Seema Chandwani and the Low Traffic Neighbourhood

Councillor Chandwani is a member of the Haringey Council cabinet – in fact, the cabinet member for “Welfare, Customers + Public Realm”, the last item of which includes many aspects of streets. So by publishing her response to a public council consultation about streets and traffic which covers her own ward (the low traffic neighbourhood [LTN] proposal for Bruce Grove and West Green), she is sending a message – she’s an insider, but is positioning herself on the outside of this process. She states “I am elected to represent the residents of West Green and it’s incumbent on me to advocate their concerns to help reshape these proposals” – which sounds right in general, but oddly placed since this is her contribution to a public consultation, the whole point of which is to canvas those concerns. In that context, it is hard to tell to what extent her statement is meant to represent her constituents’ views, and to what extent it is meant to position her in intra-cabinet debates on the future of LTNs. It is notable that at no point in her statement does she say whether or not she supports the LTN proposal – she has not shared that part of her consultation response.

What follow are my comments on the points Chandwani makes.

Disabled drivers. She says “in my view it is unacceptable that Haringey has not chosen to exempt Blue Badge holders from LTN restrictions like Ealing, Hackney, Lewisham, to name a few. This would resolve the issue immediately.” Her recommendation: “Ensure all Blue Badge holders are exempt from LTN restrictions.” This sounds big – impossible, in fact, if (as planned) many of the LTN restrictions are fixed physical barriers. But when I then look at Hackney’s policy, it is quite narrowly drawn: “Blue Badge holders will be able to drive through traffic filters on applicable bus routes in … low traffic neighbourhoods”. Reading further, we see that Hackney’s policy is qualified further: “The exemption would see residents [meaning Hackney residents? LTN residents? doesn’t say] with companion badges – which register a specific vehicle number plate to a Blue Badge – exempted from low traffic neighbourhood restrictions on classified roads with bus routes that are managed by the Council.” If that’s the approach Chandwani is talking about, the main issue it raises is whether the technology used to allow buses through Haringey’s modal filters, would also be suitable for detecting number plates with companion badges. I don’t know the answer to that – I expect it has something to do with cameras vs bus gates. But I also don’t know which Chandwani is doing: making an attack on all fixed physical barriers, implying that every one of them should be replaced by an automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) camera; or saying that (resident?) blue badge drivers should be able to go through bus gates. There’s a big difference.

Disabled children. West Green ward has two special needs (SEND) schools. As specialist schools, they draw from a larger area, and many parents drive their children to these schools. Chandwani says

“It is vitally important for those parents that they can still access the school using any mode of transportation that they feel is conducive to the needs of their child.”

which on the surface doesn’t mean much at all, since the Haringey LTN proposals do not restrict access by any sort of vehicle to any address – you can still get there in your car, but sometimes you have to go around to do so. (With the school streets proposals you would have trouble driving to a school’s front door, but school streets rules can presumably take into account special needs assessments, if not always the subjective judgement of each parent). What comes next, however, is:

“To give an example, one parent of a child at The Grove informed me of her concerns a slight change of route, timing or duration would have on her autistic child.”

Perhaps this example is just poorly chosen. I hope so, because in the case of this particular parent “mode of transportation” seems to have morphed into “following a certain precise route”, and the only way to meet Chandwani’s first condition (“which they feel is conducive to the means of their child”) would seem to be for the council to never do anything ever that would change traffic layouts and routes (for an LTN or any other reason) anywhere between this child’s home and The Grove. So I am left wondering whether Chandwani’s intervention here means nothing (yes, you can still drive to the school, but we knew that), or everything (all special needs parents must be able to take exactly the route they think best, regardless of the traffic controls which otherwise apply).

Belmont Rd. Belmont Road is the southern half of the B155, running north from West Green Road to Lordship Lane. There it crosses to The Roundway, which in turn connects to the A10, which brings a lot of traffic down from the North Circular. As it stands now, Belmont Road runs through the Bruce Grove/West Green LTN, but is not part of the LTN plans. By cutting certain other rat runs, the LTN may increase traffic on Belmont (it’s hard to say, because the neighbouring St Ann’s LTN could reduce traffic on Belmont, especially if Option A is chosen). Many residents of Belmont have, understandably, asked that through traffic be removed from their road, by installing an additional bus gate.

