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In media interviews on Friday night - the night of the Blackfriars flashride - Ben Plowden talked about the redesign of the junction on the northern half of Blackfriars Bridge. This is where a bike lane is being squeezed and an extra car lane installed. Cycling groups are dead against this redesign, and so are pedestrian groups. The London branch of Living Streets (formerly known as the Pedestrians’ Association) said TfL’s plans would result in a “motorway-style road layout.”
Ben Plowden’s family and work background suggest he’d be a staunch opponent of Transport for London’s plans for Blackfriars. From May 1997 to July 2002 Plowden was director of the Pedestrians’ Association. He was the organisation’s first full-director and it was he who led the change to switch the name of the org to Living Streets.
Plowden’s grandfather was an important civil servant who rode his bike to work and wrote an anti-car polemic in the 1970s (The Motor Car And Politics 1896–1970, William Plowden) that was radical at the time, and is still radical today.
But Plowden Junior is not opposed to TfL’s plans. In fact, he’s very much in favour of them. But then he would be: he’s the Director of Better Routes and Places at Transport for London. Is he toeing the company line or does he really believe it’s a positive move to remodel a wide bike lane to make more room for cars and lorries?
Let’s examine some of his views. But not from Friday’s TV and radio interviews, from the earlier Ben Plowden, the Ben Plowden who didn’t have a well-paid executive job with Transport for London.
In 2001 he wrote a piece for the New Statesman in his role as director of the Pedestrians’ Association.
We need to put pedestrians first in urban transport planning. Over the past 40 years, our towns and cities have been brutalised. Urban streets have become routes designed for one function only - to carry as much traffic as possible. The result is public spaces designed by engineers and dominated by the noise and danger of cars and lorries.
Creating places for people…will require strong and enlightened local leadership.
Also in 2001 he penned a polemic for the Open Democracy website:
If you want people to go somewhere and spend time and money, you have to give them a safe, attractive and people-centred environment.
Roads need to be re-designed to reflect the fact that they are social and cultural spaces as well as traffic routes.
In 2002, shortly before he moved to TfL, as Director of Integrated Programme Delivery - he wrote:
For thousands of years…streets have also been places for movement. People walking, riding horses and later bicycles, or travelling in coaches and buses. And goods being carried on people’s backs, by horse and cart or lorry.
But the arrival of mass car ownership and the dawn of the Motor Age transformed the character of roads and streets. The movement of cars and lorries has become their primary function. Motorised traffic has literally driven out all the other jobs streets used to do. What the Danish architect Jan Gehl describes as the ‘life between buildings’ has been ruthlessly suppressed.
The new primacy of the traffic function of streets has had a number of effects. Villages, towns and cities have been reconstructed to accommodate cars and lorries. Roads have been widened, junctions re-modelled and space given over to moving and stationary traffic.
The noise, stench and physical danger of traffic make being outside unpleasant or even impossible.
It is not just the environment that has been re-designed for traffic. Planning and highways departments in most local authorities are staffed and structured round the need to keep traffic moving. The education, training and career structures of transport planners and highway engineers are orientated towards designing, building and managing road infrastructure. Few people in national or local government have the skills needed to think creatively about the use of streets as anything other than traffic routes.
The most important requirement is local political leaders with a clear sense that streets are for people, not just for traffic.
If only the Ben Plowden of 2011 could tune back in to the Ben Plowden of ten years ago. Reducing a bike lane and adding a car lane is not something the younger Plowden would have countenanced. Clearly, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age.