London should create its own boulevards – even if it doesn't look like Paris

Imagine what could be: Euston Road, 2014. Image: David Holt/Flickr/creative commons.

“London is going in for boulevards, but it is doubtful whether they will bear a striking resemblance to the gay, café-lined thoroughfares of her bright rival across the Channel.”

This was the take way back in 1904, from, of all places, New Zealand’s Star newspaper. A stroll  around London today will reveal that, contrary to most predictions of the future, this one was not too far off being correct: London today has some big wide roads – often arterial roads – which are some of the most important in the city.

But too many are unpleasant, polluted and ugly. London is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, in breach of EU regulations on air quality (although, of course, Brexit will solve that). Indeed only the other week, the London Air Report cautioned that we should “breathe in moderation”. All of this means that our main roads aren’t, on the whole, the kinds of places people would like to live.

As was alluded to 112 years ago though, it doesn’t have to be like that. At Create Streets we envision another way of doing things: our new programme, Create Boulevards, is proposing a rethink of these roads.

Intensely used avenues or boulevards can be both beautiful and busy. Currently however, significant streetches of many of them, such as the Old Kent Road, are surrounded by big-box retail and car parks, a criminal underuse of space in a London that requires so many more homes. 

At the same time we also know that new development can be unpopular – and often for very good reason. We want communities to be genuinely engaged and empowered on this, to harness people’s passions for their neighbourhoods, to be able to take the lead on how their major roads, and the buildings alongside them, should work, and what they should look and feel like.


Creating boulevards will nevertheless require a holistic, city-wide approach. Take the issue of trees, for example. Everyone loves trees and wants more of them.  Urban trees improve air quality. They moderate heating and cooling energy use. They improve physical and mental health.

But one of the major reasons why there aren’t more trees in London is because there isn’t always the space on the crowded pavements: trees, as you might expect, need far more space than they take up above ground, because of their roots, and so you can’t just cram them in closer together. So you need more pavement space - you (obviously) can’t put a tree in a car or bus lane. Really therefore, the key reason why there isn’t space on the crowded pavements is because the pavement area could be bigger – but cars on our roads take up a lot of space inefficiently, and their needs are prioritised.

So, we say, let’s think about space differently. Few of London’s major arterial roads (aside from a few Croydon-centric exceptions) strategically make any use of express buses or light rail to improve transport into the city centre; hardly any have properly segregated cycle lanes. But they could do all of these things.

Kingsway Boulevard. Image: Create Streets.

To demonstrate what London could have, we’ve worked with a couple of architects, Francis Terry & Associates, and Alexandra Steed Urban, who have sketched up what Euston Road and Kingsway might look like if they were boulevardised.  You’ll notice trams, greenery, and dedicated, segregated space for cycling.  You’ll also notice Francis Terry’s design for how the Euston Road could incorporate the Euston Arch, as an iconic, Arc de Triomphe-style feature looking up and down a green boulevard. It could even be a tram stop, with Milan’s Porta Ticinese offering a bit of a precedent there. Alexandra Steed Urban has also suggested bringing back trams to a greener, pleasanter Kingsway.

Euston Boulevard. Image: Create Streets.

The next big step for this is the Create Boulevards weekend, which we are planning for next June, as part of the London Festival of Architecture. There, we will demonstrate how some of London’s roads could feel if they were more like boulevards, rather than traffic-clogged car canyons.

In advance of the weekend, there will be a series of community co-design events. The aim of these will be to work out what the community would like a boulevard to look and feel like, both in terms of public realm and new development.

And on the weekend itself we will close motorised traffic lanes on part or all of a suitable road, leaving it open only to bus and cycle traffic. We will install temporary greenery and street furniture, and pop-up, community-built, new development.  The local community will run events to celebrate the occasion and the new space. We hope – and think – that people will like it so much they’ll want to see it permanently.

We’ve partnered with an array of organisations to begin to plan this, including HTA Architects, JTP Architects, and Urban Engineering Studio. We’re looking for more suggestions of places we could do it, and communities that want to get involved.

That 1904 article was right in another way, too – the boulevards of London, when they finally properly arrive, won’t be a copy of Paris, or anywhere else. We don’t think they should be. We want them to be very much true to London: perhaps a bit more cluttered or idiosyncratic than Parisian boulevards, but all the more characterful for it.

Kieran Toms is a researcher and urban designer at Create Streets.

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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.