Traders -v- residents: traffic curbs plan divides Colombia Road community

Residents and shopkeepers on the historic Columbia Road in Tower Hamlets are divided in opinion about a new Liveable Streets proposal which aims to curb traffic around the area.   

The controversial plan to restrict vehicle access around the road – home of the famous Sunday flower market – is opposed by many traders but supported by residents aware that vehicle emissions are dangerously high.

The area was a notorious East London slum before philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts purchased the land for regeneration in the 1840s.  She established the market and a row of shops to service the local Jewish community from the Jesus Hospital Estate nearby. The row of Victorian shops are now boutique stores, independent businesses, coffee shops and galleries.  

Columbia Road Flower Market Pic: Tower Hamlets Council
Map of proposals for the Columbia Road Pic: Liveable Streets Bethnal Green 

However, many working on Columbia Road oppose the scheme, believing their tight-knit community of residents, shop owners and market keepers would be divided by restricted access and small businesses would be threatened by a reduction in passing traffic.  

Independent shops on the road range from Val’s Sandwich Bar, which has been on Columbia Road for over 30 years, and new bijou stores such Dandy Starr clothes and gift shop.  

Independent shops on Columbia Road Pic: Daisy Lester

 Michelle Mason, owner of Mason & Painter said: “What are they trying to do? Shut down local businesses? This area is one of the last remaining streets in the UK that’s just independent shops…it’s a jewel in the Tower Hamlets crown. If that gets taken away, the ease of use and of deliveries, it’s going to have a huge impact on small businesses.”  

Amanda Shaw, of tile store Mosaic Factory, said to Eastlondonlines: “The congestion and rat race round Columbia Market which I see each evening will merely be diverted to Bethnal Green road rather than solved.”  

Some residents in the area are concerned and see the proposals as curtailing their rights as drivers, restricting the access of those less mobile, diverting pollution and displacing the rat race elsewhere whilst causing detours of up to 2 miles.  Local resident Andy Scott told Eastlondonlines: “Seemingly they would prefer it if we all walked or cycled everywhere and the roads were all pedestrianised! Well, sadly some of us are unable to and cannot do either.” 

A local business owner who wished not to be named and who has been on Columbia Road for over three decades, told Eastlondonlines: “It’s going to be like the Mad Hatters Tea Party when these proposals are in place. It’s ludicrous, they’re making a fucking mess of the place. But it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” 

Stop the Partition Credit: Daisy Lester 

On the other end of the spectrum, some shopkeepers, residents and environmental activists are in ardent support of the council’s proposals, believing the scheme has been a long time coming.  

Some independent business owners such as Tom Bloom recognise the benefits of traffic reduction in the area. Bloom owns Milagros, a homeware store on Columbia Road. He told Eastlondonlines: “I think we have to reduce traffic generally… I can see it’s really irritating to make a journey of a few hundred meters into several miles, but it may be an inconvenience we have to put up with. They need to stop people bringing their kids to school in big cars. This will make a difference to the air quality.” 

Tom Bloom in his store Milagros on Columbia Road Pic: Daisy Lester

Resident Alex Jenkins, campaigner for Better Streets for Tower Hamlets, told Eastlondonlines he does not believe retailers would be negatively affected by the proposals. Jenkins said: “The fact is that people on foot or on bikes are far more likely to stop off at shops than those driving through. People are much more likely to want to spend time shopping on streets which aren’t dominated by motor traffic. A recent survey of shoppers on nearby Roman Road showed that 85% of them had walked or cycled there.”  

The proposals include two significant road closures, at the Columbia Road junction with Gosset Street and at the junction with Barnet Grove.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions on Columbia Road and Gosset Street currently far exceed recommended pollution levels. Tower Hamlets Council say that many of the journeys around the area are short and potentially unnecessary. A spokesperson said: “These trips are under 1.2 miles…we’re talking five-to-ten minute walks. We know these car trips are not essential.” 

Liveable Streets have been trialed across London to improve air quality and safety with many trials reporting positive outcomes. Schemes trialed last year in Enfield and Waltham Forest saw a significant reduction in overall car use and an increase in positive attitudes to cycling.  

Tower Hamlets Council told Eastlondonlines: “Outside the nursery school on Columbia Road, there are 8,550 vehicles passing per day…school children every day are having to put up with this traffic pollution.”  

Children campaigning for cleaner air Credit: Rob Andari  

Bethnal Green resident and environmental activist, Robert Andari, said: “We thought we were powerless to do anything about the onslaught of traffic and exhaust fumes, which is why many are so enthusiastic about the council’s proposals which offer us real hope.”  

The range of reactions to the scheme reflect wider trends and conversations that are only increasing as the climate emergency gains momentum.  

The results of the public consultation on the Bethnal Green Liveable Streets  proposals will be announced in January.

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