Now, I’m an LTN maximalist, and think this would be a good thing to try. It would probably increase traffic on Westbury Avenue and congestion at the Turnpike Lane junction, but you can’t have everything. Eliminating through traffic on Belmont Road would certainly reduce traffic on West Green Road and might – it’s impossible to know without trying – also mitigate the traffic increase anticipated on Philip Lane. So I would agree with Chandwani’s call for a “Solid written and funded commitment to install a bus gate should the traffic increase and remain at over 10% increase after 90 days”, as a commitment to try such a gate under those circumstances. I say “try” because all aspects of a scheme like this need to be regarded as experimental – some LTN measures will work better than others, and all sorts of adjustments may be needed later.

Broadwater Farm Safety

Chandwani notes that the consultation documents do not include feedback from the emergecy services, which “have made clear…that they will not support any designs which create hard physical barrier to their access.” She then argues that proposed fixed filters near Broadwater Farm would not provide adequate emergency access. She concludes by recommending that “all hard physical borders which restrict the movement of emergency services in West Green ward are removed from design proposals in line with the requests from our emergency services.”

It’s hard to interpret this without having seen the emergency services feedback, or whatever discussions may have gone on between the emergency services and the council. I also don’t understand how the problem suddenly grew from a specific one about Broadwater Farm, to the entire ward. Obviously, care must be taken to provide ample emergency access. It needs also to be said, however, that the spectre of increased emergency response times is a standard anti-LTN talking point; it would be good if councillors who were raising such points also made clear that research has found no such problem in LTNs in other London boroughs.

Physical barriers vs cameras

Notice a theme in Chandwani’s interventions on disabled drivers, on parents of special needs children, and on emergency services: if there’s a problem to be solved, the solution seems to be to replace physical barriers (from which no one is exempt) with some sort of smart enforcement, which in practice means ANPR cameras. Now this sounds nice if the exemptions don’t get to be so many that traffic on the neighbourhood streets remains a problem for air quality, child safety or active travel.

The trouble with cameras, though, is that cameras make trouble. A physical barrier may annoy some drivers for a few months but soon comes to be seen as just another cul-de-sac. Many drivers, though, have ongoing antagonistic relationships with cameras. No cul-de-sac was ever on the receiving end of the kind of vitriol – or sabotage – directed at the average speed camera. Also, by creating the possibility of exemptions, cameras invite ongoing arguments over who is exempt; there will always be some residents who like the idea of exemptions for everybody living in the LTN (yes, that’s a thing in some local authorities); if you go down that route, the LTN keeps out rat runners but does nothing whatsoever to reduce car trips by its own residents – it keeps others out but imposes its own traffic on others, the perfect NIMBY intervention.

I’m not suggesting Chandwani wants to see such conflict, or wants all residents to be exempt – just that in my opinion having a lot of cameras would create a setting in which such conflict is likely. To reduce conflict and make the scheme work, keep it simple; cameras have their place, but don’t use too many of them.

Broadwater Farm Construction, and Philip Lane Primary

Chandwani’s suggestions here seem quite reasonable.

Inter-LTN movement

Nothing to see here: some people didn’t understand the map, the division of the LTN into cells (which is what makes it work, in fact), we need to be clear…

Women’s safety

In the end, all Chandwani is calling for under this heading is a safety audit, which is certainly sensible; she also notes that she herself uses a car at night for reasons of personal safety – fine, but as we know you can drive into and out of LTNs, so though her trip may be slightly longer her safety is unaffected. What, then is to see here?

Just this: the safety concern Chandwani says “women residents have expressed” certainly does get expressed – I’ve heard it myself in connection with these same LTN proposals; it is in fact a standard anti-LTN talking point. It has been propogated most conspicuously by the Labour MP Rupa Huq who has documented her enthusiasm for ripping out LTNs in Ealing in an article for the Daily Telegraph, and who took to the floor of the House of Commons to use the murder of Sarah Everard – who had in fact been kidnapped by a policeman while walking along the busy South Circular – as a reason that, for women’s safety, all streets needed plenty of car traffic.

Of course the street-safety specifics of the LTN design need to be attended to – hence the need for the safety audit Chandwani proposes. But overall, the claim that LTNs make streets less safe for women walking at night flies in the face of the actual research, which finds that street crime (and especially violent and sexual crime) fell in Waltham Forest LTNs, relative to otherwise similar places in London (why Waltham Forest? Because some of their LTNs have been in place for a few years, so there’s before-and-after data to study). It would be nice to have the actual evidence noted when the councillor responsible for the public realm is raising the issue.

