I used to be in a gang. There were 10 of us and we hung out in the street with bikes and footballs. Most days the doorbell would go and it’d be one of our number asking, “Is Chris playing out?” I’d hurriedly pull my shoes on and run out to do what eight-year-olds do.
Hadfield Avenue is where I learned to ride a bike, where I proudly removed the stabilisers before hurtling off with the others to the next road, and then the next. The whole neighbourhood was our playground. It was a perfectly normal thing to do on a British street in the 1970s.
Today, the majority of parents must deny their children this first, simple freedom because the space outside our homes is no longer safe. Instead, we pop the kids in the car and drive them around to protect them from other people in cars. That’s how we lost our street playgrounds, without even realising what was happening.
If 10 years ago someone had asked us, “Can we increase the traffic on your road by 30%?” we’d have been incandescent with rage. But that’s exactly what has happened. Without any consultation, residential streets have become shortcuts and routes for people in cars who are avoiding traffic-filled main roads. There are 20bn more miles of vehicle journeys passing our front doors now than there were in 2009. Think about that number – maybe even get angry about it.
But there is hope. Today the government announces another £175m to add to its nationwide Active Travel Fund, which will be used to create cycling and walking routes and low-traffic neighbourhoods. This started as a response to coronavirus, to make sure those who don’t own cars have a safe way to get around during the pandemic. But it’s much bigger than that. While serving that important purpose, these temporary measures will give us the safe space we need to leave the car at home and try travelling under our own steam.
Sadly, there is a vociferous minority who don’t want us to do this. They want our residential streets to remain a convenience for others to drive through. I share their outrage – but my vexation is at the fact that we have to defend and campaign for these things; to get back what we should never have lost in the first place.
The vast majority of the UK’s roads were designed around places where people lived, played, grew up, grew old. They were never meant to be co-opted and used as an overflow for our transport network. But that is exactly what they have become.
Arguments for protecting the right to “rat run” outside homes are uniformly myopic. Objectors routinely exaggerate possible downsides and steadfastly fail to offer any alternatives, all while disregarding the enormous harm caused by keeping the status quo.
It’s easy to instil fear about what might happen if we do something differently, as we are, by nature, wary of change. Luckily, the low-traffic neighbourhoods being proposed across the UK have already been proven to work. We don’t have to cross our collective fingers and hope, we already have examples and evidence. And lots of it.
In 2000, Hackney used bollards and planters to stop vehicles cutting on to residential roads – and to keep those streets first and foremost for those who live there. By 2010, car use in the area had halved, journeys by bike tripled and pollution plummeted.
The same strategy was introduced in Waltham Forest, east London, in 2013 under the Mini Holland scheme. One of the main instigators of that attempt to rebalance the road hierarchy was councillor Clyde Loakes, who simply wanted to stop rat-running for his constituents – a noble goal that not everyone appreciated. During the consultation phase, 44% of residents objected. The councillor received several death threats and was presented with a coffin to symbolise the pending demise of the local high street.
In fact, traffic on residential streets almost halved, the neighbourhood became a place to linger and, as a result, the local shops that had previously been driven past were revitalised.
Five years on, only 1.7% of residents want to see the traffic return. Although, I suspect if councillor Loakes tried turning the clock back, they’d present him with another coffin.
Thankfully, despite the vociferous objectors, 78% of people support measures to reduce road traffic in their neighbourhood; people want the chance to walk with the kids to school, or even let them cycle. This is currently unthinkable for most British parents, yet routine for many of their counterparts in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. It’s all too easy to believe that the loud represent the many. We need to make sure that the quiet majority is heard.
We are living in a time when leaders must think big. If we are to decarbonise our transport system, clean up our air and improve our health, we need them to be bold – as ambitious as many of the councillors across Greater Manchester are being, with their plans to deliver the UK’s largest walking and cycling network. We cannot afford to listen to a small number who ignore the facts and offer no solutions.
The irony in all of this is that it shouldn’t be a tough choice. Traffic-filled neighbourhoods and roads don’t make any of us happy. We need to be able to take joy in our journeys again. We need our kids to be able to tell their own tales about when they were playing outside. For that to happen, we need our streets back.
• Chris Boardman is Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner and British Cycling’s policy adviser