Here’s the talk I gave at Future Cities Catapult, London, on Wednesday 18 January. Huge thanks to Sam Markey and his colleagues for this (terrifying) opportunity!
I live in Enfield, an outer London borough, and have done for nearly 20 years. I’m married with two daughters, aged 13 and 10.
There are three parts to my talk:
- First, my own story – the change in my understanding of streets and how we use them
- Second, the story of Enfield’s Mini Holland
- And then I’ll try to pull out some lessons that could be useful to us all.
1. My street journey (or, how I woke up and smelt the petrol)
What’s a street for?
Until I had kids, and for a while after, I didn’t really think about streets and how we use them. So my street was where I parked my car (as close to my front door as possible), or where I walked from to get somewhere else, like the station or the shops. Unfortunately, it also was and is a cut-through for drivers avoiding the lights in the middle of Palmers Green. (But I used other people’s streets in a similar way, so it was fair enough.) And that’s all my street was.
Then a couple of things happened that totally changed my understanding of streets.
Our play street
Play streets was an idea started, or revived, by a charity in Bristol called Playing Out. I heard about Playing Out in 2011. To turn your residential street into a play street, you applying for a special traffic order from the council, allowing you to close your road to through traffic for up to three hours a month so children can play safely on the road.
It was a fight getting it because some neighbours were vehemently opposed. But a small team of neighbours were eventually able to prove to the council that more residents were for than against, and we were awarded our ‘temporary play street order’. (Here’s my blog post about our eventful first session.)
It has transformed our street
There’s a transformation during play street sessions because there’s no traffic – the whole street becomes a playground. Children go berserk on their scooters or bikes or kicking a ball – inadvertently getting hours of exercise away from any screen.
But there’s a transformation that lasts between sessions too. New friendships have formed between children and adults. Our street has become a community. (We have our own Facebook page, so we must be a community, right?) From only knowing my immediate neighbours a little, I now know more than 30 residents by name; none of us can walk down the street without encountering neighbours who have become friends. Some who had felt isolated found friendship – including a single mum, and a family of new immigrants who were just starting to learn English.
And my perception of the street changed. It became a social space; somewhere to meet and chat to your neighbours. It sowed the idea in my mind that maybe children, or people generally, should take priority over the traffic that passes through the street where they live.
My play street involvement led me to a conference organised by London Play, a charity that had been instrumental in helping us set up our own play street. The event was at City Hall, January 2013, and it was a pivotal moment for me. One of the speakers was an academic in his 80s called Mayer Hillman. He talked about his London childhood in the war years, a time when children didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, but were free to roam wherever they liked. He pointed out that nowadays children are barely lacking in possessions; many have every device under the sun. But he said this: they have lost their freedom. And those words hit me between the eyes.
It’s true, of course. The image below is from an article written in 2007 in the Daily Mail, by David Derbyshire: ‘How children lost the right to roam in four generations‘.
At 8 years old in 1919, the great-grandfather in this study could roam independently for 6 miles. His great-grandson at 8 years old now can only go to the end of his street: 300 yards. (And for some 8-year-olds I know, that’s quite radical.)
How have children lost their freedom? And does it matter? People say often say to me, “You can’t turn back the clock. It’s not the 1950s any more.”
But that’s not quite true, because not every country is like ours.
How the UK responded to traffic danger
In the 1970s, with traffic growing and road casualty statistics rising, the UK responded by taking children off the road.
Mayer Hillman wrote a paper in 1990 called One False Move. He says:
In 1971, 80 per cent of seven and eight year old children were allowed to go to school without adult supervision. By 1990, this figure fell to 9 per cent. Road accidents involving children have declined not because the roads have become safer but because children can no longer be exposed to the dangers they pose.
The title of his paper was based on government safety advice for children; one poster read, ‘One false move and you’re dead’. The onus was on the child to be careful, not on the roads to be safe.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands…
…a very different response to the rising traffic deaths was going on. 3,000 people died on Dutch roads in 1971, including 500 children. Parents rose up and demanded safer roads with a powerful campaign called ‘Stop the Child Murder’. (See a more detailed account here.)
As a result (combined with other factors), road safety became a top priority, and the network of safe cycle paths we know today began to be installed. Moreover, residential streets were designed to slow traffic and give priority to residents. This means that even today, Dutch children can and do travel independently. I met a Dutch girl in her late teens who told me that at the age of 5 she first cycled alone to the local baker’s to buy bread for her family. For her, it was a moment of real pride – but not at all unusual.
So, the UK’s chidren have lost their freedom to travel and play independently – but does it really matter? Well, apparently it does.
