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.
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.
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.
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.