Desperately trying to memorise words, I took a walk around Kingston Upon Thames yesterday, repeating things to myself and attracting curious glances from passers-by. Was I mad, or had hands-free mobile technology reached the invisibility stage?
The council has made assorted efforts to encourage more people to walk and cycle around town; if you’re on a bike, or a mobility scooter, or a skateboard, Kingston is a better place to be than five years ago. But fundamentally, the approach is frustrating, because unless you’re in a car, one still feels like an inconvenience to be dealt with, rather than a human whose active travel choices should be encouraged.
Here, for example, is a view towards Bentall’s and John Lewis, and of the gyratory that tears the town in two and turns much of a medieval town once feted for its beauty into an urban motorway.
If you’re squinting and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do if you’re on a bike here, the answer is: wait at several traffic lights, cycle on shared use paths, then use one narrow strip of cycle lane before being deposited amid the buses and taxis between the Bentall Centre and Waitrose. And yet this is *after* money has been spent on new infrastructure.
The problem is Clarence Street, where bikes are banned despite it being the obvious direct route from any cyclist arriving from New Malden or Norbiton trying to make it to Kingston Bridge, a crucial and popular destination due to bikes being notoriously difficult to handle in rivers. The logical route would be this:
But due to the determination to treat people on bikes as a nuisance, the prescribed route is this:
The route in red takes you along a shared path on the busy pavement outside Wilko’s, turns into a segregated cycle lane for a few hundred metres outside Pryzm nightclub, makes you wait to cross two sets of shared use traffic lights over the thundering urban motorway that surrounds and maroons Kingston station.
It then sends you merandering up Fife Road (with motor traffic heading in the other direction) before curving around the outside of the Bentall Centre before joining the scene outlined in the first picture.
The blue link offers a minor, more pleasant short cut along pedestrianised castle street, but this is another shared use path thronged with outdoor cafe tables and shoppers: most cyclists I saw here chose to dismount, and understandably so.
Below is the view towards the river along the pedestrianised Clarence Street. This was once an extremely car-clogged road, and with Kingston known as a place to shop above all else, you can see why the council are nervous about irritating shoppers by putting a cycle route through here. But to achieve significant modal shift, you need to think big.
People in Surbiton, New Malden, and Norbiton should find it easier and more pleasant to cycle into town than to drive. At the moment, the mixture of indirect routes and shared space paths ends up pleasing no one.
It’s not all bad. To the council’s credit, a new cycle parking facility has been built by the station, though with apposite irony they’ve built the thing with stairs rather than ramps.
They’ve also made it a great deal more pleasant to cycle to Surbiton, with a genuine segregated path along the river and a pleasant, LTN-style backstreet route to the west of the Fairfield.
But in a climate emergency, it’s not enough. The car is still king in Kingston, and if you’re not in one, you still have to play second fiddle. During the pandemic, a lane of the A308 became a temporary cycle route, and people on bikes were treated equally to car drivers in terms of directness, safety and capacity.
The lane has long since been removed. Putting it back, and planning a safe east/west route through the town, would prove that this affluent corner of south-west London is serious about moving people out of their cars. Local Lib Dem councillors such as Banquet Records impresario Jon Tolley are refreshingly open on social media: here’s hoping they continue to back significant change and perhaps make this once lovely old town a beautiful place to be once again.