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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.