Two cheers for Haringey’s school streets plan

Last month, the Haringey Council was presented with a plan for School Streets. This is where streets adjacent to schools which are closed to motor traffic in the periods just before and after school opening and closing. This has several benefits: it makes the street just outside the school safe for kids coming and going; by encouraging parents to ditch the school run and have their kids walk or cycle to school, it reduces air pollution and motor traffic, which has benefits far beyond the school in question, since the school run is a major source of road traffic.

It may be helpful here to explain the difference between school streets and low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). The latter are created by simply cutting off through traffic by motor vehicles: modal filters allow people on foot or on bikes (and, if enforced by camera, buses) to pass, but stop most motor vehicles. Low traffic neighbourhoods usually don’t prohibit driving on any of the existing roads, and allow vehicle access to all addresses – it’s just through traffic that’s cut. But LTNs are in effect 24/7.

School streets are both more restrictive, and more limited. They are more restrictive because they do actually prohibit driving on certain parts of certain streets; more limited because they operate only an hour or two each day, and only on days when school is in session. And school streets stop a different kind of traffic. LTNs may reduce the school run somewhat by providing safer places for kids to walk or cycle to schol, but they don’t prevent any particular parent from driving up to the school gate to drop a kid off.

Haringey, until recently, had almost no school streets, putting it in the cellar in a recent ranking of London boroughs (Haringey has had this problem not just with school streets but with active travel – walking and cycling – generally, something I discussed last week in this blog); a few weeks ago it put in one very small one at Chestnuts Primary School. It had received some funding for school streets in London’s COVID emergency funding for active travel, but used this money mostly for footway widening without restrictions on driving – not what would usually be called school streets.

Now, though, we have a real, substantial plan for school streets, with a ranking of projects by the school’s need and the practicality of implementation. An excruciatingly slow rollout (three schools per year, primary schools only) is planned, but with the plans in hand that could be accelerated as opportunities arise. Overall, this is a terrific development, a big step forward by the Haringey Council. I need to say that very clearly because what follows deals with some of the limitations of Haringey’s school street plan.

The plan rates each primary school in Haringey as either suitable or not suitable for a school street; if suitable, some specific measures are proposed. In most cases, the key (and most expensive) measure is the installation of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to enforce restrictions on driving.

Here, then, are the limitations of plan as I see them.

Can’t have a school street here – we need it as a rat run

Consider Devonshire Hill Nursery and Primary School, on Weir Hall Road, N17. The Plan says:

The school is not suitable for a school street despite the ‘medium’ air quality and high car  usage. Weir Hall Road is not suitable for a school street as the restriction of this street would  have significant impact on the operation of the road and surrounding road network as it is the  main alternative connection between White Hart Lane and Wilbury Way instead of the A10.

What is this vital link in our motor transport network? On the map below that’s the road running parallel to the A10 just a bit to the east, from White Hart Lane at its southern end to Wilbury Way in the north. Devonshire Hill School is shown as a yellow patch on the east side of Weir Hall, not far from the Rectory Farm Allotments.

Map 1

The A10 is a high speed dual carriageway. The idea that the smooth operation of the road network requires Weir Hall Road, a simple narrow street running past homes and two schools (the second school is in Enfield, so not covered in Haringey’s report) to serve as an overflow for the A10, shows just dominant the motoring logic is within Haringey’s highways team.

Part of the tragedy – and to say tragedy is not hyperbole: we’re looking here at children’s inactivity and lack of independence, at lungs and brains impaired by particulates, and at a stomping big carbon footprint – is that a non-trivial share of the traffic on Weir Hall Road is to the two schools on it: 24% of the children at Devonshire, a community school, are driven there, probably in large part because its entrance is on a narrow road that many drivers are taking at what speed their little motors can muster, so of course many kids aren’t allowed to walk there, much less to cycle. So we have traffic generating traffic, which is what traffic does.

We see the same thing with other schools. Sometimes the finding is a simple “not suitable for a school street”, as with Devonshire; other times it leads to restricting the school street to a less busy road. I exclude here cases where the busy road is in fact a major thoroughfare. But what is a major thoroughfare, and what is not, may be in the eye of the beholder. 37% of pupils are driven to and form St Martin of Porres RC Primary School on Blake Road in Bounds Green. It is “not suitable” for a school street because

The implementation of a school  street in this location would have a negative impact on the wider road network operations as Blake Road is part of the main connection between A109 and Albert Road. 

