For good, affordable food in 15-minute cities, we need public markets

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San Benedetto Market, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy (Google it, or just visit). This 8,000 sq metre market is the largest of four municipal markets in a city of just 150,000 – less than a London borough.

There’s a lot said now about 15minute cities, 20minute neighborhoods, active travel, walkable towns: re-making the places we live so that our daily needs are within easy reach by foot or by bike. Renewing cities in this way has considerable benefits for environmental sustainability, health, and social life. One fly in the ointment is this: switching from a car-dominated city to a 15-minute one could turn into a recipe for high food prices, poor quality and reduced variety. The best tool we have to prevent this is the public market – public facilities with multiple private stalls – for fresh food. To get such markets, well run and on sufficient scale, will require sustained efforts by municipal authorities.

Like many, I have written about how such markets can help revive town centers. Public markets are also a good example of what Eric Klinenberg (2018) calls “social infrastructure” – the routine meeting places in which valuable social bonds are established and renewed. What I’m saying here is that we need them for an additional reason: to maintain competition in the retail provision of daily necessities generally, and fresh food in particular.

When you think about sustainability or about community, planning for competitive markets may not be on your list of requisites. City planners tend not to think much about it either: the shopping districts in my borough in of London are ranked by planners in terms of whether they have a large supermarket, not whether they offer a choice of them; similarly, material on 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighborhoods tends to speak in terms of “availability” of retail services – small shops and, in some versions, supermarkets – within the relevant radius.

For most of us, the facility supplying food and other daily household necessities is a large supermarket. A single large supermarket serves a substantial population, and for that reason most households cannot have several supermarkets within a 15-minute active travel ambit. When large supermarkets are in competition with one another, it is because many of their customers drive to buy their groceries, and can choose which supermarket to drive to. That means that I, as a walk-in customer to my local supermarket, am in fact depending on others who drive there, however much I resent their fumes. If the same supermarket were serving only those of us who arrived on foot, we would be a captive market and would pay for that in higher prices, reduced quality, reduced selection, or some combination of those: that is simply how monopolies behave.

That is why the venerable institution of the public market offers a simple way to get the benefits of competition in food retailing within a sustainable fifteen-minute neighborhood. With a large number of stalls for small traders, a facility on the same scale as a supermarket can provide internal competition in the supply of fresh foods – vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, baked goods, dairy, and prepared food to take away. That is not of course everything you find in a supermarket; many of the branded, packaged products you find there are better handled by conventional retailers, either shops or on-line. But fresh foods – perishables – are things many households buy one or more times each week; unlike branded, non-perishable goods, with fresh foods you depend for quality on the particular retailer you buy from, which makes it more important to have a choice of retailers. It would be a serious flaw in a fifteen-minute city not to have good competitive supply of these things within that 15-minute radius.

You might ask why a public market, with its relatively small stalls, is important for this purpose; would not small, separate shops do the job as well? Yes, small shops could, up to a point. I wrote a paper (Guy, 2013) showing that competition from car-oriented supermarkets can actually raise prices (and reduce product variety) in small shops that depend on walking trade; if the policies promoting the 15-minute city do enough to discourage driving, then in many cases small shops could step into the gap and improve their offer as they compete for the enlarged local trade. In many cases, however, there will not be enough small shops within that 15-minute radius to create the competitive market we need; moreover, a neighborhood could equally well up dominated by a single (walkable) supermarket. By providing space for small-scale (smaller than most small shops) vendors, a public market can ensure that competitive supply of fresh foods continues, even in the a car-free 15-minute neighbourhood.

Public markets have been with us for time immemorial. Many cities still have them. Everywhere, though, they have been undermined, and in many places they have been destroyed, by the car-subsidized supermarket model and by failure of cities to understand the market’s vital role. We should embrace such markets, not simply as a nice feature for a city or town to have, but as a practical necessity for making a transition to active travel.

References cited above:

Guy, F. (2013) ‘Small, Local and Cheap? Walkable and Car-Oriented Retail in Competition’, Spatial Economic Analysis, 8, 425–442.

Klinenberg, E. (2018) Palaces for People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, New York.

Some useful sources on public food markets:

Municipal Institute of Barcelona Markets Website (English version) of the governing board for Barcelona’s municipal markets. Shows a bit how it’s done.

Urbact Markets: markets are the heart, soul and motor of cities. This is the report (2015) of the Urbact Markets European project to promote urban markets, in which several cities and regions took part: Attica (Greece), Dublin (Ireland), Westminster (United Kingdom), Turin (Italy), Suceava (Romania), Toulouse (France), Wrocław (Poland), Pécs (Hungary) and Barcelona.

Understanding London’s Markets. Mayor of London (2017)

Saving our city centres, one local market at a time. Julian Dobson, The Guardian (2015) This is an excerpt from his book How to Save Our Town Centres.

Gonzalez, S., and G. Dawson. 2015. “Traditional Markets under Threat: Why It?S Happening and What Traders and Customers Can Do.” http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/102291/.

Two cheers for Haringey’s school streets plan

Last month, the Haringey Council was presented with a plan for School Streets. This is where streets adjacent to schools which are closed to motor traffic in the periods just before and after school opening and closing. This has several benefits: it makes the street just outside the school safe for kids coming and going; by encouraging parents to ditch the school run and have their kids walk or cycle to school, it reduces air pollution and motor traffic, which has benefits far beyond the school in question, since the school run is a major source of road traffic.

It may be helpful here to explain the difference between school streets and low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). The latter are created by simply cutting off through traffic by motor vehicles: modal filters allow people on foot or on bikes (and, if enforced by camera, buses) to pass, but stop most motor vehicles. Low traffic neighbourhoods usually don’t prohibit driving on any of the existing roads, and allow vehicle access to all addresses – it’s just through traffic that’s cut. But LTNs are in effect 24/7.

