Subversive Suburbanite

Children are traffic too*

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There was a public meeting this week about the Enfield Mini Holland plans, and days later, I’m just starting to work out what was actually being said…

It seemed that 90% of the 200-plus audience were against the scheme. I don’t know if they represent real feeling in the area or not, since this is a bit of a rogue series of meetings that are not part of the official consultation process. They are chaired by our conservative MP (we have a Labour council) who seems to have allied himself with a forceful anti-Mini Holland campaign – this campaign involves bright yellow posters in dozens of shop windows declaring, among other things, that cycle lanes will clog up the main road and make it more polluted. The council have declined to make an appearance at these meetings, on the grounds that they aren’t part of the consultation and they have no wish to validate the anti-campaign behind them.

One version of several. The more recent ones mention congestion and pollution

Actually it was the yellow posters that sparked something off among the rest of us. A cycle campaigner had set up a Facebook page in support of Enfield Mini Holland, and it suddenly got populated by people who are not particularly cycly, but who are fond of our local high street and looking forward to £27 million worth of Mini Holland being spent doing it up. They also happen to be parents who would rather not be driving their kids to school. Everyone was galvanised by the anti posters urging the community to ‘Save our high street’ and ‘Send the money back!’ In the space of a week, our numbers hit fifty (and growing) and there was an exhilarating sense of something snowballing. We met twice in real life (plus of course several times a day online) to try to work out what the heck to do. A couple of us got making pro-Mini Holland posters, a designer and printer offered their services for free, and an ally from Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland joined us in the local pub to offer advice. I haven’t had so little sleep – or so much fun – since I was a student.

Last Saturday saw us on the high street handing out flyers to shoppers and a factsheet that we’d cobbled together for businesses, summarising the research that shows how cycle lanes tend to boost – not obliterate – local business. That led to some interesting conversations. Shopkeepers who were personally against the scheme were in the minority. Many had concerns, but had simply been misinformed. Most of those with anti posters had done so because ‘They told us Mini Holland would be bad for business’ or quite simply because they’d been told to put them up. A local business association and a big landlord have put their full weight behind the anti campaign, and some businesses feel they can’t say no.

Anyway, back to that public meeting. I got to speak on the panel, and made a plea to make the scheme work for the sake of the borough’s children. The statistics speak for themselves: air pollution-related deaths are at 9,500+ each year in London, with Enfield the fifth worst borough, and its rates of childhood obesity are among the worst in the country. Both of which problems would be reduced by more kids being able to do more walking and cycling – on protected bike lanes, say, possibly a bit like the ones that the Mini Holland scheme is offering…?

It was a plea that fell on deaf ears. After everyone on the panel had finished (5 against, 3 of us in favour) the roving mic was passed around the floor and comment after comment said the same things, each one reinforcing the last and each getting more applause: ‘Where am I going to park? How am I going to drive? Half the main road will be taken away by cycle lanes! There will be traffic jams! Congestion! More pollution! Hardly anyone cycles anyway so why give them all this space on the road?’

When I got the mic back I began to challenge the assumption that cycle lanes = congestion. The crowd began making this odd noise, a sort of rumbling sound, and I thought for a moment that I wasn’t holding the mic properly and they were saying they couldn’t hear me.

‘Just carry on,’ said the MP, and then I realised they could hear every word I said but didn’t agree with me. I WAS BEING HECKLED. How exciting!

I then tried to make the point about the phenomenon of ‘traffic evaporation’ – dozens of studies show that when road use is reallocated away from cars, the dreaded traffic apocalypse doesn’t occur after all – but I’m not sure how much sense I made and anyway by then no one was listening.

The next day I told the Cutester (age 8) all about it, since she had patiently timed my five minute talk about three times while I practised it.

‘They don’t want cycle lanes,’ I said. ‘They think they’ll just clog up the road.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘So they don’t care about me then?’

Exactly.

(If only she’d been at the meeting.)

I realise now what everyone was assuming in that meeting – due to not knowing any different, I guess: that roads are for traffic and traffic consists of cars. But what the Cutester saw straight away is that roads should be for people, and that means everyone including children, to travel on. If you build roads  with just cars in mind, all you’ll get is cars, and the children will be forced to travel inside them.** If you build roads with everyone in mind, you’ll make space for my 8-year-old to cycle to school – plus half the school kids in the area, if you do it right.

It might be unfair to say that the objectors in that meeting loved cars more than children. Not consciously, anyway. But someone has to consciously choose children over cars. I hope Enfield has the guts to prove that it loves its children more, by making safe room for them to cycle on the road.

* the slogan for the Kiddical Mass movement. London had its first ‘Kiddical Massive’ recently – see the video above

**which is exactly where all the exhaust fumes are most concentrated.

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