How could London's new “Night Tsar” improve the city?

Bar Italia, the all-night Soho cafe which inspired the last track on Pulp's 1995 album Different Class. Image: Getty.

Last month London's new mayor, Sadiq Khan pledged to follow Amsterdam in creating a Night Mayor – or, in London's case, no doubt to avoid the endless punning that a "Night Mayor" would bring, a Night Tsar.

This new role represents a welcome response to concerns about the pressures on London's night-time entertainment sector. Bars, clubs and music venues make an important contribution to the capital: they are a vital part of the London economy.

If young, creative people move to London in great numbers it's partly because of what goes on it in it after dark. If tourists come to London in ever greater numbers – the capital is now the most visited city on earth – it's to visit the British Museum and Tate Modern, Oxford Street and Buckingham Palace, but also to go to shows and to drink, dance and talk till dawn. 

But the value of London's late night bars and clubs goes well beyond their narrow economic contribution. They are an important proving ground for artists and musicians and for London's creativity more generally. The student band performing in a grotty basement bar today could be starring at the O2 in a decade. The comedian doing stand-up in pub could become a leading star of stage and screen.

Yet, London's night time sector is under real pressure. As Shain Shapiro wrote in the recent culture issue of the London Essays, London's night clubs are a fast-declining species. High rents, nimbyism among residents and over zealous policing are leading to the closure of music and performance spaces across the city.


A Night Tsar working out of City Hall will be able to help in any number of ways. They could work with planners, to make sure that the value of late night venues are recognised in the planning process; or encourage developers to protect existing venues and provide new ones. They could work with licensing authorities to make sure that that residents who move into an area with late night venues aren't then allowed to close them down. They could work with the police to ensure that they recognise the value of London's entertainment industry and don't bear down on it too hard.

But it's important that the Night Tsar's remit is not defined too narrowly. Yes, we need someone to champion late night fun and creativity. But London is a busy, fast growing, global city which will inevitably become an increasingly 24 hour place. So the Night Tsar will need to concern his or herself with helping London in that process. 

Here are just a few examples of issues a Night Tsar could tackle.

Night deliveries

Congestion is a big and growing problem for the capital. Part of the answer has to lie in making better use of the road system at night, when it is relatively empty.

In the past councils and residents have object to night time deliveries because of the noise they can involve, but with good management and new technology, noise does not have to be an issue. So the Night Tsar will have to promote and oversee a shift in the way businesses use the roads network and promote more night deliveries. 

Night transport

London already has a moderately effective night bus service, but it has been slow to introduce a 24 hour Tube. The night Tsar will want to review all aspects of night time public transport, and ensure it continues to meet the needs not just of late night revellers but the night time economy more generally.

One idea, advanced by Brian Paddick, Lib Dem Mayoral candidate in 2008, was that women would have a right to ask bus drivers to drop them off at any point on a route after dark, rather than just at bus stops. This feels like the sort of thing a night Tsar should be championing.

The rights and welfare of night workers

As London becomes more of a 24 hour city, so more and more of us will work at night. Yet research indicates that night work can take a heavy toll on physical and mental health, as well as on family life.

A Night Tsar will have will need to be a champion of the rights and welfare of night workers. Perhaps we need new London-wide standards for night work or even a distinct minimum wage for people who have to work unsociable hours.

Light pollution

All mayors run on a promise to make London a greener, more sustainable city. But their interest in the environment seems to wane at night: look out at the City of London and Canary Wharf at night, and you will see a city ablaze with light.

This is wasteful. But it is also polluting. London is no place for anyone who likes to look at the stars at night. A Night Tsar should commit to reducing light pollution in the capital.

 

In the past London after dusk was a domestic, sleepy place. But that is changing – and as it changes, so the authorities that run the city will have to wake up and get involved.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.