People get out in the sunshine in broadway market, Hackney, north east London on May 20, 2020
Londoners enjoy the sunshine in Hackney, where local government is seeking to reduce car traffic. © Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The two boxes on either side of Middleton Road, in the east London neighbourhood of Hackney, do not look particularly special. Filled with soil, the wooden cubes bear signs telling drivers and motorcyclists they are forbidden from passing.

Yet the banning of through motor traffic has transformed a once popular shortcut for ride-share drivers into a quiet spot where the only sound is of the gentle whirring of bicycles.

In the wake of the pandemic, the question for cities worldwide is how they can stop increased car use from aggravating pollution and congestion, as wary commuters shun public transport for fear of infection.

Jon Burke, the elected councillor responsible for transport in Hackney, justifies the introduction of so-called “low-traffic neighbourhoods” by pointing out that in Hackney, like neighbouring Islington, at least 70 per cent of households have no access to a car.

Jon Burke
Jon Burke, Hackney transport leader

Both boroughs, controlled by the opposition Labour party, seized on initial encouragement from the Conservative government of keen cyclist Boris Johnson to seize a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a shift in attitudes for generations to come, and get more people choosing to cycle or walk as part of their daily routine”.

But this can be an unpopular message for elected politicians to deliver so it requires clear explanation and effective execution. While Shirley Rodrigues, London’s deputy mayor for the environment, told the FT in a video interview this summer that city authorities’ aim was “a car-free recovery”, Rowena Champion, Islington council’s lead for transport and environment, chooses her words carefully.

Rowena Champion, Islington lead for transport and environment © Em Fitzgerald

“There is no measure that will stop people using their car but we’ll create more space for people to walk, cycle, use buggies or wheelchairs,” says the councillor, who lives locally. “If we do nothing, traffic will become progressively worse.”

The potential for a backlash is clear just 10 miles away, in the borough of Wandsworth in south London, where 45 per cent of households own a car.

Conservative-controlled Wandsworth abandoned its low-traffic neighbourhood curbs just four weeks in, amid furious complaints from drivers. It explained its reversal by saying the council wanted to do what was right environmentally “whilst maintaining people’s ability to travel”.

Although Islington council stood firm in the face of weekly demonstrations in front of the town hall this summer, a sense of grievance among car-owning Islingtonians was heightened by councils’ use of emergency powers to act first and ask residents for their permission in 18 months’ time.

“This is not democracy,” declared Jody Graber, who drives a hybrid BMW to transport floor-sanding equipment for his work. “This is crazy,” is how Samantha, a mother pushing a buggy past the demonstrators, described the protests. She added the air pollution had become so bad before the pandemic that she had considered moving out of town.

A barrier to motor traffic of the sort on trial around London
Way out: A barrier to motor traffic of the sort being tried around London © Alamy Stock Photo

Leicester, the first UK city to mark out a temporary, “pop-up” cycle lane during the pandemic, has concentrated on improving provision for alternatives. In April, the city built a 500-metre “key worker corridor” on a busy road to make it easier for hospital staff to reach Leicester Royal Infirmary by bicycle. The city has since gone on to construct 11 miles of pop-up lanes, according to Adam Clarke, Leicester’s deputy mayor for environment and transportation.

New cycle infrastructure has been a feature of many cities’ response to the pandemic, with Paris making particularly big strides. Lime Bikes, the shared bike provider, has said the distance travelled on its bikes in the French capital jumped 71 per cent between February and June, with many of the trips focused on newly installed cycle facilities.

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 29:  Caroline Daur wears a green printed coat, sneakers, sunglasses, a Prada bag, and is using a Lime-S electric scooter from the bike sharing service company ‘Lime’,
A Parisian woman rides a shared Lime e-scooter © Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Mr Clarke downplayed the idea that Leicester was looking to hinder motorists, however. “We’ve proved we can keep motor traffic moving while taking out traffic lanes,” he says. “I think the overall mood is that what we’ve done is commendably positive.”

Mr Burke in Hackney insists drivers enjoy such advantages that car use needs to be more actively discouraged. He points out that in recent decades, improved fuel economy, cheaper vehicles and politicians’ reluctance in the UK — as in most other rich countries — to raise taxes on fuel, have all cut the costs of driving sharply.

The rise of satellite navigation systems has meant minor roads such as Middleton Road have borne a disproportionate burden as drivers use them to avoid congestion elsewhere. Traffic levels on London’s minor roads rose 72 per cent over the decade. The fact curbs in one area can also cause traffic to spill over into others requires more co-ordinated action across the capital.

Mr Burke for example would like Sadiq Khan, London mayor, to introduce a citywide, per-mile road-user charge to replace the current fixed charge for driving into a small area of central London. Having provided funding for councils around the country to introduce the emergency low-traffic neighbourhoods, Grant Shapps, transport secretary, has rowed back, saying that many schemes have been poorly designed.

The minister’s ambiguous stance mirrors that of city leaders elsewhere, including Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, who has taken few concrete steps after initially sounding positive about encouraging cycling and walking.

Mr Clarke is clearer. He says that Leicester wants to encourage “modal shift” away from car use to help the environment, the economy and people’s health. But he wants to do so without provoking a Wandsworth-style backlash. “That has to be done in a way that you take people with you,” he says.

Richard Watts, leader of Islington council, says the local authority is adjusting its schemes in response to feedback from residents. But he also argues that he has the support of voters. “It was in our manifesto and we think we have a strong mandate to do this.”

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