“Part of the main connection” seems to mean “a rat run we use for overflow”. On Map 2, below, St Martins is the yellow patch down a long driveway off of Blake Road, just by the railway. The main connection between the A109 (Bounds Green Road) and Albert Road (B106) should be made by turning onto Durnsford Road (also B106) at Bounds Green. If that route is so busy that Google is sending drivers down Blake Road, perhaps Haringey should get behind the Enfield Council’s proposal to put a bus filter (i.e., no motors except buses) on Durnsford, between Bounds Green underground and the North Circular. I hear, though, that Haringey’s Highways Department actually opposes Enfield’s plan; I can only hope that I am misinformed.

Map 2

Schools which are “suitable”, but where the most problematic street is left out of the plan because it’s too important as a rat run, include Chestnuts Primary (Black Boy Lane). Chestnuts had been rated “unsuitable” in an earlier draft of the plan but, after a couple of instances of kids being hit by cars and the intervention of parents who are also involved in an LTN initiative in the St Ann’s Ward, a way was found to make a school street on a side road by one of the school’s three entrances. Yet the real problems remain: the Black Boy Lane rat run; lack of bike paths and lack of a safe crossing on St Ann’s Road. In the same ward, West Green Primary is listed in the plan as a priority but no details are given for it; I understand that the planned school street for West Green, like that for Chestnuts, would be confined to a little side road (Termont, in this case), while the problematic rat run (Woodlands Park Road, which also passes by the Woodlands Park Children’s Centre and Nursery) is left as is.

Map 3

Time now for low traffic neighbourhoods AND school streets. In all of the cases above, and many others besides, the school street solution would be improved by the creation of an LTN. Even with LTNs in those places, you would still want a school street because the LTN just stops through traffic, while the school street limits the use of the school as a destination for car trips. But, while it would be feasible simply to make parts of Weir Hall Road and Blake Road school streets to reduce the school runs there, the school street restrictions would be much less disruptive if drivers didn’t expect to be able to use those roads as rat runs in the first place. Morning school run is the busiest time of day on the roads, so it is feasible to keep non-resident traffic off those roads at those times, it can be done 24/7 with an LTN.

The Weir Hall/Devonshire School and Blake/St Martin’s School situations are relatively simple, because any traffic diverted from those rat runs would go the main roads where it should be in the first place. Cases like Chestnuts/Black Boy Lane, and West Green/Woodlands Park Road, are more complicated because they sit in systems with multiple rat runs, where closing one easily diverts traffic to another. A well-planned LTN can prevent such spill-overs, and encourage an overall reduction in traffic (including, but not limited to, the reduction in school run traffic).

Or consider Rokesly School in Crouch End. The proposed school streets would cut traffic at school run times, which would be a benefit. But the air quality at the school is rated Poor (most schools in Haringey get Medium, which is already not very healthy), and that’s not going to be fixed without filtering the roads around it; these aren’t main roads, but given the structure of the road network in the area filtering will require some planning. That brings us back to finding a way to replace the stillborn Crouch End Healthy Streets project, and to do better than the Council’s subsequent choice (contrary to the balance of consultation views) to go with pavement widening rather than a cycle track on Tottenham Lane. It’s complicated, but the nettle must be grasped.

There are many cases in the School Streets Plan where filtering traffic as part of an LTN plan would make the school street more effective, and probably cheaper. For examples, I’ll return to St Ann’s ward: for a school street on Avenue Road in front of St Ann’s CE Primary School, the School Streets Plan anticipates £26,400 for ANPR cameras and some signage. The LTN proposed by Healthy Streets St Ann’s would include a modal filter on Avenue Road. If that filter were located at the St Ann’s Road end of Avenue Road, the bit of Avenue Road in front of the school could simply be repurposed as pedestrian space, possibly eliminating the need for the camera.

Then, looking just across St Ann’s Road, we find St Marys RC Primary School. Here, the Plan anticipates £55,000, mostly for cameras on Hermitage Road (I’m guessing the difference in cost is because Avenue Road is one way while Hermitage Road is two way, so needs double the cameras). There has long been discussion of a modal filter on Hermitage to improve air quality at that school, eliminate rat runs through a nearby council estate and the adjoining neighbourhood, and improve pedestrian and cycling safety. With a filter on Hermitage, there would be vehicular access tot he school from only one direction, so the school street would not need as many cameras.

