Friends and Neighbours
After a few weeks of planter rancour in the nation’s capital, we need to stop talking about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, says Pete Zanzottera, Sheffield City Region Active Travel Project Director.
“The phrase is slightly toxic,” he observes. “These schemes are actually about increasing activity, not just the trips people make. It’s about going out your front door and recognising your neighbours, letting your kids play and having a chat.”
“It begins to subtly change the way we feel about ourselves. We know our neighbours, it feels like you belong and live somewhere.”
When the signs and planters arrived to help walking and cycling visitors to Division Street, Kelham Island and Broomhill earlier this year, there were a few objections and one or two half hearted attempts to move the planters, but it seems our human and vehicular traffic has learned to cope without the anger seen in Ealing.
In Sheffield, as more of these schemes appear (in Nether Edge and Crookes next, subject to a forthcoming government funding announcement) they’ll be called Active Neighbourhoods.
Not least, because walkers, wheelchair users, cyclists and kids on scooters getting themselves around are traffic just as much as car drivers, says SCR Active Travel Commissioner Dame Sarah Storey.
“Traffic is actually just people moving,” she says. “People see a sign that says road closed, but the road is actually open to walking, cycling and scootering.”
Sarah adds that almost a third of South Yorkshire households have no access to a car anyway, and years of planning for motor vehicles means those people have been inconvenienced by having to get around in city neighbourhoods full of moving and parked vehicles. It’s time to spread the inconvenience, she says, rather than allowing it to fall mainly on walkers, cyclists and older or disabled people who sometimes feel trapped in their own homes.
“It’s about people living happily,” she says. “Studies since 1969 have looked at this, one from Bristol showed that people living on lightly trafficked streets have five times as many friends as people living on streets with heavy traffic. What that means is that you might have no friends at all because there are so many vehicles going past your front door.”
Sheffield council senior transport planner Paul Sullivan likes the term ‘Child Friendly Neighbourhoods.’
“If we make where people live more child friendly then, by default, it’s everyone friendly,” he says. “People need to feel the street where they live is their environment to use, an extension of their home and their outside space. It’s about improving the quality of life for people in that area. It’s quieter and more sociable. People will still be able to drive in to their houses or to make deliveries, but people wouldn’t be able to use the neighbourhood as a quick cut thorough in their cars on their way to somewhere else.”
In some ways, it’s been done before, Paul says. Post war planners often built council estates so people could visit their local shops and other facilities within about 20 minutes on foot.
Paul agrees that the issue is often about convenience: if car drivers find it more convenient to drive than walk a few hundred metres for a bag of shopping or to post a letter, the options for ‘active travel’ need to be much better.
“We need to get the balance right so that walking and cycling is seen to be as convenient as driving a car for those shorter journeys,” he says.
“I grew up on on a council estate in the 1970s and the shops were about 400 metres away down a gennel, but they were over a mile away to drive because there was only one way in and one way out in a car. There was no through traffic and plenty of green space so your parents didn’t mind you wandering off to play.”
Pete Zanzottera says more recent measures in Heeley have reduced through traffic to help people use their local park, community centres — and pubs.
After a short period of adjustment, retailers usually find business increases when there’s more footfall and fewer parked or passing cars, Pete says, and enabling very short trips to be made under Sheffielders’ own steam will make a huge difference to traffic volume in a region where half of trips under a mile and a third of trips under 500 metres are made in a car.
“I’m actually astonished by the number of people who drive to the postbox,” he says. “And if you look at the local gym, nearly everyone who uses it drives there.”
In the national and London media there’s been a false battle between motorists and cyclists ‘taking up the airspace,’ Pete says, which is helpful to no-one. He’d like us all to think about how reducing through traffic and pavement- parked vehicles could change how we feel about the streets where we live.
“Maybe the short term question of ‘How will I park my car to get little Evie to her dance class?’ is replaced by ‘This is the kind of place where I’d like my children to grow up.’”
He suggests we could take a neighbour out for a walk under the current lockdown and then tell the authorities how the neighbourhood could be improved at: https://connectingsheffield.commonplace.is
Change is coming, it seems. Evidence shows that many younger people no longer see a car as a must have for city living. When you live near your workplace, and your town or city’s attractions are a short walk or a stressful drive away, why bother with the expense of car ownership?
In a city of pavement-parked cars and traffic congestion, Active Neighbourhoods are one of the only remaining solutions to reducing vehicle trips, says Dame Sarah.
“People need to face the fact that we can’t rely on our vehicles for ever more, for every journey,” she says.
“For a long time, we’ve been prioritising vehicle journeys. But we’ve now run out of space.”