School streets are both more restrictive, and more limited. They are more restrictive because they do actually prohibit driving on certain parts of certain streets; more limited because they operate only an hour or two each day, and only on days when school is in session. And school streets stop a different kind of traffic. LTNs may reduce the school run somewhat by providing safer places for kids to walk or cycle to schol, but they don’t prevent any particular parent from driving up to the school gate to drop a kid off.

Haringey, until recently, had almost no school streets, putting it in the cellar in a recent ranking of London boroughs (Haringey has had this problem not just with school streets but with active travel – walking and cycling – generally, something I discussed last week in this blog); a few weeks ago it put in one very small one at Chestnuts Primary School. It had received some funding for school streets in London’s COVID emergency funding for active travel, but used this money mostly for footway widening without restrictions on driving – not what would usually be called school streets.

Now, though, we have a real, substantial plan for school streets, with a ranking of projects by the school’s need and the practicality of implementation. An excruciatingly slow rollout (three schools per year, primary schools only) is planned, but with the plans in hand that could be accelerated as opportunities arise. Overall, this is a terrific development, a big step forward by the Haringey Council. I need to say that very clearly because what follows deals with some of the limitations of Haringey’s school street plan.

The plan rates each primary school in Haringey as either suitable or not suitable for a school street; if suitable, some specific measures are proposed. In most cases, the key (and most expensive) measure is the installation of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to enforce restrictions on driving.

Here, then, are the limitations of plan as I see them.

Can’t have a school street here – we need it as a rat run

Consider Devonshire Hill Nursery and Primary School, on Weir Hall Road, N17. The Plan says:

The school is not suitable for a school street despite the ‘medium’ air quality and high car  usage. Weir Hall Road is not suitable for a school street as the restriction of this street would  have significant impact on the operation of the road and surrounding road network as it is the  main alternative connection between White Hart Lane and Wilbury Way instead of the A10.

What is this vital link in our motor transport network? On the map below that’s the road running parallel to the A10 just a bit to the east, from White Hart Lane at its southern end to Wilbury Way in the north. Devonshire Hill School is shown as a yellow patch on the east side of Weir Hall, not far from the Rectory Farm Allotments.

Map 1

The A10 is a high speed dual carriageway. The idea that the smooth operation of the road network requires Weir Hall Road, a simple narrow street running past homes and two schools (the second school is in Enfield, so not covered in Haringey’s report) to serve as an overflow for the A10, shows just dominant the motoring logic is within Haringey’s highways team.

Part of the tragedy – and to say tragedy is not hyperbole: we’re looking here at children’s inactivity and lack of independence, at lungs and brains impaired by particulates, and at a stomping big carbon footprint – is that a non-trivial share of the traffic on Weir Hall Road is to the two schools on it: 24% of the children at Devonshire, a community school, are driven there, probably in large part because its entrance is on a narrow road that many drivers are taking at what speed their little motors can muster, so of course many kids aren’t allowed to walk there, much less to cycle. So we have traffic generating traffic, which is what traffic does.

We see the same thing with other schools. Sometimes the finding is a simple “not suitable for a school street”, as with Devonshire; other times it leads to restricting the school street to a less busy road. I exclude here cases where the busy road is in fact a major thoroughfare. But what is a major thoroughfare, and what is not, may be in the eye of the beholder. 37% of pupils are driven to and form St Martin of Porres RC Primary School on Blake Road in Bounds Green. It is “not suitable” for a school street because

The implementation of a school  street in this location would have a negative impact on the wider road network operations as Blake Road is part of the main connection between A109 and Albert Road. 

“Part of the main connection” seems to mean “a rat run we use for overflow”. On Map 2, below, St Martins is the yellow patch down a long driveway off of Blake Road, just by the railway. The main connection between the A109 (Bounds Green Road) and Albert Road (B106) should be made by turning onto Durnsford Road (also B106) at Bounds Green. If that route is so busy that Google is sending drivers down Blake Road, perhaps Haringey should get behind the Enfield Council’s proposal to put a bus filter (i.e., no motors except buses) on Durnsford, between Bounds Green underground and the North Circular. I hear, though, that Haringey’s Highways Department actually opposes Enfield’s plan; I can only hope that I am misinformed.

Map 2

Schools which are “suitable”, but where the most problematic street is left out of the plan because it’s too important as a rat run, include Chestnuts Primary (Black Boy Lane). Chestnuts had been rated “unsuitable” in an earlier draft of the plan but, after a couple of instances of kids being hit by cars and the intervention of parents who are also involved in an LTN initiative in the St Ann’s Ward, a way was found to make a school street on a side road by one of the school’s three entrances. Yet the real problems remain: the Black Boy Lane rat run; lack of bike paths and lack of a safe crossing on St Ann’s Road. In the same ward, West Green Primary is listed in the plan as a priority but no details are given for it; I understand that the planned school street for West Green, like that for Chestnuts, would be confined to a little side road (Termont, in this case), while the problematic rat run (Woodlands Park Road, which also passes by the Woodlands Park Children’s Centre and Nursery) is left as is.

Map 3

Time now for low traffic neighbourhoods AND school streets. In all of the cases above, and many others besides, the school street solution would be improved by the creation of an LTN. Even with LTNs in those places, you would still want a school street because the LTN just stops through traffic, while the school street limits the use of the school as a destination for car trips. But, while it would be feasible simply to make parts of Weir Hall Road and Blake Road school streets to reduce the school runs there, the school street restrictions would be much less disruptive if drivers didn’t expect to be able to use those roads as rat runs in the first place. Morning school run is the busiest time of day on the roads, so it is feasible to keep non-resident traffic off those roads at those times, it can be done 24/7 with an LTN.

The Weir Hall/Devonshire School and Blake/St Martin’s School situations are relatively simple, because any traffic diverted from those rat runs would go the main roads where it should be in the first place. Cases like Chestnuts/Black Boy Lane, and West Green/Woodlands Park Road, are more complicated because they sit in systems with multiple rat runs, where closing one easily diverts traffic to another. A well-planned LTN can prevent such spill-overs, and encourage an overall reduction in traffic (including, but not limited to, the reduction in school run traffic).

