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How Hackney walks the walk

Hackney Council’s Mete Coban talks to Deniz Huseyin about why he is determined to connect with residents whose voices are not normally heard when taking an evidence-led approach to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

Deniz Huseyin
15 June 2021
Mete Coban: We’re going through the consultation process and we’re keeping an open mind about how we can rebuild a greener Hackney.
Mete Coban: We’re going through the consultation process and we’re keeping an open mind about how we can rebuild a greener Hackney.

Hackney is a London borough that has been willing to rethink the way its streets are managed and laid out to encourage walking and cycling, thus making it safer for pedestrians and improving air quality. The council has pioneered concepts such as School Streets, publishing a toolkit that has been adopted by local authorities across the UK and internationally. 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the north-east London council has been active in implementing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), sticking by the approach in the face of sometimes hostile opposition from a vocal minority.

The  council’s active travel and public realm strategies are being championed by Hackney’s elected mayor Philip Glanville (see 'Mayor maps out route to behaviour change' below) and Mete Coban, cabinet member for energy, waste, transport and public realm. The pair discussed the challenges they face, the measures they are implementing and their ambitions for this very diverse area of London. 

Listening to people

Mete Coban is a recent addition to Hackney’s cabinet, taking over from Jon Burke (see 'Word on the Streets' below), but is an experienced councillor with a background in community engagement. He is a co-founder of My Life My Say, a non-partisan charity that seeks to empower young people to participate in the democratic process.

An advocate of measures that reduce the harmful impacts of vehicle traffic, Coban is aware that restrictions on the use of cars need to be explained to win over critics. To this end he has pledged to listen to those opposed to LTNs and will draw on the experience he has gained with My Life My Say. “I’ve come into post as someone who was brought up on a council estate in Hackney, who often felt like my voice didn’t matter,” he explains. “I’m really passionate about making sure that we're listening to people who often don’t have the opportunity to engage in traditional council and consultation processes. Right now, we’re experimenting - we’re not rushing into decisions.”

Having received emergency government funding to reallocate road space, Hackney has implemented 19 LTNs under experimental traffic orders. But this is hardly a new development; the council has been closing roads to through-traffic for many years. There were already 120 traffic filters in the borough before the pandemic. Opponents have argued that LTNs displace traffic to neighbouring roads, resulting in gridlock and poor air quality while obstructing emergency vehicles. 

“Part of it is about understanding what impact LTNs have had so far, both within the LTN areas, but also on surrounding roads,” says Coban. “We believe that, overall, LTNs have reduced traffic in and around surrounding areas.” He points to the council’s initial analysis of five roads near new LTNs, which suggests there has been no “significant impact” on main road traffic.

The council is operating almost 300 automatic traffic counts across the borough to compare pre and post LTN traffic levels. The counts, in addition to data being collected by the DfT and Transport for London, take place for one week during each monitoring period. 

Hackney is planning to install another 20 continuous traffic counters, which will register cyclists and motorised traffic, with some also counting pedestrians. 

“We want to properly understand what the data means – the decisions we make must be evidence-led,” says Coban.

More than 70% of Hackney households do not own a car, according to London Travel Demand Survey (LTDS) research for 2016-17 – 2018-19. This revealed that 27% of Hackney households have one car and 2% have two or more cars. 

Research by traffic and parking analytics expert Inrix in 2018 found that around half of car journeys in Hackney are under 3km. Data collected by Inrix also showed that 44% of vehicle mileage in Hackney is through-traffic. The research seems to suggest there is significant through-traffic on residential roads, with drivers using satnav to get across the borough. 

“So, there’s 44% of traffic that goes through Hackney which has no benefit to our local economy,” says Coban. “We’re not charging those people to drive through Hackney, but there is a cost to our residents. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t be able to drive a car - of course you should if you need to. What we’re saying is you should adopt a more active lifestyle where possible, because we’re living through a climate emergency. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, unless we take serious action to secure the future of our children.”

