As of 12 October 2020, all of Harrow’s COVID-19 emergency Streetspace schemes have been implemented. There are three sections of temporary cycle lane in place (Honeypot Lane, Sheepcote Road and Uxbridge Road), and some layouts of minor roads have changed significantly, particularly in the West Harrow and Headstone South low traffic neighbourhoods.
At this early stage, there has been a mixed effect of these changes on Harrow’s streets. Some streets are much quieter, but some of the main roads are busier as people are adjusting to new driving routes. This is unfortunately inevitable after a new traffic scheme is put in place, and it is not easy or quick to reverse decades of increasing car use in Harrow. However, over time the quieter streets will encourage and enable people to walk and cycle more, and overall traffic will decrease.
Low traffic neighbourhoods will be most effective in the context of a borough-wide ‘Healthy Streets‘ strategy to reduce car journeys and enable more walking and cycling, for example by building cycle lanes along major roads and improving pedestrian crossings.
Low traffic neighbourhoods have long-term benefits
The London borough of Hackney has been implementing low traffic neighbourhoods for many years, and between 2001 and 2011 the borough halved the proportion of people driving to work and increased the proportion cycling from 6.8% to 15.4%. Low traffic neighbourhoods were recently introduced in Waltham Forest and other boroughs as part of the mini-Holland programme, and within 1 year, people were walking or cycling 41 minutes more each week, on average.
What about main roads?
Main roads do need improvements with cycle lanes, 20mph limits and better pedestrian crossings, but it is not possible to build everything at the same time, and a network of quiet roads suitable for walking and cycling can help to encourage people to shift away from driving. Traffic on minor roads in London has almost doubled in the past 10 years, but there has been little change in traffic levels on ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads. Main roads are designated to carry higher volumes of traffic than minor roads. On a minor road without a cycle lane, a small amount of through traffic can make it unsafe for cycling and unusable as a cycle route. A main road with cycle lanes can enable safe cycling and also accommodate a steady flow of motor traffic.
Traffic displacement due to a low traffic neighbourhood can occur, but the long term effect is usually not significant. For example, in the Walthamstow Village low traffic neighbourhood there was a 56% decrease in traffic within the scheme area and 11% increase on the boundary roads, but traffic was more spread out through the day with lower peak traffic flows, and there was no impact on bus services. Even if low traffic neighbourhoods increase the number of vehicles on main roads, traffic flow may improve as fewer vehicles are turning into and out of side roads. Adjustments to traffic light timings to improve traffic flow may be possible on the main road network, but not if some of the traffic bypasses junctions using minor roads.
Vision: a road network which works for everyone walking, cycling or driving
The Netherlands has been building a dense network of cycle routes and reducing traffic on minor roads since the 1970s. Often the motor vehicle route is longer than the equivalent walking / cycling route for a short journey, to discourage the use of cars for short journeys. Almost everyone is able to cycle because they do not have to mix with fast or busy motor traffic, and there are different types of cycle suitable for anyone (including tricycles, powered wheelchairs, cargo bikes, electric bikes etc.). Roads have little congestion because people tend not to drive for short journeys.
A road network that is better for walking and cycling will be more equitable. Car owners in London tend to be better off, yet those who suffer worst from pollution and road danger tend to be from a lower socioeconomic class. People with disabilities are also less likely to drive than the general population, although they are as likely to cycle. Many of the journeys that people drive are short journeys that could easily be walked or cycled. Reducing unnecessary car use will improve congestion and benefit everyone, including those who do need to use a car.
Both the national (Conservative) government’s ‘Gear Change’ strategy and the (Labour) London Mayor’s Transport Strategy aim to improve walking and cycling networks, following international best practice.
Transport strategy in the COVID-19 pandemic
Transport has had to adapt rapidly to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing. Many European cities have been creating emergency cycle lanes and closing city centre streets for pedestrians in order to prevent an increase in traffic as economic activity restarts. The World Health Organisation recommends walking and cycling as the mode of transport of choice during the pandemic.
