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What happens when a car and a bike face off in London’s LTN network

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Low Traffic Neighbourhoods were introduced during the pandemic as a government-backed scheme to reduce emissions and improve air quality in residential areas. 

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is a strong proponent of the measure which received £250m of government funding. For its supporters, LTNs make it far more pleasant to walk or cycle within the zone as the vast majority of traffic has been prohibited from accessing the area. 

Critics say the scheme has moved cars and vans to other areas, further blocking already-congested roads and making navigating across the city far more difficult and stressful. 

Driver DARREN BOYLE and cyclist ALEX MASON headed to Kennington, south London to compare the time it takes to cross its LTN in a car and on a bicycle. 

THE DRIVER’S STORY: ‘Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise’ was the earworm inside my brain as I awaited the start of a 1.3mile dash across early morning south London, through what is described as a ‘Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise’ was the earworm inside my brain as I awaited the start of a 1.3mile dash across early morning south London, through what is described as a Low Traffic Neighbourhood.

Tapping the steering wheel in time with Mick Fleetwood on drums, my colleague Alex Mason, looked strangely confident perilously perched on his bicycle under Kennington’s weak spring sunshine.

The mission was simple. Simulate a school run. And it should be almost completed by the time John McVie’s iconic bass line kicks in, as there is no better way to celebrate the primacy of the internal combustion engine over all other forms of transport. For younger readers, the track, Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain is used by the BBC in their Formula One coverage. 

Scientific progress would determine the victor. I had brought 21st century weaponry to a contest against a man equipped with a tool, once accused in the late Victorian period of giving women ‘bicycle face’. Even maths backed the car.

Two legs powering one wheel while fighting the earth’s gravitational pull against a two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine producing 208 brake horse power augmented by an 80bhp electric motor. 

Darren Boyle and Alex Mason meet up ahead of their 1.3 mile dash across south London, simulating a school run

Darren Boyle and Alex Mason meet up ahead of their 1.3 mile dash across south London, simulating a school run

Alex briefly took the lead as he started to pedal along Crooks Road in Kennington

Alex briefly took the lead as he started to pedal along Crooks Road in Kennington 

It took only a few seconds for the primacy of the car to reassert itself during the early morning jaunt through south London

It took only a few seconds for the primacy of the car to reassert itself during the early morning jaunt through south London 

Alex was soon turning into a dot in the rear view mirror as the Mercedes drove along the road

Alex was soon turning into a dot in the rear view mirror as the Mercedes drove along the road

Yet, it only  took 300 metres for the plan to go awry, with a 1950s style motorbike jumping over a stylised Morris Minor

Yet, it only  took 300 metres for the plan to go awry, with a 1950s style motorbike jumping over a stylised Morris Minor

Showing the navigational instincts of Liz Truss I was forced into the first embarrassing u-turn of the morning

Showing the navigational instincts of Liz Truss I was forced into the first embarrassing u-turn of the morning 

Disappearing behind me, Alex Mason celebrated overtaking the Mercedes

Disappearing behind me, Alex Mason celebrated overtaking the Mercedes 

A short distance away, my progress was again stymied by a floral barricade

A short distance away, my progress was again stymied by a floral barricade 

In 1976 as Fleetwood Mac were working on the album Rumours, French director Claude LeLouch released his short film C’était un rendez-vous. The nine-minute movie features LeLouch driving through early morning Paris from Porte Dauphine to Montmartre at break-neck speed to meet a young woman.

I had to get from the corner of Kennington Park to Surrey Square Primary school approximately 1.3 miles away. On a map, it looked pretty simple. Down to the bottom of Cooks Road, turn left onto John Ruskin Street and left again onto Walworth Road. Then it was a quick trip down Westmoreland Road, turning right onto Portland Street, with another left onto Albany Road until a left turn opposite Burgess Park, named not after the shamed spy Guy Burgess, but Councillor Jessie Burgess, Camberwell’s first woman mayor. Then I was planning to nip onto Thurlow Walk before turning sharply onto Alsace Road, which leads onto Surrey Square and my destination on the left hand side. 

If my mental arithmetic was correct, I should be safely parked on the side of the road to join Lindsey Buckingham in his frantic guitar solo while awaiting the arrival of my sweaty colleague. 

