Would you let your child or grandchild play out on your street? Do you feel able to ride a bike around your neighbourhood? Or does the traffic put you off? For many of us, streets in our residential areas have become conduits for through traffic, rather than places where residents can walk, cycle, meet or play.

Yet in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, residential areas give priority to people over traffic and tend to be access-only, not through routes. As a result, children can play and travel more independently, and older people can be active and mobile. We think this is the key to a much healthier, happier population.

An image from the Mayor’s draft Transport Strategy of a residential street closed to through traffic

Better Streets is asking for a radical change in our neighbourhoods:

 Remove through traffic from residential areas to create ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’ – allowing walking, cycling and socialising, while maintaining access for residents by car

What’s the problem?

The vast majority of Enfield’s public space is made up of streets in residential areas. Yet most have become little more than conduits for traffic. It’s common to find a street with, say, 150 households being used by between 1,000 and 3,500 vehicles a day. Drivers pass through to shave seconds off a longer journey, and as non-residents they may have little interest in taking care or slowing down. With sat navs and apps like Waze around, this problem isn’t going away.

The photo above was taken on a residential road in Bush Hill Park – one of five collisions in just over a year. Residents wonder when someone will get killed. However, the worst effects of heavy through traffic are invisible:

  • Parents don’t let their children play outdoors – meaning less exercise, independence and making friends in the neighbourhood
  • Not many choose to walk or cycle locally, feeling safer inside a car – meaning less physical activity and more danger for everyone
  • Little time spent out on the street means no sense of community between neighbours – isolating more vulnerable people like the elderly
  • Air pollution can be dangerously high – increasing disease and shortening lives
  • Traffic noise is also harmful to health – linked to stress, sleep disturbance, hypertension and heart disease.

The good news is that London is waking up to the idea of ‘healthy streets’ – in other words, streets where all sorts of people, including young and old, choose to walk, cycle and spend time. This is now part of the Mayor of London’s draft Transport Strategy.

Low-traffic neighbourhoods

Traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and road narrowing can reduce speeds. This is of some benefit, but they won’t cut traffic volume. They won’t discourage drivers from using a street as a short cut. So we are calling for street design that stops through traffic across a whole area, creating a ‘low-traffic neighbourhood’. There are a few ways to achieve this, including alternating one-way streets, but the most effective measure seems to be ‘modal filters’.

Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland sets a recent example. Certain streets in Walthamstow and the Blackhorse Road area have strategically placed ‘filters’  – gates, bollards or planters – allowing cycles through, but not cars. In the whole cell of residential streets, there is no direct route through for traffic, but every resident can still drive to their own street.

The same street in Waltham Forest before and after it was closed to through traffic. Here, the large planter acts as a filter. Image: Jakob Hartmann

The difference is dramatic. You can now hear birdsong on those streets, and children play outdoors independently. Any drivers entering or leaving the area are either residents or professionals (like delivery drivers) so they take far more care. Within the areas, collision rates have dropped dramatically, car journeys have reduced by 50 to 90%, and there is a rise in walking and cycling, including families on the school run.

Doesn’t that just displace traffic onto main roads?

This is the first question most people ask, and it was a concern for residents in Waltham Forest too: won’t all that through traffic be displaced onto other roads and cause gridlock?

In fact, in Walthamstow’s low-traffic neighbourhood the increase in traffic on surrounding main roads has been manageable; average bus journeys times have not changed. While some car journeys have been displaced, a large  number have simply stopped. There are 10,000 fewer car journeys per day across the Walthamstow Village area, including the surrounding main roads – a decrease of 16%.  This is known as ‘traffic evaporation’ and has been documented in similar situations all over the world.

People tend to think that traffic is like water – block one route, and it will flood another. But traffic is the result of human choices. When walking and cycling are made more safe and convenient, and driving slightly less convenient for short trips, fewer people choose to get in their cars.

In any case, why should residential streets be part of the main road network? That’s not their function. Many of our residential streets were laid out before cars came to dominate the roads and were not intended to carry through traffic. If you look at any post-war housing development, the streets will not be through routes, but a network of cul-de-sacs. Our older streets should be updated to have the same design. In fact, this may even smooth traffic flow on main roads, since lots of cars turning in and out of side streets can make everyone’s journey slower.

Would this work in Enfield?

Waltham Forest is not the only place with filtered roads. In Enfield certain streets have been closed to through traffic for decades, resulting in better quality of life for residents and safe passage for anyone who wants to cycle.

Broomfield Avenue, N13. These bollards stop traffic entering from Aldermans Hill, turning a street that used to carry more than 6,000 vehicles a day into a quiet street for residents (and for walking and cycling through)

As Enfield Council embarks on its Quieter Neighbourhoods programme, we encourage it to aim high. We think that the lessons learnt in Waltham Forest, Hackney and elsewhere can be adapted in Enfield to create our own low-traffic neighbourhoods. Even good quality bike lanes on main roads won’t increase cycling rates unless people feel safe to cycle to them; low-traffic neighbourhoods will make that possible. With our population growing by 5,000 a year, we desperately need to cut the number of car journeys, and a more active population will take pressure off the local NHS. Apart from that, it just isn’t fair on residents to have lots of traffic racing along their street.

Would you like to see this in your area? If you use a car, would you mind driving by a slightly longer route to access your street, if it meant less traffic going through? Let the council know.  There is a perception survey for Quieter Neighbourhoods here, and you can also contact your local ward councillors via this website.

It sounds like a radical ask – but it’s common sense. Enfield Council has shown plenty of political courage by building high-quality cycle infrastructure, despite some vocal opposition. Now we call on the council to transform our neighbourhood streets and make life better for everyone.