Seismic

Hello, long abandoned blog…

There’s a good reason I haven’t been blogging. Pretty much the whole time the world has been gripped by the pandemic I’ve been conducting my own personal shipwreck.

My ‘ship’ hit a submerged rock in late 2019 and capsized in slow motion throughout 2020. I’d say I only crawled ashore sometime this spring, and have been slowly recovering ever since. Meanwhile my job went from part time to full time, which has been a welcome development, but between that and wringing out the seawater from my hair, there hasn’t been much time for blogging.

All around me, all this time, London’s streets have been changing. It’s been extraordinary to watch. We’ve seen healthy, civilised measures erupt into the world – like protected cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods and roads closed for al fresco dining – accompanied by a storm of controversy. It’s like watching the Incredible Hulk in reverse. A deadly, monstrous road system has a fit, falls into a coma and then breaks out into spasms of healthy streets. Who would have thought…?

Like the pandemic itself, the scale and the speed of the changes have been unbelievable.  Suddenly low traffic neighbourhoods, which we active travel campaigners have been trying to explain for years at niche campaign group meetings, has become a regular topic on the national news – and the top cause of strife on Next Door and neighbourhood WhatsApp groups. I remember presenting on LTNs at my local residents association four or five (or maybe 102?) years ago and being met with polite indifference. Now my neighbourhood *is* an LTN, and every other house seems to sport a pro or anti window poster. Several hundred people held a protest against it only last month.

Poll after poll shows that most people support low traffic neighbourhoods, albeit quietly, but the opposition is brutal. At the extreme end it is very nasty indeed. As a known advocate for LTNs, my name got bandied around by the ‘One Community against Enfield LTNs’ a lot. I found it amusing at first, but then I saw what was being done to other people who hadn’t chosen to become active travel campaigners. An older woman on my street who lives by herself mentioned she liked the LTN on Facebook. One local unhinged ‘anti’ turned up to her house and lay in wait to film her getting into her car, then circulated the video on social media – proving what, I’m not sure. Later on a friend of mine gave an interview about the LTN in the street. He was next to a planter with his disabled daughter on their recumbent tandem. As the news of a film crew began circulating on local WhatsApp anti groups, individuals began turning up and silently filming on their phones. It was creepy and intimidating, and the images of my friend and his vulnerable child began circulating on social media with unkind captions. That was not okay.

Created by an opponent of healthy streets, one friend calls it a ‘New Year’s Honour Mind Map of Madness’. (I’m surprised the eyes aren’t scratched out.) I’m proud of being on it (twice) since so many of my heroes are on this map

Why the strength of feeling on both sides? Why the protests and the vandalism and the death threats against councillors? Because these changes to our streets are a threat to the status quo. Pop-up cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods challenge the decades-old belief that Roads Are For Cars. It’s as hard for society to accept as Votes For Women was 100 years ago.

Meanwhile, walking and cycling rates have sky-rocketed in my neighbourhood, children are travelling independently and you can hear bird song on a road that used to carry 6,000 cars a day. Remove the traffic from an Edwardian tree-lined street in north London, and suddenly you can appreciate its beauty, because (although you find yourself strolling in the middle of the road) you’re no longer focused on keeping yourself or your children alive. There have been times cycling up Fox Lane this summer when I could have cried with joy seeing the trees bathed in sunshine, the planters stuffed with bee-friendly flowers, people of all ages out and about. I even saw one 10-year-old boy giving his friend a backie (remember those?) over Fox Lane bridge. The friend was holding a football – they must have been off to the park. That bridge was a traffic-sewer-death-trap until the LTN, and I almost never saw anyone cycle on it – still less unaccompanied children. As I tweeted that day: I can now die happy. I am hugely grateful to Enfield councillors for bravely seeing this trial through.

The staff team has mostly worked from home since March 2020, but cautiously began returning to the office in Wapping this autumn. I’ve been going in once a week, and attending meetings in central London In Real Life since the summer. While I was away, my commute was quietly transformed beyond recognition. I no longer have to choose between the safe indirect back street route and the fast, direct, but potentially fatal route: the most direct route has become safe. It has sprouted wand-protected cycle lanes (Liverpool Road), kerb-protected cycle tracks (Drayton Park), a Dutch-style roundabout (also Drayton Park), and roads where the through traffic has vanished and people of all ages glide around in flocks of bikes (most of Hackney). Glaring gaps remain (all of Haringey), but the transformation is still remarkable.

There have been moments, like the publication of the government’s startlingly ambitious vision for cycling and walking (more tears) when I thought our work at London Cycling Campaign was done and we could all retire early. But it’s definitely too soon for that. For every healthy street in somewhere like Hackney there’s a dangerous traffic sewer somewhere like Wandsworth or Hillingdon. Sadly some of the most glaring holes in the fabric of London’s healthy streets are in the centre, a threat to everyone who has to travel through – like the hole exactly the size of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Witnessing the removal of the protected cycle lanes on Kensington High Street, including bollards adopted by school children, was for me one of the defining moments of the last 18 months. It was the only protected cycle lane in the borough. (Although the incredible array of local support rallied by resident group Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea was also mind-blowing.)

Shortly before the pop-up cycle lane on High Street Kensington was removed in 2020

Another defining moment was in September, when hundreds of us on bikes brought a busy Holborn junction to a standstill to remember Dr Marta Krawiec – and the three other people killed cycling at the same junction – for a minute’s silence. Marta was a children’s doctor and like hundreds of others, she started cycling during the pandemic. The arm of the junction where she died has now finally been made safe.

Talk about swings and roundabouts, agony and ecstacy…

Here are the words of my wise and prophetic friend Louise in her birthday card to me this March, which I read while clinging to my battered life raft far out to sea:

‘Happy birthday. It’s a seismic shift, happening in a season of change in society too. Be extra kind to yourself. Be proud of yourself. Beware aftershocks’.

Indeed.

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