Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: Lessons From a Car-Free Street Fight in London

The East London borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the U.K.’s poorest areas. The district has greater London’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and its economic challenges are accompanied by environmental ones: With several major highways nearby, some 40 percent of Tower Hamlets residents live in areas breaching EU and government guidance on safe levels of air pollution, though only 37 percent of households own a car or van.

In an effort to cut down on traffic and clean up the neighborhood’s air, the Tower Hamlets council embarked on a £15 million, four-year Liveable Streets program sponsored by the London mayor’s office, which has been trying to steer the city toward a car-free future. Part of the program’s mission was to discourage cars and trucks that were “rat-running”—that is, taking shortcuts through residential streets.

In early July, the council announced a 10-day trial closure of two key streets in the neighborhood of Bow—Tredegar Road and Coborn Road, a popular cut-through between the city and a major highway. The council decided to test out road “filters”—only buses, cyclists, and pedestrians could travel through; residents in cars would have to drive in and out on other roads.

The council believed that the partial road closure had strong support from residents. But the planned 10-day pilot was a kind of catastrophe: Furious motorists, taxi drivers, and business owners besieged the barriers that had been erected across the street; the pilot lasted about 8 hours.

Even in the city known for enacting some of the most progressive urban transportation policies in the world, the car won the day in this low-income neighborhood.

It is a pattern repeated across London neighborhoods and in cities around the world where efforts to discourage car use are often seen as attacks on freedoms rather than an opportunities to create safer and cleaner neighborhoods. For advocates of car-free streets, the saga of Tredegar Road offers some lessons in the need for effective communication—but also sticking to one’s guns in the face of resistance.

The neighborhood consultation for the pilot had begun in April, including an online survey to identify issues, leaflets sent to 13,000 households and businesses, posters, and door knocking. At earlier public meetings, residents had voiced concerns about how they would drive through the neighborhood to get to work and school. The council advised drivers to stick to the main roads, which remained open.

On the morning of Saturday, July 13, everything was in place for the trial. There’d be a temporary bus gate at the end of Tredegar, staffed by workers would physically move aside to let buses through. On Coborn, the closed street hosted a children’s play area with a bouncy castle. Local officials wanted a “party atmosphere” for the pilot. The council would gather data on traffic flows, talk to residents and get feedback. “[Tredegar Road] is a very residential road and also a pretty important community road as well,” neighborhood councillor Rachel Blake told CityLab. “Our objective [has been] to make it easier to get around by foot, cycling, and public transport, and stop rat-running.”

But tensions were palpable almost immediately. Some residents were delighted by the street’s overnight transformation, and most drivers simply turned around at the bus gate to find another route. But other motorists attempting to get to neighboring streets stayed, to vent their frustrations and argue.

Local resident Olivier Rousseau came down with his six-year-old daughter on a bike that morning; she was thrilled to be able to cycle along Tredegar for the first time ever. But they were greeted at the bus gate by a knot of protesters. One man held a large sign complaining that the closure was “unfair for the poor.” Other protesters “were very loud, speaking to the attendants very close,” Rousseau said.

Matt Hewitt, another resident, said that “people were whooping and hollering when a car did manage to, somewhat aggressively, barge its way through.”

Part of the issue was a gap in communication, said Michelle Langston, who works in a local fishing supply store. Despite months of public consultation by the borough council, the trial itself was only announced days beforehand. Unprepared, many traders at the nearby Roman Road street market couldn’t reach their stalls on time that day, leading several customers to cancel pre-arranged orders. Langston said that her takings were down 50 percent for the day.

By the afternoon, several taxi drivers had turned up to join the protest. In videos online, Sean Paul Day of a London taxi advocacy group called the Independent Taxi Alliance shouted about the “monopolization of local roads” on behalf of city buses. On Twitter, the ITA dubbed the protest “the Battle for Tredegar Road,” asking why the “bullying” council were “determined to displace motor traffic … onto less affluent areas such as the main thoroughfares?”

Taxi drivers have long been active in opposing other measures to restrict car access across London, particularly the city’s growing network of bicycle infrastructure, and local cycling advocates were quick to blame the cabbies for disrupting the Tredegar Road pilot. “Whilst there was certainly a degree of genuinely local opposition, from social media posts it is abundantly clear that most of the actual aggressive behavior and harassment of council staff on the ground came from non-local cabbies,” said Alex Jenkins, a member of a local cycling group called the Tower Hamlets Wheelers.

Day tweeted afterwards that “hassling councillors who don’t live locally pales in comparison to the punitive measures that they intend to force on local residents.” He told CityLab that three cabbies turned up for the Tredegar Road protest, and insisted that most foes of the bus gate were locals: “99 percent of the protesters were residents of Tower Hamlets who do not consider the road to be rat run but a major access point to the A12,” he said.

That afternoon, concerned about worker safety and resident complaints, Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs announced that the trial would be suspended, just eight hours after it started. The council needed to “consider outcomes of today, and prepare better proposals,” he explained. Taxi drivers cheered their victory on social media. “All done in a day,” the ITA tweeted. “Tredegar Road is ours for now,” said Day in a video.

At least some residents were disappointed, however. Hewitt worries that future traffic-control proposals for the neighborhood will be less ambitious, with opponents galvanized by having their demands met so easily. “You can only consult so far and then you have to act on the evidence, and the evidence is that we have very bad air quality,” he said.

For Tower Hamlets councillor Blake, the air pollution problem is a matter of social justice. “What do we say about polluting kids’ lungs, at the same time as some residents wanting quick access to the A12?” she asked. “There’s clearly a solution to that problem. We are going to spend the next weeks and months working it out, and then we are going to talk to people about it.”

The council will return with a revised plan, she said, noting that the borough’s Liveable Streets program will include more than just bus gates; it will also feature more bicycle parking and greening projects. But the Tower Hamlets scheme likely won’t relaunch until 2020, according to the council.

Ultimately, the saga of Tredegar Road is a microcosm of the challenges cities face when the interests of motorists, residents, and other road users collide. Elsewhere in London, plans to pedestrianize Oxford Street met a similar fate, and were watered down by Westminster Council. A proposed closure of Regents Park gates to rat-running traffic was blocked by a residents’ association. And another livable streets scheme in the borough of Newham was shut down after a matter of hours due to resident complaints, though it was back within two weeks; the council tweaked the proposals allowing residents of neighboring streets to drive through, while banning all other through traffic.

Three recurring factors are often at play in these incidents, according to Simon Munk, a spokesperson for the London Cycling Campaign: taxi driver interference, a lack of communication from the borough council, and a failure among local leaders to resist the resulting pressure. The combination of these forces “breeds fake news, that febrile atmosphere where people on Twitter can stir up feelings in communities, and become a lightning rod for worries about change,” said Munk. In Tower Hamlets, “the community should have been engaged beforehand, in a much more robust and clear way.” The parameters behind any closures to vehicle rat-runs should be clear, he continued: that the end result is less traffic, and that no individual resident should be able to pull things off the table.

He also emphasized that the plan’s backers shouldn’t have pulled the plug too quickly.  

“The answer is never slow it down, or take it easy. The answer is do it, monitor it, mitigate, do another thing,” he said.

As for the cabbies, they have their sights set on the next Tower Hamlets scheme—a proposed bus gate due to be installed in Wapping. “We’ll have to send the big boys round,”tweeted one, “just like we did at Tredegar Road.”