The Policy Studies Institute produced a report in 2015 called Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison. It says:
“In 2013, Unicef published a comparative overview of child well-being across twenty-nine OECD and EU countries (Unicef, 2013) … Our report found that there is a positive correlation between Unicef well-being scores and the rank scores measuring children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries.”
In other words, children are happiest in countries that allow them some freedom. So, how do the UK and the Netherlands compare in that Unicef study of children’s well-being?
- Netherlands: 1st place
- Uk: 16th place
…out of 29 developed countries.
You decide which is better. To prioritise traffic, and tell children to stay off the road or die? Or to prioritise children, and design roads they can travel on safely?
Air pollution on the road to Damascus
Here’s another fact that has had a huge impact on me. I used to drive my children to school every day (1.7 miles away). One day nearly 3 years ago I was driving on the North Circular having just heard, that morning, the news about air pollution killing Londoners. We now know that the deaths of 9,400 Londoners a year are linked to air pollution – a staggering figure. And much of that pollution is from traffic. As I drove my diesel Volkswagon on an elevated section of the road I looked down across London to my right. It was a beautiful clear, sunny day, but hanging over the centre of town I could see a pale brown haze. I felt sick to the stomach. I thought: I don’t want to be part of this any more.
So, from then on we got the bus or walked to school. We tried cycling once or twice but the girls found the traffic too scary to go on the road, and using the pavements meant getting in the way of pedestrians and bumping up and down every side road. A year later my older daughter started getting the bus to her secondary school. I then followed a friend’s advice and tried out a tandem. It was brilliant. We bought a Circe Helios Duo and I have used it with my younger daughter for the school run ever since. We are both fitter: I’m now cycling at least 8 miles a day. The tandem cost nearly £2,000, but is steadily paying for itself as I save on bus fares and diesel.
And my (then) 9-year-old told me:
“Mummy, the only thing that would be better than riding the tandem with you would be riding in a flying saucer with God.”
I think she likes it.
What too much motor traffic does to our health
And I began to realise the full extent of what traffic domination has done to us. As well as curtailing children’s freedom and well-being, and damaging our health with its fumes, it has myriad negative effects on our health. For instance, I could spend a whole hour talking about the problem of physical inactivity in this country because we don’t travel actively enough – Enfield has one of the worst rates of childhood obesity in the country, and inactivity in old age shortens lives and worsens chronic health conditions.
So really, there’s nothing wrong with motor traffic dominating our streets… apart from air pollution, mental ill-health, physical inactivity, children’s lack of freedom, lack of community cohesion, serious injury and violent death. Apart from that, it’s fine.
2. Enfield’s Mini Holland
In the midst of this journey of mine, Enfield won a bid to become a Mini Holland. The Mini Holland idea was part of the Mayor of London’s 2012 Vision for Cycling, and involved awarding £30 million each to 3 outer London boroughs to make them havens for walking and cycling. The winning boroughs were Kingston on Thames, Waltham Forest and Enfield.
What will Enfield’s Mini Holland look like?
The first route is only under construction now – we’re far behind Waltham Forest, after what must have been the world’s longest consultation. But the designs include:
- Four major routes on A-roads to be given lightly segregated cycle lanes and safer junctions for cycling
- ‘Quieter Neighbourhoods’ to reduce through traffic on residential streets, creating a network for cycling and walking
- More attractive high streets
- Greenways across the borough
- Cycle training and hire.
The designs have been praised by cycle campaigners, and the scheme offers great potential to reduce the volume of traffic and improve public health. Especially given that Enfield has reached its capacity for cars, according to one traffic engineer, and its population is growing by 5,000 a year. And one study shows that 80% of car journeys in Enfield are distances that could be cycled in under half an hour; while 13% of car journeys are 1km or less.
Enfield must be welcoming this with open arms!
Nope. What we got was a classic case of ‘bikelash’.
It started with opposition from shopkeepers in the form of neon yellow posters in shop windows up and down Green Lanes in Palmers Green and Winchmore Hill. At Enfield council, having originally supported the bid, the Conservative opposition changed its mind and now opposes the scheme. The result was a very effective ‘anti’ campaign which gained a lot of public traction – so much so that the consultation result for one radical part of the scheme, to take cars off Enfield Town’s high street, was 65% against. The council had to go back to the drawing board. The opposition also took the council to court twice (unsuccessfully).
Their objections include:
- The roads are too narrow for cycle lanes – lanes will cause more pollution and congestion by holding up motor traffic
- All this money will only benefit a tiny minority of cyclists
- Cycle lanes prevent parking and will kill the high street as shoppers can’t park nearby.