Or consider Rokesly School in Crouch End. The proposed school streets would cut traffic at school run times, which would be a benefit. But the air quality at the school is rated Poor (most schools in Haringey get Medium, which is already not very healthy), and that’s not going to be fixed without filtering the roads around it; these aren’t main roads, but given the structure of the road network in the area filtering will require some planning. That brings us back to finding a way to replace the stillborn Crouch End Healthy Streets project, and to do better than the Council’s subsequent choice (contrary to the balance of consultation views) to go with pavement widening rather than a cycle track on Tottenham Lane. It’s complicated, but the nettle must be grasped.

There are many cases in the School Streets Plan where filtering traffic as part of an LTN plan would make the school street more effective, and probably cheaper. For examples, I’ll return to St Ann’s ward: for a school street on Avenue Road in front of St Ann’s CE Primary School, the School Streets Plan anticipates £26,400 for ANPR cameras and some signage. The LTN proposed by Healthy Streets St Ann’s would include a modal filter on Avenue Road. If that filter were located at the St Ann’s Road end of Avenue Road, the bit of Avenue Road in front of the school could simply be repurposed as pedestrian space, possibly eliminating the need for the camera.

Then, looking just across St Ann’s Road, we find St Marys RC Primary School. Here, the Plan anticipates £55,000, mostly for cameras on Hermitage Road (I’m guessing the difference in cost is because Avenue Road is one way while Hermitage Road is two way, so needs double the cameras). There has long been discussion of a modal filter on Hermitage to improve air quality at that school, eliminate rat runs through a nearby council estate and the adjoining neighbourhood, and improve pedestrian and cycling safety. With a filter on Hermitage, there would be vehicular access tot he school from only one direction, so the school street would not need as many cameras.

As with the Weir Hall/Devonshire School and Blake/St Martin’s School cases discussed above, these are cases where the proposed school streets are currently rat runs. Not all proposed school streets are rat runs, but where they are, the council and the community should always consider whether the rat run needs a 24/7 filter in addition to school streets measures. For St Ann’s and St Mary’s, as for Devonshire and St Martin’s, filtering should reduce driver confusion, improve compliance and reduce cost. Also, if one object is to improve school air quality, the rat run should anyway be closed throughout the school day, which the filter accomplishes.

The long and the short is that much more can be gotten from this School Streets Plan if the borough’s Highways department is on board with a serious program of low traffic neighbourhoods, and traffic reduction in general. Where a highly polluted school apparently can’t have a school street because it’s on a busy road, the solution should not be to label it “not suitable”, but to shift its case to another level of investigation, to ask how motor traffic on that busy road might be reduced. Sometimes it won’t be possible, but in a context of overall traffic reduction, and promotion of active and public transport – the context the Council says we’re in – there will sometimes be ways.

Pavement widening – really?

At two of the schools (Alexandra Park Primary and Bruce Grove Primary), school streets are to be accompanied by build-outs of the pavement “to allow social distancing”. This seems a failure of nerve, if not a misunderstanding of how the school street works: if the school street is functioning properly, the road space in front of the school is a pedestrian zone at the times when children are coming and going. It seems just a waste of money.

In the Alexandra Park case, it may be that the report’s authors recommend pavement widening because they lack confidence in the safety of the school street itself, because of need for access by businesses on Western Road. As far as I can see there are other ways in to almost all but one of these businesses from the other end of Western Road, so I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Pavement widening is a favourite fix by Haringey Highways – it’s a way of doing something for active travel without actually putting in cycle lanes, and indeed sometimes preventing future cycle lanes – and I wonder if the school streets study teams might have been exposed to this virus.

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Map 4 Alexandra Park School

What’s the problem? Parking? Congestion? Pollution? Lack of childhood liberty?

The reports on individual schools were put together by consultants operating under time pressure, during a pandemic, with a new sort of issue to deal with. Haringey has a lot of primary schools. Not surprisingly, there are places where the description of the case and the reasoning for the recommendation don’t really seem to add up. I’ll describe a couple of cases, but before the recommendations are set in stone there really should be a process of school-by-school review.

Bounds Green Primary School has its main frontage on Park Road, with one side of the school facing the very busy Bounds Green Road. About the first of these the report says:

A site visit highlighted that Park Road is a congestion hot spot with parents parking on the School Keep Clear markings, double yellow lines and in the middle of the road and then conducting U-turns, leading to further congestion.

Sounds as if Park Road should be a school street, then? Well, no, because a few lines later:

“The location of the school is not suitable for a school street despite the ‘medium’ air quality.  The majority of parents observed walked or cycled with their children … there were low traffic volumes observed on Park Road and therefore implementing a school street in this location is unlikely to have a significant impact on operations or air quality.”

Granted that most of the air pollution will be coming from Bounds Green Road; but what happened in the space of a few lines of the report to all of the congestion and illegal parking by parents which, if as described, will surely be having some effect on the willingness of parents to let their children walk or cycle to the school independently? It may in fact be that independent active travel by children isn’t in the remit of the report’s authors – it’s not discussed.

Safety improvements which lower the age at which parents are willing to let their children walk or cycle to school independently are important for two reasons: first, restoring to children some of the freedom which has been taken away from them in the past few decades; second, reducing school run driving by parents whose need to both take a child to school and get to work resolves into a car trip.

This is not the only way in which the report sometimes seems to overlook important benefits that school streets can bring. For many of the schools found “not suitable” for school streets, lack of congestion or lack of school-run-related parking problems are given as reasons a school street is not needed. This misses not only the active travel benefits, as just noted in the case of Bounds Green School, but also the school run’s large contribution to road traffic overall – not just in front of the school.

Sometimes, the report misses low hanging fruit. Coleridge Primary School is slated for a school street, someday, which is good. But the proposal ignores Crescent Rd, which runs between the school and Parkland Walk. Crescent already has a modal filter that stops motor traffic from joining the main road, Crouch End Hill, so perhaps it wasn’t seen as a problem. Yet the stub end of Cresenct Road, with no houses or businesses, now serves as a school run hotspot. It should not be a road, but should be made into parkland, joining up the park along Parkland Walk and the strip of park between Crouch End Hill and the school.

