who may be too old, young, or unwell. As I set out in my report Who Cares?, these Londoners are a silent public service, and ever more of us are set to join their ranks in the coming years.

But many carers still find themselves disconnected from normal life. While looking after a loved one can bring great purpose to life, it is also a heavy burden to bear because the design of our city’s streets, homes and amenities is ignorant of alternative needs.

Despite the remorseless logic of an aging population with more complex medical conditions, and a threadbare social security net, 50 per cent of people who currently do not have a caring responsibility think it unlikely they ever will have one. As a city, we are not ready for the fact that many more people will find they have to look after someone. This is reflected in our urban planning, too.

We are currently marking Carers Week 2019, focusing this year on “connecting carers”. As any carer will tell you, going out with their charge can be a daunting process. Too often it is easier to stay in and avoid the rush and risk of bumps and trips, the pavements too narrow for a wheelchair, and the buildings that turn out to be inaccessible.

Yet our homes and housing policies are part of the problem too. Though new builds should meet certain accessibility standards, London has seen an explosion of small homes thanks to Permitted Development Rights, which allow office-to-residential conversions to dodge design standards. That is not to mention the state of our aging private and social housing stock. All in, we have too few suitable homes for the growing numbers of Londoners who need adaptations to keep living independently.


Let us not forget, two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, that residents with mobility issues were living in flats high up in that block without an easy way to escape. At best, good urban design helps us live healthily despite old age or ill health. At its worst, the consequences for individuals are dire.

There are some signs that the picture is changing. Transport for London (TfL) is investing £2.3bn in the next five years in a world-leading programme to make our streets navigable for all. The mayor of London’s Health Inequality Strategy sets out new targets for accessible homes, followed up with tougher planning guidance in the New London Plan. And our efforts to become a dementia friendly city will pay dividends for many more Londoners than just those with dementia.

It cannot be right that an increasing proportion of London’s residents find themselves cut off. While planning for old age and disability may produce less exciting artists’ renderings than glassy new high-rises, it will make a more significant contribution to London’s future.

For too long, we have taken a “make do and mend” approach to how our cities are shaped to meet their citizens’ needs, leaving the NHS and individuals to pick up the pieces. Now, with the right political leadership from City Hall we have a chance to fix this. Changing demographics leave us with no other option.

Dr Onkar Sahota is a member of the London Assembly for Ealing & Hillingdon, a practicing GP in West London, and Labour’s London Assembly Health Spokesperson. He tweets as @DrOnkarSahota.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.