The UK government published guidance for all local authorities on 9 May 2020 to rapidly create space for walking and cycling by creating temporary cycle lanes or low traffic neighbourhoods, and made funds available for this purpose. In London this plan was called ‘Streetspace‘. The guidance stated that these measures had to be put in place within weeks, ideally before the lockdown was lifted.
The need to shift away from cars to walking and cycling is more urgent than ever. Cycling levels increased during lockdown because there was less motor traffic, but now traffic in many areas is back to higher levels than before the pandemic as people continue to avoid public transport. Air pollution is a risk factor for mortality in COVID-19.
What has been Harrow’s strategy?
Until recently, the road network in Harrow has been designed to prioritise the flow of motor vehicles. Whilst there has been an intention to encourage walking and cycling, in practice the needs of motor traffic has always been prioritised in road design. There are only a few cycle paths alongside roads where they do not take space from motor vehicles, and they do not join up to make a useful network. Many people do not cycle because they find the roads too dangerous.
Harrow has high levels of car use and is suffering greatly from diseases caused by air pollution and physical inactivity. Harrow has the second highest proportion of people with diabetes in England – 9.6%. In 2018-2019, 7.7% of Harrow’s population was obese, and this proportion has been rising. Harrow has the fourth lowest level of cycling in England (Department for Transport: Walking and Cycling Statistics 2018). A high proportion of Harrow’s adult population are physically inactive, 30.1% in 2017-18, which is the fifth highest in London.
Following the success of the Waltham Forest mini-Holland, Harrow councillors and engineers visited the borough in August 2018 to see how removing through traffic from minor roads led to a major increase in walking and cycling and reduction in motor traffic. The reduction in pollution and increase in physical activity has estimated to increase life expectancy by 3 months. The schemes attracted opposition at first, just as in Harrow, but now most residents would not like to go back to dangerous, congested roads as before.
The council was keen to bring these improvements to Harrow, but the initial consultation on a scheme in Kenton attracted a lot of opposition. However, residents in Headstone South (the triangle between Pinner Road, Parkside Way and Harrow View) were keen on the idea, and organised a petition, which gathered over 450 responses. A similar petition was carried out by residents in West Harrow with nearly 200 responses, but before it could be formally considered by the council, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
The Streetspace schemes were developed in response to the pandemic to rapidly enable safe walking and cycling, and were funded by TfL and the Department for Transport with strict time limits. The initial set of schemes proposed by the council were those that were ready to be implemented quickly rather than according to a formal prioritisation. There was some political debate and some of the schemes were cancelled (so the council had to give the money back to TfL), but schemes that were supported by ward councillors went ahead with a delay.
The delay meant that the opportunity for people to get used to the new routes during the summer (when traffic was lighter) was unfortunately lost. Nevertheless, now that the schemes are in place we expect traffic to reduce over time as people are encouraged to walk or cycle rather than drive, particularly for short distances.
What next for Harrow’s streets?
The council will monitor the effect of the Streetspace trials, including traffic counts within the scheme and on boundary roads. Residents can given feedback on the Streetspace trials website. The council can amend the trial if needed, for example an extra planter and bollards were installed outside West Harrow station because people had been driving on the footway to get around the blockade. A formal consultation will be carried out at 6 months.
There are proposals for further improvements (currently unfunded), including a cycle lane along George V Avenue and a cycle route between Harrow town centre and South Harrow. However, a borough-wide strategy is needed. Other boroughs such as Hackney have proposed low traffic neighbourhoods all across the borough.
The Healthy Streets for Harrow campaign presented a deputation to Harrow’s Traffic and Road Safety Advisory Panel on 13 October to call for a strategic borough-wide approach, to create a borough-wide walking and cycling network and enable long term improvements in people’s health and the environment, and make Harrow a nicer place to live.