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Crescent Road, seen from across Crouch End Hill. Parkland Walk to the left, Coleridge Primary School and another strip of parkland to the right.

Enough for now!

Can Haringey not afford safe streets?

Boroughs to the north, south, and east of Haringey have made far greater progress on low traffic neighbourhoods, school streets, and cycle infrastructure. The excuse sometimes given for this is that those other boroughs had more money: Waltham Forest (east) and Enfield (north) were two of the three London boroughs to get Mini-Holland money from TfL; the boroughs closer to the centre (Hackney, Islington and Camden) have more money from developers. And, then, having had a lot of practice and something to show for it, when it came to COVID emergency funds for active travel, those boroughs with better track records had applications that looked more credible.

I don’t think that washes. Of course the borough has money problems. But, when it comes to active transport, it has simply left a lot of money lying on the table because the borough, as an institution, has not been interested in active transport. Consider these examples:

Tottenham Hale (Haringey) vs. Blackhorse Road (Waltham Forest). Two stations, Victoria Line plus surface train; both sites have large new highrise developments. Councils get money – Section 106 funds – from developers to make improvements in the area and to mitigate adverse impacts of the development. In this way, Waltham Forest got money to put in high quality cycle tracks at the Blackhorse Road junction. There’s little indication Haringey did the same at Tottenham Hale.

Blackhorse Road in Waltham Forest, Tottenham Hale in Haringey

Getting quality cycle tracks at a big busy junction is a big deal – it’s costly, people with specialist cycle track expertise are needed for design and implementation, and invariably it takes something away from motor traffic. Most main road cycle tracks in the UK just sort of give up at big junctions, leaving cyclists to fend for themselves among turning motorists. It’s a key obstacle to the development of useful networks of safe cycle routes.

Try this experiment: starting somewhere in Waltham Forest – maybe at the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park – ride your bike west along Forest Road. Most of this road has segregated cycle tracks, both ways (it is currently being extended well beyond Lloyd Park to the east, including first class cycle tracks through Bell Junction, a busy crossing of two A roads). Actually, what sets it apart most dramatically from roads in Haringey is a small bit where the westbound track is not segregated, but on the roadway. The double yellow lines are accompanied by yellow kerb markings, prohibiting not just parking, but loading.

I’ve never seen this on the (rare) cycle tracks of Haringey, where the council is happy to have cyclists pushed out into the motor traffic by any driver capable of turning on the blinking hazard lights. Those yellow kerb markings are the least expensive part of the cycle track, but they’re of critical importance to creating a network that can be used safely by cyclists of all ages and abilities.

At the Blackhorse Road junction, we see the fruits of the Section 106 money from the developers of nearby tower blocks: cycle crossings, and continuing cycle tracks, in all four directions.

Continue now along Forest Road. It passes some large building works (cycle lane diverted briefly, but still safe from traffic, and continuous), then the beautiful Walthamstow Wetlands (good walking and birdwatching on both sides), and on toward Tottenham Hale. You’ll know when you reach the borough of Haringey because the cycle track first loses quality, and then disappears. The photo below shows the bit of green tarmac that’s meant to suggest a cycle track, but there’s nothing to prohibit, much less prevent, the car in front of me from driving in it.

I’m not holding my breath but, maybe, that will all be fixed as the building work at Tottenham Hale nears completion. But even if it is, you continue past the Tottenham Hale station and the big car-oriented retail complex that the council allowed to be built absurdly at a transport hub, sandwiched between high density housing developments (high density even before the new tower blocks) and nature reserves. Why allow a car magnet here? But I digress. Make your way around that car park and rejoin what is meant to be a cycle track along part of Broad Lane, the road from Tottenham Hale to Seven Sisters. This track shares the pavement: here it’s marked separately from the footway; there it suddenly becomes “shared space” where pedestrians and cyclists are expected to spontaneously agree to rules for peaceful coexistence; in part of that shared space a bus shelter sits in the middle of the path with no clear indication of how to proceed; and, at several points, side roads or driveways are given priority over the pedestrian and cycle traffic, with drivers pulling straight up and blocking the path. In Waltham Forest, cycles would be given priority; cross to our side of the Lea, and it’s cars.

Quality cycle track along Broad Lane, Tottenham Hale

The problem with the Broad Lane cycle track is not lack of money: it did not cost less than a good cycle track would have cost. The problem is that Haringey prioritises cars, both moving and parked, over other forms of transport.

Railway bridges. In 2017, Wightman Road was closed to through traffic for several months while the bridge across the Gospel Oak-Barking railway was replaced, at a cost of I don’t know how many millions of pounds to Network Rail. Residents of the area, thrilled with the sudden lack of traffic, rallied to urge that the closure be made permanent.

Now, this was actually a great opportunity for Haringey. The old bridge was perfectly safe for pedestrians and cyclists. The council could have offered to Network Rail the repurposing of the bridge for pedestrians and cyclists only, so that the costly replacement was no longer necessary, on condition that Network Rail share some of the savings with the council. That, in fact, is what the borough of Waltham Forest did in the case of two bridges over the same railway line, helping to create (and finance) two of their early Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Here’s one of them, not far from the Blackhorse Road station:

Pretoria Avenue, Walthamstow: a railway bridge. Also a traffic filter.

Haringey council instead spent a substantial sum on a big study of what to do about traffic on Wightman and in the Green Lanes area overall – roughly, the wards of Harringay and St Ann’s. Many suggestions for traffic reduction measures came from the public and, of those that the council allowed into the questions on the final consultation, steps most respondents favoured included getting rid of through motor traffic on Wightman, making the southbound bus lane on Green Lanes 24/7 rather than just weekday morning commute, and getting rid of parking to make room for a northbound cycle track on Green Lanes. The council decided to do none of that, and to make minor improvements to Wightman. This was not for lack of money, but because the politics of getting rid of parking on Green Lanes were too much for the council to stomach. I wrote some blogs about it at the time: Deference to Traffic, and Deference (again) to Traffic (the titles do give away the ending, though).

