Letters, April 21, 2011, part two

PUBLISHED: 11:00 21 April 2011

SIR – Councillor Robert Donald, speaking for the district council (Herts Advertiser, March 17), clearly understands the importance of the quality of the environment in St Peter’s Street for the hundreds of people on foot who, all day and every day, go about their affairs in the scores of business premises along both sides of the street which make it the hub, the power-house, of the city and a large hinterland of towns and villages.

The fundamental cause of traffic congestion in central St Albans is that there are, at any time, far more cars than the small-scale, tight, medieval and Victorian road pattern can cope with: people, horses, yes; but hundreds and hundreds of cars? Not a hope.

The ill-conceived, short-lived, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t one-way system some years ago was doomed to failure because it made no attempt to reduce the number of cars entering the city, only changed the existing traffic flows to a crazy merry-go-round that brought traffic to a grinding standstill before you could say, “where do you think you’re going then?” There was no attempt to improve the environment.

The only vehicles that have any reason to be in St Peter’s Street are buses, coaches and taxis. These provide an essential service to shoppers, visitors and workers. The street is the de-facto central bus and coach station for over 30 scheduled services that converge on the city centre from all directions far and near.

A survey showed that they comprise only 10 per cent of the vehicles in the street. The other 90 per cent, mainly private cars, can do nothing but drive in one end and out the other. And because there is a roundabout at one end, traffic lights at the other, several controlled pedestrian crossings and the many buses stopping, all traffic is frequently brought to a standstill and congestion results.

The effects on the environment are all very unpleasant; a high level of noise, considerable atmospheric pollution, danger and the visual intrusion of so much traffic. Emergency vehicles are frequently delayed, as are buses.

The fact is that for many years now St Peter’s Street has not been an efficient or effective thoroughfare because of all this mayhem and through traffic would be much better served by being diverted to by-pass it.

Forgive me if I risk being a clever dick – I admit freely I have no knowledge of traffic engineering – but except at rush hours the traffic flows seem fairly modest in Hatfield and Bricket Roads and Victoria Street, all capable of taking two-way traffic.

A couple of years ago you may remember that to enable roadworks to be done all traffic except buses and taxis was excluded for a few weeks from St Peter’s Street. It worked well and the street was a very pleasant place to be in. A number of letters appeared in the Herts Advertiser in which people expressed their pleasure.

St Albans is clearly a very attractive place, with good shops, a wonderful twice weekly market, the great Abbey, delightful parks, historic settings, all manner of cultural attractions and events. We are indeed most fortunate.

It’s pretty certain though that nobody comes here to enjoy and experience the traffic. As in other attractive towns and cities, the whole economy benefits immeasurably because it is a pleasure to be there. This factor is absent from places that are less fortunate in this respect and offer nothing to attract people.

Because St Peter’s Street plays such a vital part in the whole economy and reputation of the city and district, we should do our utmost to make it as pleasant as possible.

But even if, as is to be sincerely hoped, extraneous traffic was removed from St Peter’s Street, there would still be far more cars in the city centre than the ancient road system can accommodate and still provide a civilised environment. And it can only get worse with the passage of time.

One must be blunt. St Albans is a fine city that is being choked and spoilt by the sheer, constant volume of road traffic and it does not have to be so. Some years ago there was a half-hearted attempt at “Park and Ride” that consequently failed and the present reference to “Mini Park and Ride” betrays a sad lack of determination.

There is no other way of solving this problem but by stopping the cars getting into the city. It works if it is properly done. No half larks.

I have experienced this in towns and cities all over Britain. As a driver one saves money, the awful time-consuming frustration of dragging around in clogged roads trying to find somewhere to park is removed and the destination is so much pleasanter because the curse of traffic is removed.

In Canterbury, the main street is a joy – nice paving, freedom of movement and the only sound is that of people chatting as they stroll about. But to work there must be 1) large parking areas strategically located; 2) dedicated, frequent bus services; 3) good waiting rooms. The city of Bath has P & R for hundreds of cars located at several points a mile or so outside the city.

Our problem has existed for years and it will not just go away; as W. S. Atkins the planning consultants said in their strategy for St Albans in 1993, “To do nothing is not an option”.

DENNIS OWEN

Fishpool Street, St Albans

SIR – Why should I as a Harpenden town councillor be troubled over the suggestion yet again to ban cars from St Peter’s Street?

It is because I have also been an active member of the St Albans Chamber of Commerce since 1974 and am very much aware of the trading patterns of the city centre. Indeed I am just as much concerned for the viability of all small shops in St Albans as I am in Harpenden.

The council’s recent attempt to seek retailer opinions and outline possible city-centre congestion management ideas are indeed welcome but sadly very misguided in coming back once again to the possibility of banning private vehicles from St Peter’s Street. Please don’t go down this path if we want to see our small shops survive.

If you ask the public a question like “What is the biggest problem in the city centre?” you will almost certainly get the answer “Traffic congestion”.

However, if you asked “Do you want to see a thriving, busy shopping centre?” I dare say you would get a 100 per cent “Yes”.

Just take a good look at history. Ever since the 1970s various council administrations have dabbled with pedestrianisation and traffic schemes.

Starting with a Market Street and St Peter’s Street experiment, then the complete disaster of the ill-fated one-way system in the 1980s and more recently the long extended roadwork “safety” measures, conducted by Herts Highways and the SADC, trade fell drastically in the majority of city centre small shops.

Figures of up to an unbelievable 40 per cent drop in sales were reported.

How can any shops in this current very difficult climate possibly survive this sort of fall?

Some local residents may well hold rather different views. I recall one letter to the press during the pre-Christmas roadworks shambles stating how pleasant it was to shop in the centre with the place unusually “so quiet”.

That speaks for itself. Another example of this is very apparent at the north end of St Peter’s Street where McDonald’s used to be.

We now have hardly any pedestrian footfall there and several boarded up shop windows.

St Albans is a very old city with a great history, but apart from St Peter’s Street it has narrow roads totally unsuitable for any purpose-built pedestrianised centre.

If the tragedy of the bombing blitz that once hit Coventry had destroyed our town all the infrastructure necessary for a proper pedestrianised centre could have well have been put in place, but how many residents would prefer that to the character and heritage we current live with?

The partial closure of St Peter’s Street with buses, taxis and delivery vehicles alone using it (a sort of half way house to pedestrianisation) I feel will sadly lead to a dead “High Street” with ever more small shops closing, leaving St Peter’s Street like a typical clone town.

In this connection the larger stores tend to fare rather differently to small shops.

We must not give up hope that there is an answer to all of this. However, it will require much wider “out of the box thinking”. Where can we direct traffic?

How can we create a greater availability of car parking plus a whole mass of the ideas actually put forward in the council’s management ideas agenda?

Whatever solutions we come up, with the key principle to guide us must be that a truly viable and thriving town/city centre is essential for the wellbeing of St Albans and our whole community.

I fear that we are yet again drifting in the wrong direction.

MICHAEL WEAVER

Clarence Road, Harpenden,

Director of St Albans Chamber of Commerce

n In last week’s letters under the heading ‘Sunday football remembered, David Ansell states ‘A fact that both men would have been aware of is that Sunday morning football had begun earlier, in the 1946/47 season’. He had intended to say ‘unaware’. Apologies to all concerned.


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