As with the Weir Hall/Devonshire School and Blake/St Martin’s School cases discussed above, these are cases where the proposed school streets are currently rat runs. Not all proposed school streets are rat runs, but where they are, the council and the community should always consider whether the rat run needs a 24/7 filter in addition to school streets measures. For St Ann’s and St Mary’s, as for Devonshire and St Martin’s, filtering should reduce driver confusion, improve compliance and reduce cost. Also, if one object is to improve school air quality, the rat run should anyway be closed throughout the school day, which the filter accomplishes.

The long and the short is that much more can be gotten from this School Streets Plan if the borough’s Highways department is on board with a serious program of low traffic neighbourhoods, and traffic reduction in general. Where a highly polluted school apparently can’t have a school street because it’s on a busy road, the solution should not be to label it “not suitable”, but to shift its case to another level of investigation, to ask how motor traffic on that busy road might be reduced. Sometimes it won’t be possible, but in a context of overall traffic reduction, and promotion of active and public transport – the context the Council says we’re in – there will sometimes be ways.

Pavement widening – really?

At two of the schools (Alexandra Park Primary and Bruce Grove Primary), school streets are to be accompanied by build-outs of the pavement “to allow social distancing”. This seems a failure of nerve, if not a misunderstanding of how the school street works: if the school street is functioning properly, the road space in front of the school is a pedestrian zone at the times when children are coming and going. It seems just a waste of money.

In the Alexandra Park case, it may be that the report’s authors recommend pavement widening because they lack confidence in the safety of the school street itself, because of need for access by businesses on Western Road. As far as I can see there are other ways in to almost all but one of these businesses from the other end of Western Road, so I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Pavement widening is a favourite fix by Haringey Highways – it’s a way of doing something for active travel without actually putting in cycle lanes, and indeed sometimes preventing future cycle lanes – and I wonder if the school streets study teams might have been exposed to this virus.

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Map 4 Alexandra Park School

What’s the problem? Parking? Congestion? Pollution? Lack of childhood liberty?

The reports on individual schools were put together by consultants operating under time pressure, during a pandemic, with a new sort of issue to deal with. Haringey has a lot of primary schools. Not surprisingly, there are places where the description of the case and the reasoning for the recommendation don’t really seem to add up. I’ll describe a couple of cases, but before the recommendations are set in stone there really should be a process of school-by-school review.

Bounds Green Primary School has its main frontage on Park Road, with one side of the school facing the very busy Bounds Green Road. About the first of these the report says:

A site visit highlighted that Park Road is a congestion hot spot with parents parking on the School Keep Clear markings, double yellow lines and in the middle of the road and then conducting U-turns, leading to further congestion.

Sounds as if Park Road should be a school street, then? Well, no, because a few lines later:

“The location of the school is not suitable for a school street despite the ‘medium’ air quality.  The majority of parents observed walked or cycled with their children … there were low traffic volumes observed on Park Road and therefore implementing a school street in this location is unlikely to have a significant impact on operations or air quality.”

Granted that most of the air pollution will be coming from Bounds Green Road; but what happened in the space of a few lines of the report to all of the congestion and illegal parking by parents which, if as described, will surely be having some effect on the willingness of parents to let their children walk or cycle to the school independently? It may in fact be that independent active travel by children isn’t in the remit of the report’s authors – it’s not discussed.

Safety improvements which lower the age at which parents are willing to let their children walk or cycle to school independently are important for two reasons: first, restoring to children some of the freedom which has been taken away from them in the past few decades; second, reducing school run driving by parents whose need to both take a child to school and get to work resolves into a car trip.

This is not the only way in which the report sometimes seems to overlook important benefits that school streets can bring. For many of the schools found “not suitable” for school streets, lack of congestion or lack of school-run-related parking problems are given as reasons a school street is not needed. This misses not only the active travel benefits, as just noted in the case of Bounds Green School, but also the school run’s large contribution to road traffic overall – not just in front of the school.

Sometimes, the report misses low hanging fruit. Coleridge Primary School is slated for a school street, someday, which is good. But the proposal ignores Crescent Rd, which runs between the school and Parkland Walk. Crescent already has a modal filter that stops motor traffic from joining the main road, Crouch End Hill, so perhaps it wasn’t seen as a problem. Yet the stub end of Cresenct Road, with no houses or businesses, now serves as a school run hotspot. It should not be a road, but should be made into parkland, joining up the park along Parkland Walk and the strip of park between Crouch End Hill and the school.

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Crescent Road, seen from across Crouch End Hill. Parkland Walk to the left, Coleridge Primary School and another strip of parkland to the right.

Enough for now!