Three steps to make the capital a car-free paradise

Step three: bike depots all over London where users would find shower and changing cubicles
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The Independent Culture
IN EUROPE, perhaps only in Europe, we are returning to cities. London has become a steadily more satisfactory place in which to live and work since I arrived in the Sixties. Now it has a buzz, just like New York. Moreover, for the past 10 years, lots of people have been thinking about cities and how to recover them from the motor car and make them more civilised. Momentum has been established. Experiments are taking place everywhere.

In France, Lyons has removed cars from most of its public squares and put them underground. In Bremen, a specifically car-free housing development has been built. There is a bit of parking for visitors and disabled drivers, but that is all. Instead there is a frequent bus service into the city centre and the money saved from dispensing with roads and garages has been put into bigger homes and better gardens. In Strasbourg, usage of public transport has increased by 30 per cent since a new tram system was introduced in 1994.

Opening this week in London is an exhibition of ideas for a car-free city; it takes place at the Oxo Tower Wharf and is the result of a competition organised by the Architecture Foundation, of which I am a trustee. It asked for visionary and innovative ideas for making central London car- free and for using the space thereby made available. Some 205 entries will be on display, among them practical, witty, eccentric and downright barmy ideas from those who believe that banishing the car from city centres is a righteous crusade.

Actually, I think the beginning of wisdom is never to forget the massive advantages which car ownership provides. It is no use simply telling us all to get on our bikes. Unless we are fit, hardy, brave, not wishing to go somewhere with our family, not shopping, not required to be smartly dressed, the advice is useless. One entry rightly asks: "If the car was unfolded and its desirable attributes were laid out across the city, would you leave your car at home?" The car gets you to work, carries your goods and takes your children to school. It is the yardstick against which all new ideas have to be measured.

Social changes already underway are helping. Another participant observes that homes are becoming workplaces, workplaces are becoming recreational meeting points, the bar a living room, the park a backyard. For many, the objective is a situation where every citizen has his or her home, shops, work and play within 10 minutes' walking distance of each other. In other words, to do without the car we must be more crowded together and planning regulations will have to be adjusted to allow mixed living and working space in city centres at higher densities of occupation. It is better to be like Hong Kong than Welwyn Garden City.

We can also make better use of what we have got. My second favourite entry seeks to exploit personalised information technology to give city dwellers accurate and accessible information about all transport times and options within an individual's local area. "Londonet" is an idea for a digital network which will allow information about goods, services and travel to come to us rather than force us to go to the source. Through hand held devices, info kiosks and the like, Londonet would allow more intelligent planning of the day's tasks.

Making use of information technology is another proposal for tele-shopping. The first part is now familiar - you visit the website of your local supermarket or whatever, review prices and availability and place your orders and pay for them electronically. You would also receive catalogues "delivered by bike". Quite right. The goods are then sent to local pick-up centres where customers find electrically powered trolleys for conveying the shopping home.

I also like the suggestion put forward by a number of entrants that the underground railway network and adjacent tunnels should be used during the night for transporting freight and goods bound for central-London establishments. That is the beauty of competitions. You can just have the wizard idea and leave it to others to conjure up the considerable planning, problem-solving and investment needed to make sense of it. In similar fashion, the recommendation that service deliveries should be confined to the hours between 7pm and 10am would require a major reorganisation of supply chains.

However, making greater use of the bicycle gains most attention from the competition entrants. In the first place, to the bicycle we can add rollerblades and skateboards. Here are the improvements. Step one: create dedicated routes for cyclists. There is a wonderful proposal for a suspended deck running alongside the south bank of the Thames from Greenwich to Battersea. The illustration of the deckway at night is a thing of beauty. Step two: cover some of these special cycle routes so that they are all- weather. Step three: place "bike depots" all over central London where users would find shower and changing cubicles, the water coming from filtered tanks kept topped up by rain from the roofs of adjacent buildings and the heating solar-generated; all very green. In addition, there would be lockers, secure bike racks and bike repair facilities available.

I can well imagine these depots, all aluminium and cloudy glass, sweaty cyclists going in through one door and smartly dressed office workers emerging from the other end, their bikes stored and repaired as they work, ready for pedalling home in the evening. But I don't share the vision. If a substantial need for such facilities developed, surely they would most appropriately be created at the place of work. Companies would certainly find it a cheaper option to providing car parking places.

I have mentioned my second favourite idea; my favourite is this. You are walking along the street. It starts to rain. Immediately the rain canopies, which have sensed the increasing dampness of the air, begin to open up and, like giant umbrellas, spread their protective panels over your path.

You walk on, still dry, past the bike depots, and as you go you encounter shoppers propelling their electric trolleys full of parcels and packages. You stop to consult your Londonet gismo and find that the tram which takes you to Victoria Station will be coming shortly. On the other hand, you could catch a later train and use the time to do shopping, taking one of the free busses powered by compressed natural gas. Welcome to a car- free London.