By the time all of this study-and-inaction was finished, of course, the millions to replace the old railway bridge had been spent.

The Belmont-West Green-Langham triangle

We could say that’s all water under the bridge, but the fact is these things are ongoing. Right now, boroughs all around us are transforming neighbourhoods so that drivers can’t take rat-runs through them. COVID emergency funds were being given out to help with this process, though Haringey’s applications for such funds were turned down. But sometimes Haringey gets other funds that could be used to create low traffic neighbourhoods, if it really wanted to do so. For instance, it has just received from TfL £80,000 on some road safety improvements in this area:

Belmont Road and Langham Road have been the site of numerous injuries to pedestrians at the hands of drivers. Langham Road is an extremely busy rat-run. Langham has relatively high density rental housing and passes by one entrance to Park View Secondary School. Traffic queuing to turn from West Green Road into Langham further fouls the air, and delays buses. Stanmore Road is also a rat run.

Two or three very simple traffic filters would solve this, keeping the through traffic on the main (A & B) roads, and making both Langham and Stanmore into safe places for kids. Elimination of a few parking spaces would make space for a right turn lane from West Green to Belmont, preventing traffic delays on West Green there. Haringey Council estimates traffic filters cost about £30,000 per junction on average, but other sources put that at about £20,000. Two small low traffic neighbourhoods could be had (or at least tried) at well within the £80,000 budget for the safety project.

What’s the Haringey Council doing with the money? Putting in traffic bumps on Belmont and Langham. The cars will still come, with the SUV drivers hardly noticing the bumps and other drivers producing more noise and pollution than ever with the slow-down-speed-up rhythm that speed bumps give us.

As far as I can tell, traffic filtering options were not even considered by the council. They were not included in the consultation on the project. This will not surprise anybody who has observed the Haringey Council over time: those in the council who make decisions about roads and traffic do not like filters. They can say it’s for want of money, but they find money for speed bumps, which are not cheap.

The same thing seems to be happening with improvements to the amusingly named Cycle Superhighway 1 (a route that roughly parallels the Tottenham High Road, sometimes on the pavement but mostly on back streets). This is one of the bits of COVID emergency active travel funding that Haringey was successful at bidding for. I have not seen detailed plans (as far as I know they have not been published), but it looks as if, again, they are passing up opportunities to use those funds for filters that would serve the dual purpose of making a far better cycle route and at the same time create some people-friendly streets. I’ll get back to that when I have more information.

But while we wait to learn that, we already know enough. Yes, the council is short of funds. But that is not the reason drivers rule our streets and our air is toxic: the reason is that the people who make these decisions at the council don’t make active travel a priority and don’t make clean air a priority; they resist solutions which would confine through traffic to main roads, while making most roads safe again for children and for other people who breathe; and they resist solutions that would reduce parking and loading to make space for cycle tracks. We get a lot of fine words from the council about active travel, clean air and reduced carbon footprint, but actions speak louder, and this council’s actions speak all too clearly.

(When I say “the people who make these decisions at the council”, I’m not being coy in not naming names: I see what the council does, and write about that; who makes the calls is not something I see, and I’m not inclined to speculate.)

Dominic Cummings’ trillion dollar tech fantasy

We all got a laugh a couple of weeks ago upon learning why Dominic Cummings, the Dick Cheney of Boris Johnson’s government, wants the UK government free to provide state aid to companies (it’s one of the principal reaons for wanting to violate the EU Exit Agreement Johnson had pushed through Parliament just last year). The reason, as Robert Peston quotes Cummings, is:

Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.

The most obvious response to Cummings is best put by the inimitable Marina Hyde, who asks us to imagine a friend of Cummings looking him in the eye and saying ““Mate, with the best will in the world, what on EARTH about the last six months makes you think you can build the next Apple?”

Others have allowed mere doubt about Cummings’ competence rather than denial of it, and then given him the benefit of that doubt; instead, they criticise his trillion-dollar tech company scheme on the grounds that the countries usually classed “late industrializers” – from Germany and the USA in the late 19th century to Korea in the late 20th – are often reckoned to have done pretty well for themselves, and to have avoided ownership and coercion by Britain. In this regard, though, I think Cummings assertion is entirely correct, even if (for reasons I’ll get to) his idea is bad. Britain did use its position as the first industrial power to both own and coerce much of the world, and it did so successfully for over a century. And Britain’s success in this does offer some parallels with America’s, and the trillion-dollar tech companies of the Silicon Valley and Seattle, today. But does that mean Britain can, or should, try to follow that model today? Let me tell you why not.

From the late 18th century through the early 20th, Britain strove to keep its industrial head start by protecting the position of its manufacturers in international markets, in ways familiar to any student of history. For many decades, when it was the workshop of the world and controlled most of the cutting edge technologies, it forbade both the export of industrial machinery and the emigration of people who knew anything about making it. Eventually, the secrets leaked out anyway and Britain began to lose its manufacturing monopolies to rivals like Germany and the USA. Britain responded by building a larger empire, so that the sun never set on its captive market. Within the empire there was a strict division of labor, with manufactured products coming from the home country; parts of the empire had already developed internationally competitive manufacturing industries, and those had to go – India’s textile and shipbuilding industries, for example, were destroyed so that they would no longer threaten Britain’s industrial (and military) monopoly. So, yes, plenty of control and coercion, as Cummings says.

Today, the international monopolists are American the tech giants. These giants – the trillion or near-trillion dollar companies – are not the foremost technological innovators, but are companies which have become as rich by carving out monopolies in software and the Web, digital gardens large or small with walls to keep competitors out. Google dominates search, Amazon online retail, Microsoft office applications and personal computer operating systems, Google and Facebook online advertising, Google and Apple phone apps, and so on.

