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Car wars: coronavirus and the rise in traffic-cutting schemes

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 23/10/2020 Peter Chapman
a man riding a bicycle on a city street: Sections of Walthamstow, east London, are closed to traffic as part of its Mini Holland scheme © Provided by The Financial Times Sections of Walthamstow, east London, are closed to traffic as part of its Mini Holland scheme

Lockdown and working from home have focused attention on the green agenda and such questions as how to cut local traffic and pollution. The government recently announced plans, for example, to greatly expand the size of London’s congestion charge zone to include areas far from the centre of the capital to which it presently applies.

Recent months have seen a rise in trials of the Limited Traffic Neighbourhoods idea in London and other cities — such as Birmingham, where the Kings Heath and Lozells areas are scheduled LTNs — as national and local government aim to boost such means of active travel as cycling and walking. Coronavirus is, in short, changing our relationship to cities and how we live in them.

The aim of cutting urban traffic is far from new, home or abroad, and neither is the fact that it causes argument. Take the city of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, whose efforts to limit traffic 40 years ago created enough anguish for people to speculate that the queen of Holland might have to mediate.

One London area that typifies a fast-developing national debate is Dulwich Village in south-east London. Established deep in the 17th-century countryside, it still sits tucked away off the maelstrom of the South Circular Road. Middle class and residential, it is generally far enough beyond such south London districts as, say, Brixton to avoid the capital’s noisier excitements. 

But lately, a state of relative village anarchy has arisen thanks to LTN measures. Crossroads have become traffic clogged, with tempers frayed at the changing of the lights. This has heightened safety concerns for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Clumpy wooden planters appeared in the summer, blocking roads by the ancient burial ground at the village centre. The boxes — measuring about 3ft x 4ft — are part of local council efforts to cut traffic and improve neighbourhood travel. But some roads have been left empty, others overburdened with vehicles and opinion is badly split.

“The issue has been worse than Brexit around here in terms of the angst and animosity,” says Richard Aldwinckle of One Dulwich, a group that has protested about the measures. “We’re not petrol heads or pro-car . . . a lot of us are cyclists and walkers and rarely use our cars.” One Dulwich, he adds, has rapidly built the support of 1,650 people from all streets of the area.

Closing roads 24/7 is “disproportionate”, Aldwinckle says. “We’re looking for a middle way of timed restrictions.” With that, he says, traffic, pollution and noise from a few closed posh streets won’t simply be pushed on to other roads. People with poor mobility who have no choice but to use cars will be able to visit local doctors and hospitals, ambulances won’t be delayed and local businesses hard hit by Covid-19 will have more chance to revive.

Such protesters say there has been a lack of consultation by the London borough of Southwark, Dulwich Village’s local authority.

Similar opinion is reflected north of the Thames. The gentrifying borough of Hackney has seen public demonstrations of support for LTN measures, but also protests against, says one resident, “Gestapo traffic control” by the town hall.

With streets closed, cameras installed to catch cars who dare to use them and fines slapped on drivers, traffic has been pushed on to the main streets, protesters allege, with poorer areas taking the brunt.

Rumours abound in Dulwich of the now relatively quieter streets’ house prices being pushed up. “Let’s say it has done them no harm,” says Gareth Martin, owner of local estate agents Harvey & Wheeler. More street traffic restrictions are planned, with cameras due to be installed to enforce them. 

Southwark council says it had been consulting with the people of Dulwich for almost two years on the question of healthy streets and the summer measures were brought in to help maintain, for example, “the clean air that we all benefited from during lockdown”. But it adds: “All of our LTNs are trial measures . . . we continue to listen.”

“It’s about how do we get people out of their cars,” says Jemima Hartshorn, founder of Mums for Lungs, which campaigns for cleaner air in Southwark and other boroughs. These include Waltham Forest, in east London, which has an LTN programme that was unpopular in its early stages.

Dulwich has a “very good scheme”, says Hartshorn, adding that there has been a “phenomenal increase in cycling” and walking around has become a joyful experience.

“The one thing that is always true everywhere” is that such schemes “always create controversy and opposition”, says Steve Melia, lecturer in transport and planning at the University of the West of England, Bristol. “The bitterness may take a time to die down,” but “politicians want to win the argument beforehand.” That, he adds, just “won’t happen”. 

As to what the future holds, the traffic-limiting measures introduced years ago in Groningen, says Melia, have it now rated as one of the most people — and business — friendly cities in Holland. Successful traffic reduction schemes in Europe are in place from north-west Spain to Norway. The Norwegian capital, Oslo, reported zero deaths of cyclists and pedestrians last year.

Back in Dulwich, “We do have hopes,” says Aldwinckle, that “there is a reasonable solution in our reach,” adding “if there is goodwill.”

How things work out, as such, might depend on today’s fevered circumstances. Anger at Dulwich’s burial-ground crossroads mirrors that concerning the wearing of masks in shops, varying views on which have prompted fiery local exchanges. We may be cursed for a while yet to live through such interesting times. 

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