School Streets

This is why School Streets are so important in changing travel behaviour over the long term, says Coban. Hackney has so far implemented 42 School Streets, which involves imposing a temporary restriction on motorised traffic at school drop-off and pick-up times. Of these, 33 have been introduced since September 2020, funded by TfL’s Streetspace pilot. The council is planning to introduce another six School Streets before the end of this academic year. 

Nearly 90% of children in Hackney walk, cycle or take public transport to school, the council estimates. School Streets are enforced using both static and mobile automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. Penalty charge notices are sent to drivers (without valid permits) who enter the zones during hours of operation. 

Data collected at School Street sites has revealed a 74% drop in tailpipe emissions. “That’s amazing,” says Coban. “It’s a difference that will mean children not growing up with health conditions relating to poor air quality.”

Coban believes that LTNs and School Streets complement Hackney’s Connecting Green Spaces programme, which aims to soften demarcations between green spaces such as parks and the wider environment. LTNs can act as a catalyst for the greening of streets by installing planters, rain gardens and street trees, says Coban. The council says it is set to meet its 2018 target of planting over 35,000 trees, including 5,000 street trees, by 2022. 

Another facet of Hackney’s greening mission is the creation of ‘21st Century Streets’. The first one, on Colvestone Crescent in Dalston, will turn parking bays into green space, create tree cover for at least 40% of the street, and install bike storage, parklets, electrical vehicle charging as well as a School Street, says Coban. 

“This illustrates the holistic approach we are trying to achieve. We’re experimenting with different things, working with our community, listening to what they have to say. We’re going through the consultation process and we’re keeping an open mind about how we can rebuild a greener Hackney.”

Coban says the council has recognised that some LTNs needed adjustments. For example, it removed banned turns near the London Fields LTN in response to comments from residents. And, while the feedback period for smaller schemes started to close at the end of May, consultation on larger schemes will run for longer to allow residents to see how they operate as lockdown restrictions are relaxed.

Traffic reduction

The start of some LTN trials coincided with major roadworks on Hackney Road, Dalston Junction, Balls Pond Road and Upper Clapton Road. This, says the council, affected traffic patterns and caused delays that were not related to LTNs.

Nonetheless, an initial analysis of traffic counts around the London Fields LTN seems to indicate early signs of traffic reduction, with traffic both falling in the neighbourhood and on the boundary main roads. Traffic within the London Fields LTN was down by an average of 44% while traffic on boundary roads around the LTN dropped by 21%. The analysis was based on traffic counts taken during the lockdown in November, when schools were open but overall traffic levels in Hackney were lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The council has pledged to increase cycle parking capacity across the borough. “Demand for space on the public highway is high,” says Coban. “Traditionally, it’s been used for storing cars, but there are cases that bring more social value such as parklets, cycle parking and EV infrastructure, which takes up slightly more space on the carriageway than parking bays, trees and space for dockless bikes. 

“To protect the space for pedestrians, which is under pressure in Hackney, we use carriageway space for these initiatives, and that means reducing car parking space.

“We’ve got an overarching mission to rebuild a greener Hackney as we come out of the pandemic. And lots of these different schemes are there to connect green spaces, make it easier for people to walk and cycle to local shops, and to breathe life back into the community.” 

Words on the streets

The controversy around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) implemented in the wake of the pandemic has been widely reported, with images on social media of vandalised planters and footage of vehicles mounting kerbs to bypass road closures. 

In Hackney the cabinet member responsible for LTNs received abuse on social media as well as a hand-written death threat. He was informed that his house would be burned down while he and his family were asleep. The cabinet member, Jon Burke, has since resigned both as cabinet member and councillor and has left the borough, stating his desire to spend more time with his family.

Prior to his departure, Burke commented on Twitter: “I hold the astroturf anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood ‘campaigners’ responsible for the creation of an atmosphere in which public property is destroyed and councillors receive death threats for doing the job they were democratically elected to do.”

Burke may have moved home, but he remains an active advocate of walking, cycling and decarbonisation with more than 21,000 followers on Twitter.