It is important to distinguish between what these tech giants have done, and technological innovation. There are many, many tech companies in the world, but only four (Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft) at or near the trillion dollar mark in market capitalization (Facebook is also very valuable, the fifth most valuable tech company, but in this league it’s mini-me). Take phone apps as an example. Google’s and Apple’s phone operating systems are based on sophisticated open source software others have written and given away; the phones, marvels of electronics and miniaturization, are made by others; the apps on the phones are written and sold by thousands of individuals and companies around the world; Google and Apple, in their positions as gatekeepers, take generous cuts from each sale of an app. Many, many tech companies are involved in phones, phone software and phone apps, but only two are anything close to being trillion dollar companies; that’s because they’ve established strong monopoly positions, just as Britain did for its world-serving workshop about two hundred years ago.

When he says “trillion-dollar tech companies”, that is the sort of business Cummings wants to get.

Cummings’ fascination with trillion-dollar tech companies, then, does fit nicely with the characteristic Brexiteer’s nostalgia for empire; he is seeing, accurately, today’s analogue. The question then is, should the UK try to join in the game America is playing?

Some would say not on the grounds that, in the long run, the imperial-monopoly strategy left Britain weak. To succeed in a world dominated by Britain, its late-industrialist rivals devised superior industrial systems: Britain was out-produced by the USA, out-engineered by Germany, out-managed by many countries; sheltered behind its imperial market and the returns from previous overseas investments, it clung to a strong pound to prop up the value of a diminishing stream of income from overseas. Many would say that the US is doing something analogous today, its considerable diplomatic powers devoted to protecting Silicon Valley and a few other sectors, at the expense of hollowing out the rest of its industries (see Dani Rodrik on this point). But is that really failure? Nothing lasts forever; Britain had a very good run, as now America has had as well.

But Britain is not going to be able to do it again.

One thing Cummings has right is that if the UK were to attempt this strategy, it’s probably good that it’s left the European Union, because Brussels – the European Commission and all those nasty bureaucrats – are the only force on the planet making a serious effort to tame and regulate the monopoly power of Big Tech. That’s not the game Cummings wants to play.

But, being out of the EU leaves the UK with the problem of having a relatively small domestic market. The classic late industrializer response to Britain’s power was to use a protected domestic market as a greenhouse in which to develop new firms, which can then compete globally when they’re big and strong. China is doing exactly that for its own web giants. The UK domestic market, however, is nowhere near big enough to do what China is doing.

An alternative version says that the UK’s imagined tech titans would neither be exposed at birth to the fierce storms of global competition, nor confined in the UK’s too-small domestic market, because the post-Brexit UK will somehow become part of a new Atlantic or Anglo-zone economy – Airstrip One, as Orwell had it. This vision of course gets a reality check every time Nancy Pelosi has to remind the British government that it won’t have any trade deal with the US if it allows its Brexit extremism to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the government can solve the problem of creating a hard border around the UK without creating one on the island of Ireland and, following further triumphs of diplomacy, the UK’s emerging tech companies find themselves within a very large protected market which includes the United States.

Now, one place Cummings’ thinking does make contact with reality is in understanding that the UK – and in particular, London, Cambridge and the Southeast of England generally – does have great strengths in the tech giants’ sectors – software, web applications, business services; it has the skills, the financing, the start-ups, and the very close links with the American tech giants themselves. It is already part of that industrial eco-system. Surely all it lacks is to itself be the home base of couple of very rich companies? Perhaps, as the West Coast becomes uninhabitable due to smoke from forest fires, opportunities to form the next generation of tech monopolies will shift back to the mother country?

Many places, though, offer themselves up to become the new center of tech gravity, should it ever shift; if there were a new center and it were not in Asia, it would more likely be someplace else in the United States; Boston, New York, or even North Carolina would be more likely than London, even if the UK were part of a seamless Atlantic market. That’s because UK has never been good at building big businesses. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the US, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and Switzerland all have been better at building big companies with sustained internal programs of innovation and investment, and with global reach; in recent decades, Korea and China have joined those ranks. We have seen this in steel, chemicals and electrical equipment in the 1870s-1890s; in automobiles and other mass production industries in the early to mid twentieth century; the computer, semiconductor and telecommunications industries in the late twentieth century. We see it again in the software, web and business service giants of today.

The roots of Britain’s relative weakness at building and sustaining big companies lie in institutions which served it well as an empire: powerful financial institutions which invest with a focus on short-term gains; financial and govenment decisions in the hands of a narrow national elite with generalist educations and little grounding in the particulars of any industry – but born to rule; companies which stay light on management, on capital investment, on training, and on research and development.

That these proclivities stay stubornly in place is a classic problem of path dependency, of the interlocking and mutually supporting nature of any set of established institutions which restrict the range of choices as things change. However you understand the reasons, however, the fact is that the US is far, far better at building and sustaining big companies than the UK, and if the UK is operating within the US sphere it is not the UK that will be the home of the trillion dollar companies.

Is it a bad thing that the UK will not become the home of several trillion dollar tech companies? Not really. America’s tech empire, like Britain’s empire of yore, is a system of appropriation which makes one corner of the world rich at the expense of the rest. And it can’t even be said that it makes the US, as a country, rich: within the US, these tech monopolists and their financial and political enablers enrich particular places – particular cities and regions – at the expense of the rest of the country, as Maryann Feldman, Simona Iammarino and I discuss (with lots of nice maps) in this paper. There’s a similar pattern in the UK, with divides between South and North; between those paid well enough to live well in overpriced gentrifying tech+finance cities, and everybody else. Becoming home to one or more trillion-dollar tech companies would only exacerbate these divides. Cummings and his ilk would do well in that bargain, but for the UK as a whole it would not be a good thing, so we can be glad that Cummings is wrong.

Unfortunately, with Cummings’ strategy out the window, we are left with the question of what sort of post-Brexit economic strategy would work for the UK. I can’t answer that one.

