A couple of experiences last week, one exhilarating and one demoralising has got me thinking about queuing theory in urban design. Today is the start of the road pricing extension, which I hope works, though I am not too pleased about the prospect of seeing a lot more Chelsea Tractors in my part of Westminster. When the experiment started a few years ago congestion in my part of town - I live within the old C zone - went down by 30% and for a brief an enjoyable moment I considered starting to cycle around town again! The streets around here (Fitzrovia) became quite quiet and we even sent a petition to Westminster Council asking them to consider making a home-zone around here. But of course they refused to countenance such a lefty idea.
However a little known aspect of the congestion charging has been the fact that Transport for London has changed all the traffic lights around the edge - so that traffic flows more easily round the perimeter routes. Euston Road, which bounds the congestion zone to the North has (I'm sure of it) been converted to a green wave. On Friday I had the pleasure of riding that wave all the way along to the A40. I don't know how they do it, but if you go at about 30 miles an hour along the road you are likely to receive green lights all the way along. Now children, this does not work during times of congestion and even though some people say that it also works at 60 miles an hour I would not risk the ticket or the injury! But at 30 miles an hour on a relatively clear day it is one of the small pleasures of London life!
The unpleasant experience of queuing theory was waiting in the freezing cold for my 10.00am appointment until 12.30pm outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I got so angry at one point my mind went back to the anti-Vietnam riots in the square in the sixties. I was sorely tempted to start one - but I was wearing my high heels so thought better of it and just made polite conversation with my fellow queue members. How is it that one of the so-called most civilized nations of the world have such trouble administering a queue that happens the same way every day? If the 10.00am appointments don't really need to get there until 12.30 why not call it a 12.30 appointment?
So for anyone who has the misfortune to need an American visa here are my top tips.
1. Book an appointment a few days ahead because the prelims take time. e.g. you will need a 50mm square picture and to receive fill out , print out and return by email a form from the embassy.
2. Take the 8.00am appointment if at all possible and arrive at 7.30 - thus eliminating all queuing (I suppose)
3. Failing that arrive at the appointed time - make sure the man in the yellow jacket has ticked you off his list - and then toodle off to Oxford Street for a bit of shopping, meet your friends for coffee or have your hair done.
4. However resist all temptations to purchase anything as they don't let in mobile phones, liquids and all your metalwork (including belt buckles) has to be visible in a plastic bag. There were a lot of embarrassed men in the queue with decidedly drooping drawers!
5. Check and double check that you have everything with you, including passport, photo, copy of form, copy of appointment letter, receipt for visa fee, letter from employer saying they want you to come back and any other salient proofs required. However I didn't have a letter from my employer (me!) but they let me in anyway.
In true British fashion my queue was good humoured and I'm sure that people make friends for life sometimes. But it sure is a bad reflection on the lack of organisation or the lack of care on the part of such a powerful nation. if you really don't want to queue take a stick and gray your hair ......... or better still borrow a wheelchair from somewhere!
However while we are talking about queuing there are times when bunching people up is just the right approach from an urban design point of view! Take for example the shopping street. In most cases people tend to design these streets too wide but there is nothing more off-putting than a windy street scene. In my view it is often the narrower the better. For example St Christopher's Place located just off London's Oxford Street has an opening that must be less than a meter wide, but it is extremely popular and its little square at the back is always packed at all times of the year with people enjoying the quite and sheltered street life that it offers. Dublin (above) is also a case in point, its narrow side streets, about 2.5m wide at most are far more attractive than its main shopping streets, and the better shops have tended to congregate in these lanes.