Life beyond the road wars

It’s disappointing when plans to reallocate road space are reduced to a battle between two indignant and implacable sides: the cyclist (usually characterised as young, middle-class and male) on one side and the driving everyman on the other.

It’s disappointing because these schemes are about so much more than annoying drivers or pleasing cyclists. These clashes divert attention from the real benefits of a project promoting more active lifestyles; making public spaces more equitable and enjoyable; and making sensible plans for population growth.

One such fight kicked off in Waltham Forest when the council secured £27 million funding from Transport for London to create a Mini-Holland to make streets safer, more attractive, and easier to walk and cycle around. The battle raged in the press, on social media and in law courts. Yet it did get through, and the first stages have now been in place for two years.

I was delighted, therefore, to walk around the area with Paul Gasson, local resident and member of the Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign who was involved in the bid and implementation of the scheme. I joined members of London Living Streets, a pro-walking campaign group interested in lessons the project could offer.

The Mini-Holland scheme includes around 13 projects, now more than half complete. These include modal filters in four residential areas that allow residents to access homes but prevent rat running. A network of cycle routes is also being installed that provide dedicated space for cyclists. This includes a major new Cycle Superhighway on the Lea Bridge Road. New ‘Copenhagen’ or blended crossings prioritise pedestrians and there are big plans to upgrade and reorganise major junctions. Additional pro-cycling services include cycle hubs and hangars for bike storage; bike check-ups and maintenance classes; cycle training and improved way-finding.

Our tour ended in Walthamstow Village, the focal point of the scheme and the focus of the protests when it was trialled in 2014 and installed in 2015.

My immediate and lasting impression was how peaceful the area was with less traffic. Humans seemed to take over. At times, our group ambled in the middle of the road, hardly looking over our shoulder for cars. Gasson said he’d seen groups of families walking in the road on the school run, enjoying the space rather than hurriedly and anxiously herding their children.  He says more children are regularly playing on the streets and cycling on roads.

On Orford Road — the centrepiece of the Walthamstow Village scheme that closes to all motor traffic apart from a local bus between 10am and 10pm – there was a complete change of pace. People relaxed outside cafés; stopped for conversations; a group of mums we saw strolled side-by-side with their buggies.

Walthamstow Village has also become a great deal greener with new trees and ‘pocket parks’ that offer attractive planters, seating and community gardens. Gasson says these have brought the streets to life, not just with the plants, but by encouraging communities to maintain them.  Communities have taken ownership of their streets again and are joining together to invest in them.

But perhaps I am seeing things through rose-tinted, visitor spectacles. What do the residents think? Those opposing schemes like this want proof that the majority is benefitting and not just the cycling, latté-sipping gentrifiers.

Waltham Forest conducted a massive survey of local residents in Walthamstow Village in 2016. It’s safe to say that residents weren’t overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the Mini-Holland one year on. But they weren’t overwhelmingly negative either. In fact, the overriding impression I got from the survey was of indifference. One question asked residents how the overall perception of their street had changed: 28 per cent said it had got better; 28 per cent said it had got worse; and 45 per cent said it had stayed the same.

While this is hardly the ringing endorsement that campaigners would have hoped for, proof that residents were enjoying a sudden new love of their streets, it does show how people adapt to change. One result which I thought interesting was when asked what changes should be made, just 2 per cent wanted to go back to how it was, compared to 55 per cent said they’d do nothing. Gasson suspects many people had moved on; this was no longer a priority in their lives. He also believes that views would be more positive now two years down the line, once emotions had settled and people had longer to adapt.

But maybe dim acceptance, even a little annoyance with modal filters, is the best a council can ask for. What’s more important that people slowly make different choices about how they get around (and traffic counts suggest they are – see below).

Yes, it’s true that car journeys have got longer; that the modal filters are frustrating; and yes it’s true that surrounding main roads might shoulder extra traffic. But we need to offset these drawbacks with the benefits of a child riding a bike to school; of crossing a road safely; of someone walking instead of driving to a local shop; hearing birdsong again; of sitting out with a sandwich on the street.

It takes a brave politician to risk upsetting residents in the short term for long-term gain, but I hope councils considering similar schemes can do this and focus on transformation in terms of public health, road safety, air quality, and equality of public space. If they have the gumption to do it, they might find that residents soon forget about how things were before and enjoy new freedoms.

Key stats from Walthamstow Village Review, 2016

  • 19 per cent of residents said they were walking more following changes in Walthamstow Village
  • 8 per cent were cycling more
  • 28 per cent said their street had got better; 28 per cent said it had got worse; and 45 per cent said it had stayed the same
  • The number of vehicles decreased by an average of 44 per cent across Walthamstow Village
  • Eleven out of the 14 roads within the Village area saw significant reductions in the number of vehicles
  • But rat-runs did persist on three streets in the village – work is underway to reduce traffic on these roads
  • There was an increase in traffic volumes on the surrounding boundary roads including 4 per cent on Hoe Street, 11 per cent on Lea Bridge Road and 28 per cent on Shernhall Street
  • Only 1.7 per cent of residents would scrap the scheme and revert back to the former layout
  • All of the visitors surveyed had a positive opinion of the overall scheme with 84 per cent stating it was very good