If you were on Twitter or the BBC news website around the end of June you might have seen slightly alarming footage of cars mounting pavements in Lee Green, a council ward in the northeast of Lewisham. This was an early teething problem, quickly rectified, associated with the introduction of London’s largest low traffic neighbourhood. It is one of a number of schemes popping up across the city, and in towns and cities around the world, as governments look to provide more space for social distancing and avoid over-crowding on public transport. What sets Lee Green apart, in London at least, is its scale and ambition, covering an entire council ward, aiming to reduce traffic volumes by up to 60% and testing a model that could eventually be rolled out across the Borough.
Why Lee Green? Well for one thing, in the words of our lovely Prime Minister, it was “shovel ready”. The plans had been through a number of consultations and design iterations over the previous 18 months and was awaiting confirmation of funding. When TFL announced support for emergency Covid-related transport measures, Lee Green was one of the schemes to get the go-ahead. We how have “modal filters” on selected streets across the ward. Imagine large planters that reduce the width of the road. People, pushchairs, skateboards, mobility scooters and bicycles can go through; cars can’t. This is being complimented by number-plate recognition cameras on bus routes. Collapsible bollards allow access for emergency services. All streets remain accessible to vehicles but the numbers of routes traversing the area is greatly reduced, with the aim of eliminating rat-running.
That is where the 60% figure comes from. It is the proportion of traffic that comes from outside the ward and passes straight through without stopping, mostly drivers looking for short-cuts or to avoid the congestion on the nearby south circular. The volume of traffic is staggering. Some residential streets have 80,000 vehicle movements a week. One local primary school with a playground bounded by two streets sees upwards of 3.5 million cars, vans and lorries passing by every year. The impact on air quality and on children’s lungs is obvious. And because rat-runners are generally trying to get somewhere in a hurry, speeds are notoriously high. I have young children and we have had a couple of scary near-misses just crossing roads to get to the shops or the nursery. The low-traffic neighbourhood scheme gives us chance to have something safer and healthier, where low-carbon alternatives like walking and cycling are given the same access to public space as cars.
Of course not everyone agrees and the scheme has been controversial. Community facebook groups have lit up with sometimes heated discussions about the pros and cons. A Q&A session at a community forum pulled in the biggest crowd anyone could remember. The scheme has attracted particular ire from the grandly named Alliance of British Drivers, who turned out to be a guy from Kent called Roger who likes using Lee Green as a shortcut.
Some of the concerns are legitimate. It will mean slightly longer journey times in some cases. People with mobility issues are nervous about the impact on their ability to get around. Others concerns are less valid. One common assertion is that this is a middle-class plan that only benefits people living in big houses on leafy streets. It is true that Lee Green has some nice streets. It also has around 25% social housing. 41% of households don’t own a car but still suffer the effects of pollution and congestion. We know that on average poorer people have poorer health outcomes and lower life expectancy. We know also that an underlying health conditions has a significant impact on your ability to recover from coronavirus. Clear air is, my view at least, fundamentally a question of social justice.
One concern that has still to be tested is whether the scheme reduces overall traffic volumes or just pushes it on to surrounding streets. Evidence from other areas suggests the former but it is not clear-cut and will be monitored over the next 18 months. Either way it will be interesting to see how neighbouring wards and councils react. We have already seen Greenwich Council, which had been reluctant to engage, quickly announce modal filters for two of its adjoining roads. Other wards are watching with interest. Bedding in will take some time but as people get used to it, I hope and expect that they will be reluctant to go back to more traffic and speed and noise. I’ve been highlighting parallels with Beckenham Place Park, where there were howls of protest when the plans to convert it to a public park were first announced. Now we have a brilliant shared resource that can be used equally by everyone and the idea of turning it back into a golf course seems ridiculous.
So if you want to reduce traffic in your area, how do you go about it? Like most of these things it starts with a small group of committed campaigners talking to their neighbours, collecting data, writing letters and badgering the council. It helped that the concerns in Lee Green were so obvious and so widespread that the local councillors kept hearing about them from residents. We are lucky to have a trio of smart, energetic councillors who wanted to get something done. Local political support is important so if you don’t have smart, energetic councillors, then vote for better ones, or stand for election! It helps also that the leadership at the Council are receptive and engaged and are supported by some really knowledgeable and capable officers. The Mayor of London is right behind these kinds of initiatives and TFL have been excellent. Building a support network in the community is a good idea. That is how I got involved. Find people who know how to build a website, run a twitter feed or facebook group and, crucially, generate engaging content to put on them. Make the case with your friends and neighbours. Come to Lee Green and have a look. We will show you around. Be mindful of the fact that not everyone will agree and that some concerns will be legitimate. Also be wary of too much compromise. The Lee Green scheme has been a sudden and radical change. Change is difficult and sometimes unpopular. Ultimately though, if we are to move to more sustainable ways of living, those of us that can need to use our cars less and walk and cycle more. That means making a choice in favour of giving communities safe, accessible, healthy streets.
Martin McKee is a Lee Green resident and is writing in a personal capacity