This week my hometown city of Sheffield welcomed the Tour de France, having snaked its way from Yorkshire’s lesser cities (Leeds and York … only joking) through the rolling (and sometimes gruelling) hills of West and South Yorkshire. Not only did Yorkshire give itself a pat on the back for doing a marvellous job, it showcased the wonderful countryside and urban landscape the county has. More impressively, it showed how passionate, fun-loving and committed the people of this county are in coming out in the early hours of a Sunday morning to guarantee a front row seat on remote stretches of rural roads.
Blessed with great weather, 2.5 million people actively got up, left their TV sets and enjoyed the freedoms brought about by the event. Closed roads meant safer pedestrian environments; enhanced facilities for cycles to be parked meant many cycled (naturally) to watch the race; and to cope with demand, additional public transport services were put on to get people to and from their spot to watch the race. Even Attercliffe and Carbrook areas of Sheffield, notorious for fast moving, large traffic surrounded by retail, steelworks and scrap yards became positively slower, happier places where people wandered on roads normally populated by speeding, polluting traffic.
Suddenly, the best we have looked amazing and some of the worst looked fabulous. So why can’t it always be like that?
This isn’t a naive plea to reverse decades of car-centric urban planning. This is a common sense aspiration that would enable our cities to become more liveable, more social and safer. Healthier, better connected and places we could learn to love, not loathe.
Remember, the finale to ‘Le Tour’ was on Attercliffe Common, soon to become home to the latest Ikea store in the UK. Inevitably, given Ikea’s fast outdating business model, it will drive ever more traffic in to an already severely polluted part of our city. But, because it brings jobs, we’ll take it.
This week, the irony of the report from Davids Carlslaw (an appropriate name if ever there was one) suggested “Emissions research from King’s College London has found nitrogen dioxide concentrations on Oxford Street to be worse than they are anywhere else on Earth, in the history of air pollution“. The shopping hub of London, which draws in millions of visitors every year, is the retail pride and the environmental nightmare of the UK. It’s certainly a long way from the open, car-free streets of Attercliffe on Sunday 6th July 2014. Have we learnt any lessons from the Olympics in 2012 that saw London gain the same benefits Le Tour brought to urban Yorkshire?
I was quick to praise former colleagues for the excellent work they did in making le Tour such a success for Sheffield. Quite frankly, they turned a car-centric city into a place of pedestrian and cycle heaven for a day. When the barriers were packed up, the hot dog stalls moved away and litter collected, let’s not forget what really worked and made the day a huge triumph. It wasn’t Nibali, Kittel or the peloton. It wasn’t the caravan of sponsors chucking ‘goodies’ to kids and it wasn’t the army of support cars and trucks and buses. It was, quite simple. Space for people.