Simple… 

Alex couldn't believe his luck was he powered past the car, heading directly to the destination

Alex couldn’t believe his luck was he powered past the car, heading directly to the destination

If the car followed, this Orwellian piece of technology would have automatically read the number plate, checked the details with the DVLA in Swansea, before a £160 fine was issued

If the car followed, this Orwellian piece of technology would have automatically read the number plate, checked the details with the DVLA in Swansea, before a £160 fine was issued

Though, for the one man walking down the street, pictured right, the LTN was working well

Though, for the one man walking down the street, pictured right, the LTN was working well

This road allowed only bicycles, buses and black taxis through with all other traffic having to turn around and find an alternative route

This road allowed only bicycles, buses and black taxis through with all other traffic having to turn around and find an alternative route 

With luck, the postman hasn't seen his morning round discommoded too greatly by the LTN

With luck, the postman hasn’t seen his morning round discommoded too greatly by the LTN

Navigating through the LTN is made more difficult by the battle damage suffered by the road signs

Navigating through the LTN is made more difficult by the battle damage suffered by the road signs

Other people were also forced into u-turns, edging between parked cars in an effort to avoid a fine

Other people were also forced into u-turns, edging between parked cars in an effort to avoid a fine

THE CYCLIST: ALEX 

Has anyone seen a Cavansite Blue Mercedes C350e? I haven’t! It was last spotted in Kennington being driven by a cocky MailOnline reporter before he challenged me to a race through Sadiq Khan’s Low Transport Neighbourhood scheme.

Over the 1.3mile distance there was only one moment where I panicked, briefly forgetting the route I had researched the night before (inside one of Kensington’s pubs!)

Other than 30 seconds of daftness the eight-minute-long journey was a breeze… meandering through the LTNs was dreamlike. And whizzing alongside u-turning vehicles is one of life’s simple pleasures.

My conclusion of the race will surprise the reader though. What leaves me staggered is this bizarre realization that even if I was riding a Boris bike or Penny-farthing, I would’ve STILL beaten the Mercedes. I can’t help but sympathise with my friend, colleague and every other driver in London.

With Stevie Nicks singing on my imaginary headset, we were off and Alex was growing ever smaller in my rear view mirror. In theory, the Mercedes C350e is capable of accelerating to 62mph in a smidgen over five seconds, while the Stuttgart-powered motor can reach a limited top speed of 155mph. At 155mph on its native German Autobahn home, the car will cover the 2,100 metre distance of the challenge in just 30 seconds.

Unfortunately, unlike LeLouch in his 6.9 litre Mercedes 450 SEL, I could not ignore the rules of the road, so the vast majority of my car’s power, like the salad at a Texas BBQ, would remain untouched, meaning, at a more realistic 20mph, it should take a more sedate four minutes. 

Also, for some reason, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s warning about what happens to the best of plans when contact is made with the enemy was niggling away in my deep subconscious.  

Yet, the car’s air suspension was eating up the speed humps, although with 300 metres of my 2,100 metre journey complete, there was a problem. A circular sign with a red outer band on a white background  showed a low-flying 1950s-style motorbike passing over the roof of a Morris Minor. Worse still, someone had carelessly left a couple of flower pots across the carriageway containing the most tragic display of greenery this side of January FA Cup replay against a non-league opposition side on a wet Wednesday night in the outer regions of Stoke. 

'We're on the road to nowhere. Come on inside. Takin' that ride to nowhere. We'll take that ride'

‘We’re on the road to nowhere. Come on inside. Takin’ that ride to nowhere. We’ll take that ride’

Instead of going directly towards my destination, I was forced to detour out onto the main road

Instead of going directly towards my destination, I was forced to detour out onto the main road

The detour including a couple of lengthy traffic jams which further delayed my progress

The detour including a couple of lengthy traffic jams which further delayed my progress

At the same time Alex, pictured, was powering towards his destination

At the same time Alex, pictured, was powering towards his destination 

While there were no police protecting the junction, or even an angry looking man with a clipboard and peaked cap taking names; a surveillance camera was mounted high above on a pole. The camera’s unblinking eye, which never takes a tea break, monitors its small stretch of south London on the watch out for errant motorists. The camera can automatically run the number plates of cars past the DVLA database in Swansea and issue £160 fines. Caeser didn’t have any similar worries when crossing the Rubicon with his legion in January 49BC. 

What are LTNs?  

The Department of Transport made £250m available in early 2020 to create Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to make driving more difficult and encourage cycling and walking in certain residential areas.

Primarily, the scheme was a way of reducing the impact of Covid-19 by making it more pleasant for residents to walk outside their homes without having to breath in the Nitrogen Dioxide from diesel engines.

The LTN zones are protected by a range of measures including physical barriers, including large boxes filled with flowers to block drivers from passing.

In addition, Automatic Number Plate Recognition Cameras cover the entrances and exits of LTNs, ready to fine drivers up to £160 for any transgression.

According to the RAC, during their first year of operation, London drivers were issued with 7.5million penalty tickets – most due to the introduction of LTNs or new school street rules – bringing in a possible £123million in fine revenue. This was an increase of 41 per cent on previous years.

However, Imperial College London published research in November 2022 which looked at three LTN areas and found evidence that the levels of NO2 fell by 5.7 percent within the zone and by almost nine per cent on their boundaries.

They also found that traffic dropped by more than half inside LTNs and by 13 per cent on their boundaries.

