For clean air, reduce traffic

Can’t make it to the Haringey council’s meetings, today & tomorrow, about air quality. I’m told anyway that what they’ve got in mind is getting people to switch to electric cars. That would mean no short-term action on air quality – people don’t replace their cars in a hurry – and, even if it were successful, the electric cars would still clog our streets, discouraging both bus use and active transit, using an unsustainable level of energy (call me about electric cars when the electricity supply is fully carbon neutral), and polluting air (and oceans) with particulates from tires and brakes.

Meanwhile, Living Wightman – a group founded on enthusiasm born of the closure of Wightman Road to through traffic while a bridge was being replaced – alerts me to a plan by Haringey Council to funnel more traffic through their road.  Words about electric cars, action to increase motor traffic, does that sum up our air quality policy?

The plan Living Wightman objects to is in connection with a plan for new development in Wood Green. There is no excuse for this – Wood Green is a major transit hub, and the new development is occasioned by anticipation of Crossrail 2, which will make it an even greater hub. As it stands, the huge number of bus lines serving the area are slowed by excessive private motor traffic. Diverting some of that traffic onto a parallel road for a short while won’t solve the problem – it will just generate more traffic, which will all come back to clog bus routes somewhere else. And, of course, it will pollute the air and discourage active transport (cycling and walking). So this is overall disaster.

Since I can’t get to these meetings, let me propose a modest manifesto on the matter:

Redeveloped Tottenham and Wood Green Town Centres should mean less traffic, not more.

We need clean air. Invisible pollutants from motor vehicles – toxic gases like NO2, and micro-particles – are now known to contribute to heart disease and stroke, asthma, dementia, and other ailments, and leading to around 9,500 early deaths in London each year. Children are especially vulnerable. Several Haringey schools were among those listed in the suppressed 2010 study as having illegal levels of NO2. More recent measurements tell us that it is an ongoing problem, and at even more schools. The government has resisted doing anything about this – fighting two court battles over the past ten years to avoid action – and we can’t count on anything from them soon. Mayor Sadiq Khan says the right things, but his plans will take years to bite, at best. Meanwhile, we all breathe. Haringey should show the Mayor that we support strong action for clean air, now. We should show this by our actions.

Fear of traffic creates another big health hazard – inactivity. Obesity and diabetes; children kept at home in front of screens, not allowed out for fear of traffic; old people inactive in an urban environment that does not invite activity. Most people won’t keep going to the gym: public health experts agree that routine active transport – cycling, walking, even just walking to the bus – are the reliable way to get most people to maintain healthy levels of activity.

We need to tip the balance in favour of using public transport (buses, tube and trains) and active transport (walking and cycling). Right now, buses are held up by traffic, and most people are afraid to cycle (or to let their children cycle or walk to school) because of traffic. That creates a vicious circle: buses go slow so people drive; traffic is too frightening for cycling, so people drive; people drive past their high street shops to park at superstores, the high street shops die, so more people drive to get to superstores.

In many parts of the borough, most households do not even have cars, much less use them every day. Most of the people travelling down Green Lanes and Tottenham High Road are on buses. Wood Green, Turnpike Lane, Bruce Grove, Seven Sisters, Tottenham Hale – these are all transport hubs, well connected to so many places. Our part of the borough are gently sloped, all the way to the River Lee, as if made for easy cycling and walking. Yet, we all have to put up with traffic and bad air: buses go at a snail’s pace because of the car traffic; quiet residential streets throughout the borough have become rat-runs, more every year – now with the help of route-finding apps. To clean our air and to reclaim our streets for people, we need to reduce the priority given to cars.

The regeneration plans for Tottenham and Wood Green will bring more people to live, work, shop, and have fun. We need to make sure that means fewer cars. Regeneration should be an opportunity for action to get cleaner air, better bus service, and streets safe and pleasant for people walking and cycling, 8 years to 88. Regeneration now and action on traffic later is not acceptable.

People need to drive for many things. But, many trips on our streets are just passing through – is it our responsibility to breathe fumes produced by people driving from the suburbs to or through central London, where they shouldn’t be driving anyway? Others are very short trips that could be taken by foot or bike if the streets felt safer, or by bus if the buses didn’t sit in traffic. To make things better for people on buses, bikes, or foot, we will need to take some space away from cars and to make some car trips more round-about. That will inconvenience some people, but it can be done in a way that improves our transport options overall, and improves our air.

Shops in the high street get customers by all modes of travel, and shopkeepers will worry about losing customers who come by car. Giving priority to other modes doesn’t cut off car access, though – it will still be possible to get everywhere by car. And when more people choose not to use their cars, more will shop in the high street rather than driving to superstores. On balance, experience in many cities has shown, shifting people out of cars can help local business.

Neighbouring boroughs are already doing far more than Haringey. Encouraging active transport  – Waltham Forest and Enfield with their mini-Holland schemes supported by the Mayor, Hackney, Camden and Islington with council-level initiatives – and other steps to fight air pollution (Haringey’s initiative seems to have been teaching kids about ‘air monsters’ – fine, but it is up to us to ensure that the air they breathe is not a monster out to get them). It is time for Haringey – starting with Wood Green, Tottenham, and Harringay Green Lanes – to get out front on the creation of a healthy city for us all.

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