We’ve sorted out smoking. Why not cars?

One of the best things about being a campaigner is when someone notices your efforts – and gives you something nice and shiny with your name on it.

Last week I had the honour of getting an award from Sustrans in London, along with a host of volunteers (I got the only one for non-Sustrans work, pleasingly called the Streets for People Community Leader award). My fellow winners are doing brilliant things. Most of them are primary school teachers going the extra mile to help get kids on bikes and scooters – and out of their parents’ cars on the school run. How they find the time to run bike clubs and cycling lessons and special events on top of being actual teachers, I have no idea, but they do, and with a fair amount of passion to boot.

We all got to say a few words as we accepted our various awards. After I’d written mine down I realised it was kind of a potted history of my whole street campaign journey, and more importantly, a summary of what I hope campaigning can achieve. And I’ve been short of blog posts recently – probably because I’ve been doing more writing on Better Streets – so I thought I’d post it on here.

Thank you Sustrans for this award! 

The encouragement means a lot to me. A big thank you also to my husband, who’s had to put up with all my hours of campaigning over the last few years…

Your introduction mentioned Better Streets for Enfield. This was a group I helped to found in response to Enfield winning Mini Holland investment from the Mayor, and the fierce opposition to the cycle lanes from certain residents. As Better Streets we’ve tried to be a voice welcoming the investment in walking and cycling and supporting Enfield Council in carrying out the scheme. I’m pleased to say that they are doing just that, with one major cycling route along an A-road now built, and another one on its way. A real transformation is taking place.

I’ve been on quite a journey over the last few years. 

I am now thoroughly obsessed with streets – but I haven’t always been. Like most people in this country I didn’t really notice anything about our streets, good or bad, for many years. The Mini Holland battle in Enfield was one of a few milestones on a journey that began with starting a play street on our rat run in Palmers Green. Not long after that I decided to take my daughter to school by tandem instead of the car, so we weren’t adding to London’s deadly air pollution.

Warwick Road traffic and kids

Kids walking to school via a local rat run (Warwick Road N11)

This was all part of a gradual process of realising that our streets are dominated by traffic. I wasn’t aware of it at first because it seemed normal, but now my eyes have been opened to it. There is too much traffic taking up too much space on too many of our streets, and we rely too much on our cars to get around. We’re a nation of car addicts! Plus our streets are car-centric in design; if you choose to travel by another mode you can suddenly become a second-class citizen on the road.

But I’ve also woken up to the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way. 

This awakening was triggered by campaigns like Playing Out, who inspired our play street; 20’s Plenty, who gave a talk locally years ago that I never forgot; the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain; London Cycling Campaign; and Waltham Forest’s transformational Mini Hollands or low traffic neighbourhoods, which I have now been shown around on four separate occasions.

These campaigns have shown me that our streets don’t have to stay the way they are. They have held up a positive vision of what’s possible. We can have streets that allow children to travel and play independently. We can have streets where elderly people can travel actively. We can have high streets that are a pleasure to spend time on. And so on. My dream is to see a national awakening along the same lines. I’d like to see people realising what our streets could be like, and not settling for the car-centric status quo.

WF LTN playing in street

A family plays cricket in a low traffic neighbourhood in Waltham Forest. Credit: Sam Williams @play_future

There are parallels with the smoking ban in public places.*

Before 2007 it was acceptable for children and the elderly to sit in smoke-filled cafés and pubs. We look back now in horror, and say, “What were we thinking?” In the same way I would love the nation to wake up to what we’ve allowed to happen on our streets, and how much we’ve allowed traffic to take over, at the expense of everyone’s health and well-being; especially the most vulnerable.

Take residential neighbourhoods for instance. Why is it acceptable for traffic to cut through residential neighbourhoods? Why are these streets even part of the main road network? Why are rat runners’ car journeys more important than people’s quality of life? Or children’s right to play outside?

We’re campaigning for low traffic neighbourhoods in Enfield at the moment so this issue is close to my heart. A low traffic neighbourhood removes through traffic from whole residential areas and puts it back on the surrounding main roads, giving streets back to people to enjoy, walk, cycle and play. I would love to see this enter the national consciousness – for people to say, “Hang on, why are we putting up with all these rat runs?” and start demanding low traffic neighbourhoods as the logical solution. Ultimately, I would love this to become government policy. It already is in plenty of European countries.

So if we aim high enough, and hold out a positive enough vision in our work and campaigning, a national awakening – and even a change in government policy – is the kind of thing we can achieve in the long run. Let’s keep going 🙂

 

* This idea came out of a conversation with a neighbour after one of our play street sessions. She had worked in a café many years ago and remembers emptying countless overflowing ashtrays and not being able to open windows for ventilation in the winter, with children sitting in a fog of smoke. She spotted the parallel with the cars that rule our street.

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