London Fields traffic: why testing alternatives is essential

Since I posted my first blog there has been some interest in my links to the campaign supporting potential road closures in London Fields (my only link is Claudia Draper who spoke at the pro-road-closure meeting  in February and who helped me set up a play street last year). So I thought I’d add some detail about why I’m interested in a scheme that challenges the domination of cars in streets.

Last year I completed a MSc dissertation looking at play streets, where residents occasionally close their streets to cars for play. I wanted to investigate how far this model could lead to a long-term shift in actions and perceptions of the street.

Car is king

My research soon revealed the difficulty in shifting those perceptions. Cities for too long have been designed around auto traffic and car drivers assume it’s their right to use the most direct and fastest routes. I have heard residents in E8 expressing fears about becoming ‘prisoners’ in their homes if the council did close roads to through-traffic (even though they would still be able to access properties, albeit on slightly longer routes). It is as if some prioritise freedom to drive over freedom to walk or cycle on streets.

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Historical accounts have revealed how the car won its enviable position as king of the street. As historians Clay McShane and Peter Norton have shown, the automobile’s dominance was not inevitable or the natural order of things, but the result of a hard-fought campaign by the auto world through the media, law courts and school safety campaigns pre 1930. Their aim was to create a social change and turn the car from a symbol of death into a symbol of freedom.


And they won. Even those not in cars are convinced that the street is not for them. Consider all the traffic engineering equipment that teach us to keep away from the road, safely waiting at traffic lights or on pavements. Consider the school safety campaigns that encourage children and parents to hurry along streets, or the chilling road safety adverts that blame careless pedestrians, rather than automobiles, for not heeding dangers on the road.

A bold move

This is why I’m encouraged when I see cities bravely challenge the status quo by prioritising other road users. I noticed, with interest, plans to close the Seine to auto traffic in Paris and the mayor’s comments that the time has come to assume a decline in auto traffic. After all, there are estimates that cyclists will outnumber car drivers entering central London in the next few years.

I’m also encouraged by success stories in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Wolverhampton, Cambridge and Vauxhall Cross as examined in this European Commission report. The Enjoy London Fields group has also uploaded some video case studies here, some of projects in residential areas. I realise there are differences but there are some lessons to be learned.

Pedestrians beware: TfL ad campaign

In each case, there was fierce opposition and a belief that idiosyncrasies would prevent the concept from working. But in each case, travel chaos did not materialise and a proportion of traffic disappeared.

Of course, it’s possible that road closures might not work in this area and I agree that other city locations might benefit even more from road closure schemes. I also appreciate concerns that traffic will be displaced onto neighbouring streets and increase pollution in school playgrounds.

But if road closures could lead to an overall reduction in traffic volumes and if these closures set in motion wider changes that reduced traffic on neighbouring streets, then I believe they are worth testing. I just can’t see how doing nothing is attractive to those who want to reduce pollution levels in the area.

Considering alternatives

I’m not in complete opposition to cars and understand they are (just one) part of the life of a street. I also acknowledge that other measures that reduce auto traffic are also critical. Vehicles need to be more fuel efficient; we need to move to a system of car sharing and not car ownership; cities need to improve public transport; and design roads that encourage slower and more careful driving behaviour (the list goes on).

But what’s appealing about the London Fields road closure concept is that it is so contentious. In being so it encourages debate and it conspicuously and quickly tests an alternative. Conversely, by doing nothing, don’t we run a greater risk by telling society that the car should endure as king?


London Fields traffic filtering: can traffic ‘evaporate’?

My inner traffic geek was intrigued when flyers appeared through my door last year about plans to close roads in my area to through-traffic. Hackney Council wanted to turn Middleton Road, a residential road near London Fields, into a cycle “Quietway”, part of a network of low-traffic, backstreet routes across London.

