It is fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic brought profound changes to the way a lot of us work, travel and shop. With the lockdown removing the reason to travel to the city centre or further destinations, the role of local centres for meeting our daily food and health needs increased dramatically.
And with legitimate reasons to leave the house being to access essential shops and services and for exercise, many residents were combining the two – taking advantage of a radical decrease in the numbers of vehicles on the roads and with shops and services within easy reach by foot or by bike, these essential journeys also became an opportunity for daily activity and exercise.
But with things going back to normal, are these opportunities inevitably consigned to the past? Not necessarily.
During the lockdown, and with limited opportunities for face to face consultations and engagement, Leeds City Council launched an on-line conversation with residents about how they travelled before, during and after Covid emergency and about aspects of their neighbourhoods they would like to see change. Predominantly, residents asked for streets to be more child friendly, greener, with less traffic, reduced speeds and for more space to be given to walking and cycling. Out of this conversation the concept of low traffic/ active travel neighbourhood was born.
How do you find more room for walking and cycling on residential streets that are barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and where residents often don’t have off street parking? And how do you make these streets greener and more child-friendly at the same time?
Removing through traffic and reducing speeds provides a good part of the answer. In the UK, the idea was pioneered in Waltham Forest in London and taken up nationally, under various names (mini-Hollands, Liveable Neighbourhoods, Healthy Streets). And now, as part of the Covid-19 response, it could be rolled out in residential areas in Leeds, including Cross Flatts.
“We would like to lock in the benefits of low traffic in residential areas and all the opportunities this brings in terms of creating a better environment to walk, cycle, play and interact. We’re particularly keen to trial these low traffic schemes in communities with lower car ownership where the levels of walking and cycling, and also the use of public transport, are already high – says Cllr Lisa Mulherin, the lead member for transport. “All too often, these areas suffer the negative effects of through traffic rat-running through their neighbourhoods such as noise, air pollution and accidents. This project will aim to redress the balance and make these areas healthier and safer for the residents who live in them.”
There is some urgency to act to prevent essentially residential streets being used by through traffic as some experts predict that the levels of car use will increase as the result of limited capacity on public transport, especially if alternatives are limited or hampered by concerns over road safety.
It is enough to take a look at Commonplace, the on-line platform Leeds City Council used for engagement, to realise that there is demand for a scheme of this nature in the area adjacent to the popular Cross Flatts Park. Residents have complained of streets connecting Dewsbury Road and Beeston Road being used as rat runs, and at excessive speeds, despite a 20 mph speed limit. Some report near misses when cycling. There is a lot of hope for more use of the outdoor space, more room for pedestrians, pushchairs and wheelchairs, better opportunities to cross. Residents have expressed hopes that some streets will become access only, thus creating space for all these activities.
The Beeston and Holbeck ward members see a lot of potential for a community project here that would help address some of the issues. Under the government’s emergency Covid-19 response legislation, there is an opportunity to try out solutions with some DIY measures and test them out. If they prove successful and are well-received by local residents they can be made permanent. Under the proposals some notorious local rat runs will be severed, with traffic encouraged to use more suitable distributor type roads, while at the same time retaining access and parking for local residents and businesses. Admittedly, some journeys by car will become longer, with vehicles needing to drive around, rather than through, a block of residential streets.
Planters will be used as part of the proposals to act as “modal filters” – keeping the streets open for people walking and cycling but preventing vehicles from driving through the area, turning some of the terraced streets into cul-de sacs.
“Quite a few residents have been complaining for a long time about the speeding and related issues and its impacts on the residential streets. All three of us councillors welcome this type of initiative and plan that encourages to reduce vehicle speed, stop the ‘rat-runs’ and will contribute to making our local air cleaner. We are also excited about the potential change this could bring to the heart of Beeston! However, we recognise it will cause some disruption to our regular patterns of travel as roads are closed and would ask residents to bear with the challenges for the benefits that the initiative will bring.” says Cllr Gohar Almas of Beeston and Holbeck.
Using planters as traffic calming/ modal filters has a lot of advantages.
Cllr Andrew Scopes added:
“We would like the local community to help re-design travel opportunities in our area. The use of planters means that the position of the filters can be changed relatively easily, in response to any local needs or concerns that may come to light although, to give them a chance to take effect and be properly tested, the measures would need to stay in place for a number of weeks. The area will be looked at as a whole to prevent through traffic from finding and establishing new rat runs by using the next available street. We are engaging with emergency services and refuse to ensure that these can continue to access the area”.
Cllr Peter Carlill, the Council’s active travel champion, commented
“Experience of other areas such as Waltham Forest shows that such approaches are capable of reducing traffic levels not merely displacing vehicles, which can be a problem with less comprehensive schemes. With the work on providing segregated cycle facilities and better pedestrian crossings on the two main transport corridors adjacent to the area, Dewsbury Road and Elland Road, scheduled for later in the year, there should be every potential to replace some of the short car journeys with walking and cycling.”
Leeds City Council will be shortly sending out letters to local residents and businesses with detailed proposals inviting comments and feedback; if this continues to be positive and supportive, the first planters could be in place by the end of August, helping the area to be greener, cleaner, more active and healthier.
This post is based on a press release issued by Leeds City Council
Photo: Planters have been used successfully in other parts of the country to provide semi-permanent road closures