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One of the first “low-traffic neighbourhoods” to be created in the UK was in Hackney, east London, in the early 1970s, when residential roads were closed to through traffic but remained open to local residents, pedestrians and cyclists.
Since then,most of the borough’s other residential roads and backstreets have been given over almost completely to cars.
But as the coronavirus crisis upended city life, a dramatic shift has been taking place. Across the country there has been a concerted effort to prioritise cycling and walking over driving, widening pavements, closing rat runs and building hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes.
In Hackney three low-traffic neighbourhoods have been established, numerous other roads have been closed to though traffic and cycleways and pavements across the borough have been improved.
“We are trying to rebuild a greener Hackney through quieter, safer streets,” said councillor Jon Burke, who is leading the project.
“It isn’t an easy process, but with among the highest road casualty and air pollution rates in the country, it is an absolutely necessary one.”
From Leicester to Leeds, Brighton to Bristol, it is a picture that is being replicated in cities across the UK. Earlier in the pandemic the Scottish government announced £10m to create pop-up walking and cycling routes, while in Greater Manchester council leaders have given more space for people walking and cycling, including the pedestrianisation of part of Deansgate in the city centre.
Daisy Narayanan, director of urbanism at active travel charity Sustrans, points out that efforts to make walking and cycling in cities more attractive are not new.
But the trend has accelerated sharply with almost 900 new schemes to improve walking and cycling implemented across the UK since May.
“The pandemic has brought this ongoing discussion into sharp focus and created an urgency to accelerate change in the way we move around and live,” said Narayanan.
Many people who experienced clean air and quiet streets for the first time in decades during lockdown have welcomed the chance to reclaim their neighbourhoods.
But this has also provoked a fierce backlash from some drivers who complain the schemes have been imposed without proper consultation, claim they increase traffic on surrounding routes, and hinder their ability to drive where they want, when they want.
A Guardian analysis of Transport for London consultations on cycle schemes before the pandemic revealed they were often withdrawn or altered following consistent objections from Conservative politicians, taxi drivers’ organisations and residents’ associations in wealthy areas.
There have been protests by taxi drivers and campaigners and in some areas the bollards or wooden planters blocking through traffic have been vandalised or destroyed.
Campaigners have been threatened with violence and oil has been poured on the gaps left for bicycles to pass through. One London authority, Wandsworth, has since suspended its new low-traffic neighbourhood.
“Change is hard, change is difficult,” said Narayanan, but added people had to realise the “status quo was not an option.”
The unfolding climate and ecological crisis – which scientists say will make future pandemics more likely – presents a multitude of challenges to cities in the 21st century, from more severe heatwaves to rising sea levels and flooding.
And running through all these issues is a growing recognition that poorest communities in cities are the ones that will suffer most as the climate breaks down – from poor housing which is more susceptible to extreme heat or flooding, to lack of outdoor green spaces and disproportionately high levels of air pollution.
According to Caterina Sarfatti, from the C40 group which represents mayors of some of the world’s leading cities, one idea that is gaining traction is the creation of “15-minute cities”.
Pioneered by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, the “15-minute city” plan creates neighbourhoods with all the things residents need day to day – parks, cafes, sports facilities, food shops, health centres, schools and workplaces – just a short walk or bike ride away.
Sarfatti said: “For many of our mayors this is a moment that gives them the possibility to really think about what the cities of the future can be … what are the more transformative changes that need to happen.”
But she warned that what kind of city emerges after the pandemic was still up for grabs.
“We could see a return to business as usual – or even worse than business as usual – if we get this wrong and people go back to individual cars and we get congestion and gridlock.”
It is a view echoed by Brian Deegan, a design engineer who works as a technical adviser to Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner, Chris Boardman, and with Leicester council, which he says has transformed the Midlands city over the past decade by removing flyovers and prioritising walking and cycling.
“We have to take stock and think,” he said. “Are there better ways of doing this, do we have to commute into town centres every single morning, can we decarbonise the transport system, can we be greener?”
Leading climate activist Bill McKibben said city leaders around the world face a similar challenge.
“Most of us live in cities, so we better think hard about how to make them liveable as the climate deteriorates. That will mean different things in different places – some of our great metropolises have to deal with flood and others with fire – but everywhere it will require some combination of intelligent design, political leadership, and most of all a commitment to real justice.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Schemes boosting cycling and working accelerate across the UK | Future of cities