To do this, they needed to cut traffic from the current average of 4,000 vehicles a day to less than 2,000. Under the council’s initial area-wide scheme, 13 junctions would be closed, allowing local traffic to access properties (albeit using longer routes), whilst encouraging through-traffic to take alternative routes along main roads.

The reaction for, but mostly against the scheme was vociferous. Petitions soon emerged and council-run meetings were overrun with furious residents concerned about the impact of traffic levels and pollution on neighbouring streets, as well as increased journey times.

Following this opposition, the Council abandoned the trial and launched a consultation (now on-going) into this initial concept (now referred to as ‘Option 1’) plus three other less comprehensive schemes.

Rebalancing streets

I’m not a cyclist and I’m not involved in the campaign supporting ‘Option 1’, but I do broadly support a scheme that re-thinks the balance of power on streets, and gives other users including pedestrians and cyclists greater, but certainly not all, control.

Some of those opposing the scheme worry about becoming ‘prisoners in their own home’, as one lady put it at a meeting organised by the campaign for the area-wide scheme this week. I disagree with this since local drivers will still be able to drive. I also believe the scheme gives greater freedom to a wider range of people, or wins back freedom for road users that have been neglected in the past. But more on this in another post.

Impacts on neighbouring streets

However, I appreciate residents’ concerns that streets that will not be closed to through-traffic (including Richmond Road and Queensbridge Road) will see an increase in traffic levels. These streets are already busy thoroughfares, not only for vehicles, but also pedestrians including children accessing a few schools and children’s centres along these roads. I agree that a dramatic traffic increase on these routes would be unacceptable and understand how residents have been close to tears when speaking at local events about the scheme.

Traffic ‘evaporation’

That said, I’m interested in the findings from research studies that show how schemes such as this don’t simply shift traffic to nearby areas or streets, but lead to an overall reduction or ‘evaporation’ of traffic. It’s worth explaining these findings as there’s a lot of miscommunication about them.

A 2002 study (by Sally Cairns and Phil Goodwin at UCL and Stephen Atkins, University of  Westminster) of 70 case studies worldwide, for example, demonstrated that ‘11% of the vehicles which were previously using the road or the area where roadspace for general traffic was reduced, could not be found in the surrounding area afterward’ (Cairns et al, 2002). In the more comprehensive cases, the reduction of overall traffic was much higher. So, when Nurnberg Rathausplatz closed to traffic in 1988 almost 25,000 vehicles disappeared from the altered routes every day, but less than 3,000 extra vehicles were seen on alternative routes. Measured over five years, there was actually a reduction of almost 12,000 cars on neighbouring streets as well.  Not all cases (especially in the short term) show such dramatic reductions in traffic levels on alternative routes, but in most cases, the increases gained on alternative routes are nothing like the losses on the altered ones, demonstrating that they simply do not not take the burden of all diverted traffic.

Wider effects 

What these studies show is that when road space is reduced, people make a wide range of responses such as choosing different modes of transport, travelling less often, travelling at different times of day, or taking different routes. For me, therefore, Option 1 is not just about creating a safe cycle route, but also about changing behaviours and rethinking what streets are for.

Of course this scheme must not work in isolation – it’s clear that additional improvements must be made on Queensbridge and Richmond Roads to make them safe, efficient routes. Plus there’s a whole lot more that can be done to get people out of cars.  It’s also clear that if this area-wide scheme did dramatically increase traffic levels on neighbouring streets, then it should be dismantled (given Hackney Council’s willingness to respond to the public outcry about the initial trial, I trust they would do this). But if there’s a possibility it can lead to a shift in mindset and behaviour, then surely it’s worth testing.

Setting out

I’m a journalist and urbanist living in London, in search of examples and debate around diversity and vitality in cities. I don’t know where this blog will lead, but I’m going to start with a local, and perfectly contentious, issue to spark some attention and debate.

This issue — the London Fields traffic filtering consultation — also reveals some of my research interests in how public space can be balanced for a variety of users.