We talk about the need for flexibility on a personal level – in your approach to your work, communication, and of course in our body too. As the motivational yogic instagram posts say: “I bend so I don’t break”. This flexibility, I think, is equally important when we think about how our population moves around the city.
In the 1970s, a series of demonstrations only just stopped London becoming a huge flyover city – a spiders-web of motorways through central London – through Dalston, through Brixton. You can still see the start of this web with the stretches of motorway around the edges of London – from Hackney to Blackheath or the West Way.
When I think about this I feel grateful for our city’s streets – the small cobbled ones and even the noisy congested ones (which, compared to other cities are relatively narrow too); the alternative was much worse. Locked in to a ‘car city’. To continue the analogy with physical flexibility – this ‘lock in’ is analogous to brittle strength – strength that only does one thing. A flexible London would make the most of – and reflect – the shape of the city we already have, maximising our ability to get around with affordable and accessible public transport, pedestrianisation of areas where possible and safe, wide cycle lanes.
There would be no such thing as “smug cyclists” because everyone might be a cyclist, just as they might be a walker, or a bus-ser, or a tub-er. One thing I’ve really enjoyed about using citymapper is that it’s reminded me of all the options of getting around; quite often I am wondering how to get somewhere and assume I need to get the tube or bus, until citymapper reminds me that it’s actually quicker to walk. Of course, the ability to walk or cycle or even bus – currently – isn’t an option for everyone so it’s vital that our transport system is available, and desirable, for people with all kinds of mobility requirements.
The benefits would of course be reduced pollution, congestion and improved health and lower stress; believe it or not commuting by car is even more stressful than getting the tube. But I think the most exciting benefit would be around community life – a healthier city. Those who commute by public transport, walking or cycling have been shown to have higher trust and social participation, whilst driving might actually harm the social capital – those essential social relationships that result in community building, and economic development.
Just as we, on a personal level, need flexibility in movement be able to respond most effectively to the range of situations we encounter – a healthy London would benefit from a flexibility in approach to how we move.