 

Name droppers

My friend Don Cushman is one of the few people I know who actually liked the third Godfather movie, but this has to do with Don’s views about the Vatican and all its works, views hanging over from his years as a seminarian. On that topic, I preferred Don’s 1996 novel Visitation, though perhaps Coppola had simply set too high a bar with I and II. About the Vatican I know almost nothing beyond what I see in such popular sources, but I did know an obscure trivium, namely that the American magazine editor Norman Cousins had once been sent by JFK to feel out both the pope (John XXIII) and Nikita Khrushchev about some matters of world peace. I knew this from reading the dust jacket of the book Cousins wrote about it; in the early 1970s, I worked for a while for an organization called the World Federalists, in whose ranks Cousins was a luminary, and our storeroom had piles of unsold copies. “I knew Norman Cousins”, I said.

Now this is a name I should have dropped long ago, since most of the people who would be impressed by it are by now no longer with us. Timing has never been my forte. Don and his wife Joann, however, being American intellectuals somewhat older than myself, were the right audience and it seemed to make an impression. Joann could probably drop the names of most of the civil rights leaders of the early 1960s if she wanted, and then I’d use them second hand, but she’s too modest and self-assured to help out in that way.

Cousins was much better about sharing names. Having been evidently bored in a meeting he said, when it came to a break, like a player hoping to be asked to bring out the cards, “Have I told you about my meeting with Arafat?” Arafat was then, as they used to say of Dick Cheney, in a secure location, presumably somewhere in Lebanon. The US government was not openly talking to him; somebody had asked Cousins to do so. We sat spellbound. All I remember of the story – probably, all he could tell us – had to do with being blindfolded and driven around for a while so that he would have no idea where he was when the meeting took place.

After dropping his name I figured I ought at least to read Cousins’ book, The Improbable Triumvirate. After fifty years, nearly-new copies remain available at remarkably reasonable prices, as if the World Federalists’ storeroom had just been emptied. It’s a funny book, for two reasons. One is that the famous literary editor had written something which seems to have been composed mainly from his old appointment books and memoranda from meetings – the clunkiest narrative I’ve ever read. The other is that the big character in the book is Cousins himself, the only real energy amongst all these minutes of meetings is him setting both Kennedy and Khrushchev right (he doesn’t actually meet with the Pope, and whatever he said to Vatican diplomats can’t leave the same impression). Underneath this is a remarkable story – and the behest of JFK, he’s staying with Khrushchev at his Black Sea retreat, talking about capitalism, communism, war and peace, I’m all ears – but the surface is just an advertisement for Cousins.

Luther Evans could drop a name with more finesse. I have just dropped his, a name which the passage of time might have rendered worthless were it not for Wikipedia, which will fill you in if your really must know. Working in the cause of world peace we often found, as in any political organization, that our most menacing enemies were rivals within, and some of us youngsters were perhaps rash in our plans for thwarting one such person. “I am reminded of something Macleish once said to me”, said Luther to us: “don’t kick a dog ’til you know it’s dead.”

Location can help. Walking through Berkeley with Stuart Hampshire and Nancy Cartwright, we came across a notice – as one would, those days, in Berkeley – for some event involving Ivan Illich. “Illich”, quoth Stuart, “old chum of mine. Went a bit off the rails with that Medical Nemesis stuff, I’m afraid.” And then – I want to make this the same walk, though that seems too lucky – upon seeing a notice for an event celebrating EE Cummings, almost the same: “old chum of mine. Terrible reactionary, really.” These opportunities would not have presented themselves had we been walking through Omaha. But then, we would not have been.

Push comes to shove: COVID and active travel on Harringay Green Lanes

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GreenLanesTrafficMay2020

The lack of safe space for cycling on Green Lanes, the imposition of rat-run status on Wightman Road, the tortoise pace of buses on Green Lanes … all are due to two things: parking and loading on Green Lanes, and traffic going in and out of the Arena Shopping Park (Sainsburys/McDonald’s/Homebase).

There is now a recognized need for quick creation of a safe cycling network as the COVID lockdown eases: people are afraid to ride buses or trains, there’s not space on the road for more cars, and many people – most people, in Haringey – don’t have cars anyway. Plans are mooted for emergency cycle tracks, some of which could be made permanent. Is it going to become safe to cycle on Green Lanes?

A ray of hope comes from Transport for London’s Analysis on Temporary Strategic Cycle Network, part of its larger Streetspace for London package. There’s a map there showing existing cycle routes, and proposed new ones; the new ones are colour-coded to show Highest-, High-, and Medium Priority. There are two new routes shown in the borough of Haringey which get the Highest Priority rating. One of those routes comes over Couch End Hill from Kentish Town via Archway; the other is Green Lanes.

Green Lanes has, despite truly fearful traffic and no cycle tracks, become a major cycle route anyway; to the north, Enfield has installed a segregated cycle track on Green Lanes; to the south, Hackney is preparing one. Will the missing link through Harringay and Wood Green now be found? You can register your views by adding a comment, or a “like” on existing comment, on this great map the Council has posted.

Please do it, and also contact the councillors in your ward: it’s not to be taken for granted that the Council will solve the Green Lanes problem. Consider: on 2nd June Haringey Council followed up TfL’s announcement with its own on Active travel to aid social distancing. Go to that link and, towards the bottom of the page you’ll find a positive note from Councillor Kirsten Hearn, Cabinet Member for Climate Change & Sustainability (her portfolio includes Strategic Transport), telling us

… we are working in partnership with TfL to provide more active travel options through temporary walking and cycling facilities in Haringey as part of a funding bid … We will also aim to bring forward east to west and north to south cycling routes, so that more residents can be confident that cycling is a safe, clean and efficient way to get around and have also identified low traffic neighbourhoods to discourage use of cars.

Hearn’s message is excellent, though general. What worries me is what is included in (and what is missing from) the specifics at the top of the page, in the unsigned announcement from Haringey Council. The announcement mentions three particular cycle routes, but neither of TfL’s Highest Priority ones. They mention improvements to CS (“Cycle Superhighway”) 1, which meanders more or less parallel to Tottenham High Road; the proposed CS2 from Tottenham Hale to Camden Town, which the TfL document gives High (not Highest) Priority; and “Quietway” 10, which goes from Finsbury Park, over the rather steep hill between Stroud Green and Crouch End, and on to Bowes Park. All are worthy, but why are TfL’s highest priorities left out?

