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.

 
 
 
 

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.