A flurry of bollards and barriers were built to make London safe for pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic, but have they also made it a nightmare for some of the city’s most essential workers?
Less polluted, healthy, and free of the Covid-related risks of public transport, the benefits of a walkable, bikeable city are undeniable. It was just these benefits Mayor Sadiq Khan hoped to channel in May of 2020 when he authorised £245m in Emergency Active Travel Funding for local councils to redesign their streets into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.
While the scheme has been unpopular with the usual suspects – the automobile lobby and those reluctant to change their driving habits – some of the London residents behind a recent High Court challenge to LTNs might surprise you.
Egg Guney, 56, is a funeral director and Chairman of the Shacklewell Lane Mosque in Hackney, the first Turkish mosque in the UK. His work involves the sensitive task of accommodating families during the grieving process and transporting the recently deceased. It also involves a great deal of driving: to the cemetery grounds, to collect the body, and now with the pandemic restrictions on large gatherings, to “the home address so the families can at least see their loved ones off,” in a final drive by, Guney said.
“Horrendous traffic,” which Guney believes stems from the new road closure, has been a real problem. “The LTNs have affected everything we do as funeral directors […] we’ve got four funerals a day. I’m one of the guys in the hearse stuck in traffic for 40 minutes – we turn up late and miss our slot at the cemetery and it’s upsetting for the family.”
Normally retrieving bodies from someone’s home is done with the utmost discretion, but when his ambulance was obstructed by traffic, Guney has to improvise.
“I had to push the body down the street on a trolley and I’m expected to do this job with dignity and respect for the deceased,” he said.
Even if Guney is not technically a first responder, few would question that his work is any less essential. Emergency first responders are supposed to be provided a special key that unlocks street bollards that normally impede access to cars in an LTN; a key he says he never received. Far from an isolated incident, similar challenges with the barriers have cropped up around the city. Last September, an ambulance in Ealing was unable to reach a patient after encountering a locked bollard.
After enduring disruptions to his business, the funeral director got involved with Horrendous Hackney Road Closures (HHRC), one of the largest opposition groups in the five boroughs making a case against changes to street design. Guney felt left out of the discussion as the council implemented the low traffic barriers, echoing other testimonies from HHRC members that residents felt blind sided by the speed of the LTN roll out.
“We’re trying to make a stand because there was no consultation or information. The decision wasn’t informed by the trauma and challenges we face.”
When asked if there was a way to reconcile the needs of cyclists, pedestrians, and services like his, Guney suggested the city find a compromise: “Maybe they could allow us to travel down certain roads at certain times, but we weren’t even given that option.”
‘Making the kids late for school’
Fred Hadley, 60, lives in Tower Hamlets and drives a bus for disabled students through Hackney to a special needs school in Islington. Hadley first got involved in his own borough 18 months ago when Tower Hamlets’ council began taking steps to see out its Livable Streets initiative, a precursor to the LTN funded by grants set aside for Sadiq Khan’s 2018 Transport Strategy.
Though the level of community consultation preceding construction of Liveable Streets is a matter of dispute as ELL reported back in November, Hadley and a local band of objectors were incensed by what they perceived to be an anti-democratic manoeuvre to sideline the debate.
“We went to the [council] meeting and we were told it’s happening no matter what we did or said. None of us knew a thing. There was no consultation.”
And as the number of barriers multiplied along Hadley’s bus route through the boroughs, so did the length of his drive.
“One of the roads I use, Richmond Road, they put a [city] bus gate in. I pick one child up prior to the bus gate and another child up on just the other side of the bus gate. Even though the distance between them is no more than 400m, the child on the far side is in a wheelchair, so we need to get as close to the house as possible.”
Unable to drive straight through, picking the two children up sent Hadley on a four kilometer loop: “I was sitting idle in traffic on Graham road for anything up to an hour, costing me time, my company fuel, and making the kids late for school.”
Hadley’s pick-up route after the LTN was introduced. Red Circle = bus gate; Green Icon = approximate student pick-up spot; Blue Line = old route; red Line = new route around bus gates.
Despite his vociferous opposition to the LTN program, Hadley does not disagree with walkable infrastructure on principle. Like Guney, he thinks the bollards and planters were a crude answer to a real problem, to which there is an obvious solution: “What if we give residents, some local businesses, and disabled buses exemptions.”
Hadley mentioned smart bollards like those in Cambridge, capable of discriminating between different vehicles or what transportation planners call “filtered permeability,” letting the right traffic through and the rat runners out.
Whatever method is employed to manage London’s roads, it’s worth bearing in mind that LTNs, flawed as they may be, still enjoy majority support. Ealing’s response to the ambulance blockage incident – a license plate reader replacing the bollards – is instructive for how other councils could go about making life easier for essential services while preserving the hard-fought gains of cycle and pedestrian safety.