So, just like Liz Truss, I was forced into a humiliating U-Turn, though mine could reasonably be attributed to a left wing conspiracy. Also, my about-face only deprived Southwark Council of the fine revenue and didn’t cost the country billions. 

As I was about to reverse back onto Cooks Road, I could see a smug looking Alex approaching from my right. If I had the competitive spirit of Roy Keane, I would have continued reversing, but I yielded to my colleague who whizzed past me with a wave along my planned route. 

In less than a minute, I was behind and the bass line was just two minutes away. A drop of perspiration forced me to turn off the heated seat and adjust the climate control as turned back the way I came, looking for the next right hand turn that did not lead to a dead end. 

Heading along along Westcott Road, I turned left onto Chapter Road. The plan was to find a road heading east bound to continue in the approximate direction. 

A large construction site on the right hand side was blocked by a truck finishing his delivery, so I tried to squeeze around the outside, careful not to exchange paintwork as the lorry edged away from the kerb. A worker on the site waved frantically at me. Standing at a little over six feet tall and wearing those bright orange reflective suits with a white hard hat. Tinted safety glasses protecting his eyes from the sun inching its way across the clear sky. He pointed over his shoulder towards another sign, this time with a bicycle leaping over a bus which had just crushed a taxi.  Luckily for me he was so careful with his eyesight as it had just deprived Southwark Council of a further £160. 

I was growing increasingly anxious as I headed along Baganza Street. The building site delivery truck was 100 metres ahead and Stevie Nicks was in full voice questioning whether Lindsey Buckingham ever loved her. 

Outside Kennington tube station, I was firmly stuck in traffic as the iconic ‘Dummm, dum de daaa da de dum de da dum’ riff began. My own mind was mocking me as the stopwatch continued counting but the speedometer on the car was firmly stuck at zero.

Gripping onto the steering wheel for dear life, even though the car was stationary for more than five minutes.

Gripping onto the steering wheel for dear life, even though the car was stationary for more than five minutes. 

Most of the almost hour-long journey involved traffic crawling along the main road

Most of the almost hour-long journey involved traffic crawling along the main road 

Luckily there were no children involved in the simulated school run as they would have been down for a considerable period of detention for arriving incredibly late

Luckily there were no children involved in the simulated school run as they would have been down for a considerable period of detention for arriving incredibly late

The realisation that I spent almost an hour to cover a distance that in theory the car can do in 30 seconds

The realisation that I spent almost an hour to cover a distance that in theory the car can do in 30 seconds

More than a quarter of an hour had elapsed by the time I was able to edge out onto the main road. Instead of keeping beat with Mick Fleetwood I was now gripping the steering wheel with the intensity of a man dangling off the edge of a cliff on a rope. 

It seems the Low Traffic Neighbourhood creates a High Traffic Neighbourhood on its outer perimeter. 

Passing Newington Butts provided some temporary relief as it was now 26 minutes since the start. Luckily there were no children in the back as their pleas of ‘are we nearly there yet?’ would have received the type of terse response normally bleeped out on a video. 

On Walworth Road I was vaguely heading in the right direction again and two minutes later I was turning onto East Street. This was only a quick bit of zig-zagging from the school… or would have been until I missed the right hand turn onto Exon Street. 

Trying to salvage the situation I was trying to think if a u-turn would be best, but the internal map in my mind said it would be quicker to turn right at the bottom of the road. 

However, south London was against me. There was no right turn onto the New Kent Road. I was looking despairingly up towards the sun, which was on its east-west arc.

In the sixth century St Brendan the Navigator used the sun and the stars to steer his small currach across the Atlantic Ocean. His life was much easier as he did not have to deal with London’s LTNs. 

Instead it was 12 minutes of torture heading towards Elephant and Castle to resume the correct course once again. Mistakes in London’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are punished harshly, with even innocent errors incurring significant delays or a stiff fine. 

Newington Butts wasn’t as funny the second time around. 

The Rumours album in my head continued to deride me as the tracks Don’t Stop and Go Your Own Way continued to play. Such was my annoyance, I missed the turning for Exon Street a second time. But building on the bitter experience of 18 minutes earlier, I did a swift u-turn and wanted to close my eyes driving towards Surrey Terrace, half expecting another blockage. 

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the council had employed one of Ray Harryhausen’s monsters from the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts to protect the final stretch

But luckily the route to Surrey Square was clear, with a bored and cold-looking Alex Mason sitting on the side of the road looking at his watch. 

Reaching my destination, the album in my mind resumed playing, finishing off with Never Going Back Again.  

There was only one winner although the test was heavily skewed in favour of the cyclist!

There was only one winner although the test was heavily skewed in favour of the cyclist! 

The bicycle is the obvious choice for a simulated school run without children, but on a wet wintry Wednesday the car would be nice.

The bicycle is the obvious choice for a simulated school run without children, but on a wet wintry Wednesday the car would be nice. 

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