Now, in the past, in the bad old days, Haringey Council promoted Quietway 10 as the alternative to a cycle route on Green Lanes or Wightman Road. Anybody who rides a bike and considers both the topography of Quietway 10 and the paucity of places to take a bike across the railway knows that this is not serious, and that anybody who does propose Quietway 10 as a substitute for a Green Lanes cycle route either is not well informed or is taking the piss.

Thus the Council’s failure to mention Green Lanes worries me. It does not surprise me, though. The Haringey Council has long been institutionally reluctant to face up to the problems created by traffic on Green Lanes. A few years back it spent a large sum on a study of the problem and in the end found that all solutions were impractical. Times do change, and I am confident that at this point there are mixed views of the question both among elected members of the Council, and among Council officers. But the failure to mention the most obvious and important route while still name-checking Quietway 10 says to me that this battle is far from over. Hence, my pitch to you here.

Green Lanes gets heavily congested in the stretch between Manor House and St Ann’s Rd. Beyond the general sea of motor traffic in which we live, there are two specific reasons for this congestion. One is that some years ago the Council allowed the construction of a traffic magnet in the form of the Arena Shopping Park – Sainsburys, McDonald’s (complete with drive-thru), and a collection of other chain stores. All of these chains are operating on business models which require surrounding neighbourhoods to subsidize their corporations by bearing the burdens of traffic congestion, road hazard and bad air produced by people each driving their ton of steel to pick up a few groceries, or a single burger. This is not the best way to get groceries or burgers to people in a place as dense as Haringey, and it should be shut down when and if possible (permits or leases or something do expire in the not terribly distance future, I hear); in the meantime, the Council and TfL should get tough on the traffic flows. For instance, they could:

  • install a southbound bus lane ouside the Arena Shopping Park;
  • eliminate the left turn exit lane from the Shopping Park which now feeds cars right into the bus stop outside Homebase (that’s not to say no left turns, just sharper left turns, crossing quickly over the bus lane);
  • forbid right turns by motor traffic from Green Lanes onto Endymion Road; and
  • filter Wightman Road to stop through motor traffic (and thus rat runs between Green Lanes and Wightman along Ladder roads)

That’s half the problem, but only half. The other half is parking and loading on Green Lanes itself: loading and parking needs to be moved onto side streets or – in the case of loading – given very restricted hours.

Most people travelling along Green Lanes, and most customers of the businesses there, go by foot, bus or bike. Buses sit in traffic, cyclists take their lives in their hands – or, in most cases, just don’t ride. It’s beyond a joke. The space required to solve these problems will not, cannot, be obtained without getting parking and loading off of that road. (It’s more complicated, actually, than just space: drivers pulling in and out of roadside parking spaces, or driving slowly looking for spaces, slow things down a lot.)

You might say “but why Green Lanes – couldn’t we just put the cycle route down Wightman Road?” Well, we could – it’s not quite as good, both because of hills and because it doesn’t meet up with the Green Lanes route used by Enfield and planned by Hackney, but it would be better than what we have. The problem: to make Wightman a good cycle route you would need to filter it to take the through motor traffic off of it, and doing that puts extra traffic onto Green Lanes; not much, but in its present state  Green Lanes already has more traffic than it can accomodate. To filter Wightman without making Green Lanes worse, we need to sort parking, loading and the traffic from Arena Shopping Park, anyway – there’s no getting around it.

The merchants of Green Lanes have always protected parking and loading on Green Lanes itself. It is of course well established that merchants over-estimate the share of their customers who do come by car; there are plenty of cases testifying to the attraction, to customers, of places less dominated by cars. Parking on a side street gets you as close to the shops as using a car park gets you to a superstore or shopping mall. Still, it’s a frightening a risky change to make.

Provision of parking on the side roads would also be opposed by some residents, who see parking supply already exhausted. To address this, the Council should reduce parking demand by raising resident parking permit rates in the Green Lanes area, and then rebate the increase to households as a credit on rates – i.e., residents would pay more if they parked, but get the rebate whether they had a car or not. (There may also be a case for separate CPZs East and West of Green Lanes; I’m told that some people from the East side of Green Lanes drive the short distance to the Harringay and Hornsey rail stations and park on the street there before get the train, something we can do without.)

Both sorting the traffic outside of the Arena Shopping Park, and sorting the parking and loading on Green Lanes, would be big steps, and politically difficult. Whoever writes announcements like the Council’s “Active travel to aid social distancing” knows that. That, I expect, is why, despite TfL’s rating of Highest Priority for an emergency bike route on Green Lanes; despite the actions of Enfield to the north and Hackney to the south, which make us the missing link; depsite the growing Green Lanes cycle traffic which occurs despite the congestion and evident danger; despite the pathetically slow buses; despite the geography which makes this such an obvious route both for cycle commuting and for cycling to local shops, services and schools – despite all of this, a Green Lanes cycle route is not mentioned by the Haringey Council at this time.

We should be able to cycle safely, to work or to school or to go shopping. And people riding on buses should not have to sit patiently in traffic so that a few people can park right where they want. This has long been an pressing problem – for reasons of air pollution, diseases of inactivity, carbon footprint and so on. Now, as we emerge from the COVID lockdown, it has become an unavoidable one.

San Francisco, New York, Washington: Iron Triangle of Rent

Note: an earlier version of this post appeared in November 2019. Since then, the problem of monopoly – particularly, the platform giants we could call Big Tech: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook etc – has grown as a matter of public concern, with the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Antitrust issuing a report calling for major reforms. Also, the research paper on which the blog post is based has now been published: Maryann Feldman, Frederick Guy, and Simona Iammarino. 2020. “Regional Income Disparities, Monopoly and Finance.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society rsaa024 (December). You can click through to that or, for the condensed, non-technical version, read on!

The map below shows where the higher paid jobs in the USA were concentrated in 2016; green is for greenbacks.

top20incwage_2016

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