Mayor maps out route to behaviour change

Improving streets for the majority requires the right mix of measures, Hackney’s mayor Philip Glanville tells Deniz Huseyin 

“A Low Traffic Neighbourhood won’t work without School Streets, or without CPZs [controlled parking zones] and changes to the urban environment,” believes Philip Glanville, Hackney’s elected mayor. “And you can’t just have a School Street without some of the other interventions we’ve made over many decades. Otherwise, you’d find a hostile environment to walking and cycling, where the car is again dominant, the second you move beyond that School Street environment. We won’t see people having the confidence to let their children walk or cycle to school by themselves or even do it as a family group.”

Glanville believes that CPZs were an important precursor to people-friendly streets. “CPZs have traditionally been incredibly difficult. In 2013 and 2014 introducing a CPZ was seen as really controversial. But, actually, it's the new normal now, and it’s allowed some of these other things to happen.”

Most of the borough is now covered by CPZs, with Stamford Hill set to become the newest zone later this year. 

Glanville believes that attitudes to LTNs will only change by properly addressing the concerns raised by residents and challenging some of the misconceptions. For example, he stresses that most new LTNs do not obstruct emergency services because there are no planters or bollards across roads. Instead, they are enforced using ANPR cameras. 

“This allows the emergency services to drive through the closures,” he says. “The council has developed this approach in liaison with the emergency services. We accept that this does result in a level of non-compliance from some motorists but we are keen to support the essential work of the emergency services.”

Glanville says that emergency services have not indicated any significant issues regarding response times.

There are some cases where planters and bollards may be necessary to physically stop through-traffic, he adds. For example, some of the roads in the Homerton area had become popular routes for ‘rat running’. “Those are the sorts of spaces where you might make more permanent closures. In other cases, say where the road is near to a hospital, ANPR is the right solution as there will always be occasions where emergency vehicles will need access. That’s the level of detail we need to consider, as well as listening to people.”

Glanville also challenges the view that LTNs hinder bus services. “We don’t think there is a choice between supporting buses and creating better streets for active travel. I think our transport strategy values both.”

The mayor welcomes TfL’s plan to make most of its bus lanes operational for 24 hours. Hackney is looking to increase the hours of operation on some of its bus lanes as well, he says. “This is still subject to consultation, but where we think it will add value we definitely want to do it. And I’m a cyclist who, controversially, finds quite a lot of comfort in using a bus lane.”

The hopper bus services that traverse the borough are providing “vital community links”, says Glanville. “I really do think that LTNs can contribute to bus movement as well and support some of those routes as they move through our communities.”

The council will act on feedback from bus operators where there may be issues around pinch points, traffic signal timing, lengths of bus lanes and “awkward parking locations”, he says.

On the subject of parking, Glanville wants to see more innovative ways of accommodating the car. “Surface car parking is one of the poorest land uses in a central London location that any of us could come up with. We want to see the repurposing of parking space for either parks on new homes.”

With the borough’s population set to climb over the next decade, the council must step up efforts to reduce car dependency, says Glanville. “This has never been about excluding people with large families, disabled people or businesses. Actually, we’re making sure that they have the right infrastructure in the right place to support their lives.”

Creating the right connected streets across the borough and beyond will help encourage lasting behaviour change, says Glanville. And this means working to ensure that safe routes don’t come to an abrupt halt at the borough’s boundary. For this reason Hackney is working with neighbouring boroughs. It is implementing a protected cycle lane on Green Lanes between Manor House and Petherton Road in partnership with Islington Council. 

Hackney is developing a safe cycle route that links Clapton with Waltham Forest’s segregated cycle route on Lea Bridge Road. The council is also working with Tower Hamlets to develop the Pritchard Road modal filter.

“I think there’s a real movement across the north-east London boroughs to connect all these schemes together and make it easier to move around,” says Glanville. “I want to be able to cycle to Columbia Road or go to Roman Road, or visit Walthamstow Village or pop down to Camden, and I think that is getting easier and easier.”

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