The next speaker was Brian Deegan, a traffic engineer specialising in road layout and design, who spoke of the challenges he faced when working for Transport for London (TfL), and their relevance in tackling many of the issues now arising in the Harpenden area. Bureaucratic inertia dogged too many initiatives in tackling transport problems, he said. But health and safety were issues which nowadays often forced local authorities into action.
Everyone agreed with the basic tenet that cycling should be encouraged. It provided healthy exercise and was pollution free, though there was admittedly a safety issue where bikes had to share road space with cars, lorries and buses. But Mr Deegan contended that, despite media publicity drawn by accidents to cyclists, TfL statistics showed that, even in London, the risks were infinitesimal.
Cycling and walking were, in many cases, viable alternatives to driving, in and around a town the size of Harpenden. In Mr Deegan’s judgment, a reasonably fit person could walk from one side of the town to the other in 20 minutes or, in the same length of time, they could cycle from Wheathampstead to Redbourn.
What makes a street healthy and welcoming, was a rhetorical question Mr Deegan endeavoured to answer. It should be easy to cross, have seats where pedestrians can relax and feel safe, with clean air and a low noise level allowing people to talk without shouting.
He criticised many of the footways (pavements) in Harpenden’s busy minor roads, such as Roundwood Lane and Carlton Road, for being too narrow for safety; a width of 4ft 7in (1.4m) should be the minimum. Also on safety grounds, pedestrianisation of some or all of Lower High Street - previously proposed and rejected - should perhaps be considered again.
John Talbot, from the town’s car park study group set up in 2014, representing residents’ and business interests in the town, said it was vital for the parking issue to be an integral element of the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan. The problems needed to be better understood, leading to a ‘joined up’ plan rather than a piecemeal approach - exemplified by proposals a year or so ago for kerbside restrictions in the Avenues area.
A full survey was needed, said Mr Talbot, to establish a percentage breakdown of where Harpenden’s all-day kerbside parkers came from. It was recognised that a substantial number were London commuters who drove in each weekday morning from Wheathampstead, Redbourn or the smaller outlying villages. There was also anecdotal evidence that people from distant parts of the country, flying off on holiday from Luton Airport, parked their cars in Harpenden streets for weeks at a time, incurring only the cost of taxi rides to and from the airport.
There were, he added, inevitable obstacles, principally one of cost, to be addressed in any proposals to ease Harpenden’s parking problems. Underground car parks were perhaps the most visually attractive solution, though recent estimates pointed to a cost of around £30,000 per car space. That prompted county councillor Teresa Heritage to emphasise the present constraints on the public purse in attempts to ease Harpenden’s acute transport and parking issues.
From the floor of the meeting, resident Rob Pearman made a plea, on the grounds of pedestrian and child safety, for lower speed limits to be imposed on more streets in Harpenden, particularly where parked cars on both sides make them effectively single-lane thoroughfares.
He cited Tennyson Road as an example, on the grounds of pedestrian and child safety, where a 20mph speed restriction was needed. But county councillor David Williams pointed out that the police were not empowered to enforce lower local speed limits. However, there was general agreement from those attending the meeting that the alternative of adding more ‘speed humps’ in residential roads should be resisted.
Meanwhile a number of those in the audience called for local campaigns aimed at encouraging people to walk or cycle, in the interests of health and fitness, while combatting Harpenden’s seemingly ingrained ‘car culture’. Joanne Wicks said youngsters should be encouraged to take up cycling as a sport and that designated cycle routes were needed ‘where people want and need to go’. A more specific suggestion from the floor was that a truly safe ‘off road’ cycle lane between Harpenden and Southdown could be provided along the edge of the common, parallel with Southdown Road.
What about a London-style ‘congestion charge’ to be imposed on drivers wanting to come into the town centre, asked Ron Taylor. It would encourage informal car sharing or the formation of more formal ‘car user clubs’, possibly linked to community groups. Cllr David Williams said the proposal could, perhaps in 10 or 15 years time, when the technology had been refined, be integrated into a road charging scheme.