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‘Even Brexit wasn’t this bad’: traffic-free schemes split neighbourhood

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For the past 232 years, residents of Dulwich, a leafy neighbourhood in south-east London, have tolerated without complaint what is now the capital’s only toll road.

A more recent move to restrict traffic in the area, however, has provoked bitter debate. 

Dulwich was one of 89 areas across England that installed car-free zones last year. To qualify for the Conservative government’s “emergency active travel fund”, schemes had to be in place within 12 weeks so, like many, Dulwich’s was established at speed.

“It’s been incredibly divisive,” said Hazel Broadfoot, owner of Village Books and a member of the Dulwich Alliance, which opposes the local government-initiated scheme. “Even Brexit wasn’t this bad.”

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Prime minister Boris Johnson, a keen cyclist, is committed to rolling out more traffic-free zones to encourage cycling and walking, despite the government’s somewhat contradictory decision last year to bolster roads spending by £27bn over five years. 

The government has already allocated £2bn to projects that promote “active travel” over the next five years. It has also forced the capital’s transport authority to spend £100m on walking and cycling schemes as part of its recent funding settlement. 

But as the bollards, wooden planters and number plate recognition cameras to create the zones were erected, so too were the protest placards in a pattern that has been seen across the country. One of the main roads in Dulwich is lined with green “Stop the road closures” signs.

The UK is not the only country to be introducing ambitious measures to encourage cycling and walking and reduce pollution in their cities. Paris is moving faster than London, with plans to create a low traffic neighbourhood throughout the city centre, remove half of its street parking, and ban all diesel cars from the city by 2024. 

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Hazel Broadfoot, owner of Village Books and a member of the Dulwich Alliance: ‘It’s been incredibly divisive.’ © Anna Gordon/FT

But for Broadfoot’s book shop and the other local businesses, the effect of the restrictions, which prevent cars from entering the centre of the area northbound between 8am and 10am and 3pm and 5pm — has been “disastrous”. Weekday turnover, even accounting for the pandemic, was down 30 per cent, and one local clothes shop had been forced to close as a result, she claimed.

Like most people opposed to the scheme, Broadfoot is also concerned about the knock-on effect on the surrounding roads, some of which have had to take more traffic. She said a recent journey home from Tulse Hill — 3km away — took an hour. “It should have taken 10 to 15 minutes. I can’t see how me being in the car for an hour reduces pollution.”

Outside the shop, however, the bustle of bikes and children at school drop-off suggests that the initiative has, at the very least, encouraged cycling to school.

According to the Dulwich and Herne Hill Safe Routes to School partnership, a local campaign group, the improvement has supported their view that “when roads are safe, people choose to walk, scoot and cycle”.

Anna Goodman, lecturer in population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an associate at the Transport for Quality of Life consultancy, said there had been a 71 per cent increase in cycling in Dulwich since the scheme was introduced last June, according to her research.

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Half of the people on bicycles were women and children; unusual for London where almost three-quarters of cyclists are men. Goodman’s latest London-wide research also shows the number of road traffic injuries inside the 2020 low traffic neighbourhood areas fell by half relative to the rest of London between October and December 2020.

One of the main roads in Dulwich is lined with green “Stop the road closures” signs © Anna Gordon/FT

But the Dulwich Alliance argues that far from protecting children, these measures are creating dangerously polluted air in nearby roads that are open to traffic.

Richard Aldwinckle, a spokesperson for Dulwich Alliance, said the scheme was “creating clean air and safer routes for some children, but dirtier air and more dangerous travel for others”.

Despite this Anthony Laverty, a lecturer in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said the emerging evidence indicated that these schemes did not simply displace traffic but reduced car use. 

The best evidence comes from north London’s Waltham Forest, which has had traffic-free schemes since 2015. Car ownership fell by 7 per cent by the third year of the scheme, even taking into account factors such as lower driving rates by the young. There is also evidence of reduced driving and increased walking among residents of new low-traffic neighbourhoods in outer London.

In addition, modelling research by King’s College London estimates that Waltham Forest residents have gained on average an extra six weeks’ life expectancy as a result of air quality improvements due to the car free zones, in combination with wider measures such as enforcing speed limits and the capital’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone.

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Dulwich and Herne Hill Safe Routes to School said: ‘when roads are safe, people choose to walk, scoot and cycle’ © Anna Gordon/FT

“To me this wider perspective is the point,” said Laverty. “We shouldn’t just focus on low traffic neighbourhoods in isolation but need to pursue a whole range of sustainable transport policies. That is how we make cities that can be better for everyone.”

Contrary to some people’s fears, crime has fallen in LTNs, Goodman said. And the London Fire Brigade response times have not deteriorated.

The DFT said its research showed that nearly two-thirds of people support the reallocation of road space to encourage “active travel”.

But the Dulwich Alliance said its door-to-door survey showed the vast majority of residents living within its low traffic neighbourhood and adjoining roads want the area reopened.

Dulwich-born, Goodman is not unsympathetic to the difficulties these measures cause some people. “People organise their life around being able to drive in certain way and then it’s hard to change,” she said. “But you have to set that against the large harms caused by high levels of motor vehicle use, particularly to children and other vulnerable groups.”

“I’d like London to keep up with Paris and catch up with Amsterdam. Catching up is perhaps a 40-year process, and I’d say we are currently in year 20 or so.”

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