UCL Engineering Exchange


10 Questions with Mike Grahn

9 January 2019

The active transport activist and scientist does opera on bicycles, eschews TV for tunes and helps TfL sort out its signalised crossings.

Mike Grahn, volunteer at London Living Streets

1. What is your organisation and what are its key aims?

I’m the pedestrian crossings lead at London Living Streets which is a local group of Living Streets, the national organisation for everyday walking. Founded in 1929 as the Pedestrians’ Association, our first campaigns led to the introduction of speed limits and the zebra crossing. Ninety years on we’re still working to make it easier and safer for people to walk alongside and across our roads. I’m a volunteer looking to make the formal, signal-controlled crossings in our city properly responsive to the needs of users on foot. This is an exciting time for us because those in power are finally realising that our cities need to be designed round the needs of people rather than vehicles. The Mayor of London’s adoption of the  principle of ‘Healthy Streets’ represents a step change in the way our street network is managed.

2. What is your experience with community-engaged research?

I’ve been active in community groups for almost my entire life alongside my career as a researcher. It was a natural progression to turn to research to support campaigns and then for us to carry out the research for ourselves. Most recently, working together with network managers at Transport for London and UCL Engineering Exchange, we conducted a study of pedestrian crossing users' experience of ‘wait time’ reduction at a sample of signalised crossings in London. Volunteers interviewed 2,000 crossing users before and after the wait time was reduced at some, but not all, of the crossings. The results confirmed the benefit of wait time reduction, which is now being rolled out as a programme of work by Transport for London across all its 6,200 signalised crossings.

3. What are you most proud of, in work or in life?

I’m proud of having been able to work in biomedical research such as being part of a team that took a new cancer treatment all the way from discovery in the laboratory to licensing and routine use in patients. I’ve also had great fun dabbling in the arts. Being a part of Jeremy Deller’s Turner prize installation and putting on opera on bicycles in Trafalgar Square were two memorable moments. 

4. What saying do you try to live by?

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today (I tend to forget the first word).

5. If you could meet any person, at any point in history, who would you choose and why?

I’d like to spend a lost afternoon cycling round the pubs of south London with H.G. Wells. Although he’s best known as a science fiction author, he was a professional cricketer, artist, biologist, social commentator and possibly the most accurate predictor of future technology developments (from atomic weapons to text messaging) there’s ever been. He also foresaw much of what's changed in society over the past century. I’d love to hear what he'd make of life in London today.

6. Which album, film, TV boxed set and book would you take on a desert island?

A single album is an almost impossible choice, but I think it would be the Bach cello suites for their utter humanity. I’ll happily swap the film and TV for more music (Sibelius, Shostakovich)! As for a book, I’d like the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; it contains a bit of everything and it’s old enough for much of the technology to be useable on a desert island.

7. What do you think is the most important quality in a friend and/or colleague?

Encouragement tempered with honest criticism.  

8. What do you like best about where you live?

My neighbourhood is about as ordinary as is possible for inner London and I love it. It’s a wonderful mix of all kinds of people who just all rub along together. Add that to the almost infinite variety provided by the rest of London and it’s a great place to be.    

9. If you could be Mayor of London for a day, what would you do?

Have a day each month without any motor vehicles moving in the city so that people can see what’s possible.  

10. What opportunities for community-engaged research are coming up for you?

We’re just waking up to the power of doing research, and it's changing our ways of thinking about campaigning. Rather than just complaining (or campaigning) and asking someone else to do something, we’re now saying ‘what exactly needs to change and how can we support that change in happening?’ It’s also changing our relationship with the professionals in charge of our streets – where we were one-sidedly putting our case, we’re now starting to have a dialogue and developing a standing based on expertise and mutual respect. Having achieved agreement around the need for reduced crossing wait times, we’re now looking at practical ways to increase the time available to cross and other improvements, as well as thinking about how we can help design the next generation of traffic control systems to be fully responsive to the needs of people moving round London on foot.

Read more about the research collaboration