Months of living in lockdown has changed many of our habits. Local parks are full of joggers and newly-bought puppies, renters sick of cramped flats in city centres are dreaming of the countryside and Deliveroo drivers dropping off food have replaced Ubers full of couples on their way to restaurants.
With work put on hold and social life cancelled, traffic has dropped in most countries. There’s nowhere to drive – especially as travelling to beauty spots could land you with a hefty fine. Some have taken advantage of the open road. In August 2020, three friends smashed the word record for the infamous Cannonball Run challenge, driving from New York to Los Angeles in just 25 hours and 39 minutes. Others have taken a different approach. In May 2020, the UK transport secretary Grant Shapps announced £2billion to fund a ‘new era’ of cycling and walking. ‘Following unprecedented levels of walking and cycling across the UK during the pandemic’, the government announced, ‘the plans will help encourage more people to choose alternatives to public transport when they need to travel’.
The most controversial aspect of the government’s plans to get us on our bikes has been restrictions on street usage through the creation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). Overnight, flower boxes and road bollards popped up all over the country, blocking off access to cars. Such schemes have already popped up in London and Bristol among others, with plans drawn up for Chorlton in Manchester.
Green activists have celebrated the move, pointing to the fact that air pollution has long been a problem in city centres. Cyclists, too, have welcomed LTNs, which they claim create safer streets and therefore an incentive for more people to get on their bikes. Greenpeace argue that ‘men are much more likely to cycle than women’ and that ‘women of colour’ are least likely to cycle. Stopping cars and promoting cycle routes, they argue, will help end discrimination and harassment.
But while environmentalist activists might be cheering on the closure of streets to cars, some residents living in areas directly affected by LTNs have started campaign groups to get them removed. Protests erupted in Hackney and Highbury in central London, with residents arguing that the closure of smaller (and often wealthier) side roads meant that traffic was funnelled along so-called through-roads, often leading to gridlock. In order to make some streets quieter, others have to become more polluted (the cars have to go somewhere). Critics also claim that for delivery drivers, care workers or builders, whose vehicles are linked to their livelihoods, a crackdown on cars is tantamount to a pay cut.
Whether you’re a cyclist, driver, pedestrian or all three, the real question is: why, at a time when little political scrutiny is available in a pandemic, have councils and the government felt comfortable instituting such drastic changes? Have some underestimated the drastic effect of restricting car access on people’s lives and routines? Should we take advantage of the benefits of lower activity in cities and learn a lesson about what life could be like without cars? Are groups like Extinction Rebellion right that drastic action is necessary, even if it means making sacrifices? Or is this another example of green activism side-stepping democracy by putting the planet before people? Who should decide what happens in our neighbourhoods – in short, who owns our streets?
designer; writer; prospective councillor for Hoxton East and Shoreditch; organiser, Horrendous Hackney Road Closures (HHRC); former East End pub landlord
Special educational needs coordinator; early years practitioner; organiser, We Are Islington
Former Labour councillor, Hackney; parklet owner; former cabinet member for education and children’s services, Hackney Council. Rita has long been a supporter of low-traffic neighbourhoods and believes she is privileged to live in one.
Conservative peer; former councillor, Kensington and Chelsea; former deputy chairman, Transport for London; co-founder, Urban Design London
Executive director of operations, Peaks and Plains Housing Trust; architect and building surveyor; trustee, Pankhurst Centre, Manchester; keen cyclist