Viewpoint: An ancient place, where no cars go?

14/05/2020
Steve Gooding

Former Department for Transport (DfT) director, and current RAC Foundation director, Steve Gooding, reacts to the news that the City of London is looking to place further restrictions on vehicle use as people return to work in the Square Mile.

When I started work in London in 1982 it was possible for me to finish for the day, get the train home to the suburbs (SE9, since you ask), eat, hop in the car, drive back into central London to the Barbican, park on the street - for free - go to a concert and then drive home later.

Those days feel so long ago that they might almost be in black-and-white, or even sepia.

The City of London was always densely packed, but the buildings alongside its mediaeval streets have grown ever taller, accommodating more-and-more office workers. To the east, offices and apartments have replaced the once-thriving then abandoned docks. To the south, the riverside that was fronted by shabby, unoccupied warehousing in the 1980s now boasts yet more office and residential development, including the quirky home of London’s Mayor and the Greater London Authority hard by Tower Bridge, and the Shard piercing the sky next to the redeveloped London Bridge railway station.

As the number of people packing into the City has risen, so the realistic potential for driving to get around has fallen. The City had already flirted with severe restrictions alongside the Bank of England: and now looks set to go further.

Does it matter? The developers of office space can’t think so, because they have long since sought to earn greater returns per square foot of development from uses other than car parking, and found no difficulty in achieving attractive yields from willing tenants.

So, is this the moment, as some are saying, that we’ll see the car squeezed out of the City altogether? And not just the City of London but other parts of the capital too and also in city centres elsewhere?

There’s certainly a strong rationale for ensuring as far as possible that pedestrians are able to move around safely while endeavouring to self-distance this side of a coronavirus vaccine, and in a medieval street-scape that leaves precious little room for motor vehicles - even the vans whose delivery of essential supplies and multiple trades offices, shops and cafes keep the place functioning.

(In 2010 vans already accounted for 15% of all vehicle miles in London, a figure which is set to rise  to 22% by 2035 according to DfT forecasts.)

To a huge extent, the vast numbers of people pouring in and out of the City on weekdays are used to doing so by public transport, often making lengthy commuting journeys from far-flung suburbs.

And the question I am left with is whether the Government’s clear advice - still in place throughout the UK - to work from home if you can, allied to the fact that many office-based companies have found remote working to be a practical option over the last six weeks, will mean the tidal flow of people will not return quickly, or at all?

Put that together with the challenge Transport for London (TfL) and rail operators face in switching from crush loading to safe distancing and maybe the City is destined to stay a much quieter place, and not just for the absence of traffic.

The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring Limited is a charity registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Charity Number 1002705. Registered address: 89–91 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5HS.

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