But one underlying attitude seems to be that of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – normal people versus that strange tribe of cyclists.
By this time, having inadvertently become a cyclist myself, I’d joined the Enfield branch of London Cycling Campaign. There are only 6 of us, which felt overwhelming in the face of such opposition. But we’ve had excellent back-up from London Cycling Campaign, especially from Simon Munk, who was an integral part of Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland scheme and now LCC’s infrastructure campaigner. And we’ve also seen a growing number of people who don’t cycle start to support the Mini Holland idea in Enfield. These are residents who are concerned about air pollution; speeding through traffic on residential streets; lack of safety for kids to cycle or walk to school, and grotty, traffic-blighted high streets.
So as Mini Holland supporters we met on Facebook, then finally in real life. The inaugural meeting was lovely – half of us were cycle campaigners, and the other half were normal people :-). Together we decided to call ourselves Better Streets for Enfield. We wanted to make clear that ultimately it’s not just about bikes and cycling. Instead our manifesto calls for:
- Residential streets safe enough for children to play on
- Any age or ability to cycle on any road
- High streets being pleasant places to spend time and money
- People-friendly streets that are not dominated by traffic.
We’ve tried to be a positive voice in the local press, public meetings, council meetings, and online. Our own posters and flyers focus on the benefits to children. We’ve tried to get away from the bike conversation, and have a people conversation – to show that this benefits everyone.
3. What lessons can we learn, and where do we go from here?
The 1960s and 70s were a time of huge social change, and part of that change in the UK was that Car Became King. But what if, in this decade, there was another huge change which reversed the damage and restored balance to our streets?
I believe that now is the time in London for that change. Now we understand the negative effects of traffic dominance, and now we have a mayor who has listened to London Cycling Campaign and has pledged to invest in people-friendly streets. Transport for London has a new set of criteria called ‘Healthy Streets’ – the bottom line in assessing a street is how much it allows all sorts of people to walk and cycle. So there is real understanding at City Hall.
But how, practically, can traffic be reduced on London streets, and how can we give the priority back to people? I’ve got 6 suggestions.
1.Change the conversation. We need to get away from the ‘motorists vs cyclists’ argument. It’s not about cycling, it’s about people, and especially about children and their well-being.
2. Raise awareness about the impact of driving on others’ health and well-being. We all need to take personal responsibility for our journeys. Waltham Forest ran a big poster campaign that said, ‘You’re not stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic.’
3. Keep campaigning for cycle infrastructure. London’s new cycle superhighways have been controversial. But if we accept that roads are for moving people, not just cars, cycle lanes are a more efficient use of space. And a recent study found that the bigger a city’s cycling network, the more people use it, and the less pollution is generated. So one positive thing you can do today for London’s streets is join London Cycling Campaign – they’ve had, and are having, phenomenal success in campaigning for good quality cycle infrastructure.
4. Join a car club. There are alternatives to private car ownership, like car sharing and car clubs. According to the charity CarPlus, each car club car in operation takes 10 private cars off the road. And car club members drive fewer journeys, and walk and cycle more than non-members.
5. Create low-traffic neighbourhoods. Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland are ‘filtering’ through traffic out of whole residential neighbourhoods in Walthamstow. Everyone can access their own street by car, albeit slightly indirectly, but there is no direct route for through traffic in the neighbourhood thanks to ‘modal filters’. Filters can be bollards or planters, which block cars but allow walkers and cyclists through. The scheme caused a massive outcry that traffic would be displaced to other roads and cause gridlock, but that’s not been the case.
Statistics released in November 2016 showed a slight increase on main roads, but an overall reduction of 10,000 car journeys a day. Most traffic had not been displaced but simply ‘evaporated’. And that’s got to make a difference to air quality, as well as to the quality of people’s lives on streets where children can now safely play out.
6. Stop cars dominating the school run. We need to encourage parents not to drive their kids to school by all means possible. Good cycle infrastructure and low-traffic neighbourhoods would create a safe network for kids to walk and cycle to school. But in Edinburgh they’ve found another way to make that happen. Their ‘school streets‘ scheme shuts the whole block of roads around certain schools during school run hours (residents can still drive in and out with a permit). Walking and cycling rates to school are sky high, and parents are happy with their children’s safety on the way.
Going back to that study on children’s independent mobility (Policy Studies Institute, 2015), here are their first two recommendations: 1) implement and enforce stringent road safety measures, and 2) reduce car dependency and the dominance of traffic in the public realm.
But I want to leave you with their third recommendation. If you forget everything else I’ve said today, just remember this:
“Put the needs of children at the heart of urban development – cities that work for children, work for everyone.”