From cycle lanes to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Who owns our streets?
Last month I participated in an online debate on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, organised by the Academy of ideas. Speakers were Conservative peer and former deputy chairman, Transport for London; Rebekah Kelly from grassroots campaign group We Are Islington; rormer Hackney councillor and Cabinet Member Rita Krishna; Emma Richman, Executive Director of operations, Peaks and Plains Housing Trust in Manchester. Journalist and broadcaster Ella Whelan chaired a lively and very useful debate and audience discussion. You can watch the video of the whole event here, and read my brief introduction below.
The full introductory blurb for the debate and speaker profiles can be found on the Academy of Ideas website.
There is so much you can say on this subject, but as I have just four minutes for my introduction I thought I’d start with a question posed in the blurb for tonight’s discussion.
“Should we take advantage of the benefits of lower activity in cities and learn a lesson about what life could be like without cars?”
Well, that’s a good question. Even better if we, the public had ever been asked, or engaged in a serious dialogue about what kind of city we want. But we were never asked. LTNs, road blocks and cameras were dropped on us from a great height. Some drivers still don’t know what these things are and drive on through, earning themselves an instant £130 fine, which is great for council’s like Hackney, which has made around £1 million out of LTN cameras since the summer.
One ‘benefit’ we saw under lockdown, is that many ordinary people pulled together, organised independently, creating informal support networks to help elderly or medically vulnerable neighbours.
1. What the imposition of LTNs and road closures does is the opposite of this – because they force many elderly and disabled, potentially into permanent isolation.
2. And far from tapping into the resourcefulness, and community spirit that residents showed during lockdown, the whole policy is built on mistrust of the citizen, and is designed to disempower them.
We are irresponsible, rat-runners who cut through neighbourhoods simply because we’re apparently too lazy to walk or get on a bike. We are not to be trusted with the decision as to whether our journeys are ‘necessary’ or ‘unnecessary’. Our betters will decide that for us.
3. The policy, implementation and the reality of LTNs is division and is acting against the potential for genuine community cohesion we saw signs of under lockdown.
Older and more long term residents are looking on as the neighbourhoods they grew up in are being completely reshaped, not for them but for a younger, more affluent and healthy generation. I’m certain that many newer and younger residents don’t want that, any more than the older ones do, but this stuff is just driving people apart.
And just look at the destructive wedge being driven between cyclists and motorists. Forget cycle lanes – what has really made cycling in London so much better and safer over the last 20 years I’ve been cycling here, is London Drivers. Most drivers are so aware, and conscious of cyclists today. That’s been the key improvement. Yet in treating drivers so badly, and doing it in the name of cyclists, we risk losing those gains and benefits, and creating a war.
You can’t impose community with policies or parklets. Strong communities are about people having a sense of purpose and control. The best and most vibrant communities can be noisy and chaotic and in every way fly in the face of the planner’s idyl that often looks so good on the drawing board. Cars having nothing to do with it.
I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I went (by bike) to Stamford Hill.
I was struck by a very tangible sense of community and life. It’s buzzing with commercial and social life on the street, but it’s full of cars, and mini-buses etc. But that makes no difference because it is people that a make community.
A city is nothing without commercial life and without citizens who have the freedom to choose how they do things, get around, organise their lives and so on. And for that to work we have to be free to negotiate and work out how to do that, and still get along with one another. There’s an inherent intolerance at the heart of LTNs. They’re about forcing one group’s values and choices on everyone and effectively saying – tough, get used to it.
And why on earth are we waring over this?
But far from being a drag on society, ordinary people are the solution to many of the problems we face today. We need more democratic participation – and even the most seemingly disinterested or disengaged are alive to the possibilities of real freedom and democracy, given the right circumstances. I’m very optimistic that we can rebuild our democracy from the bottom up.