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Positive lessons to be learned from Old Bethnal Green neighbourhood scheme

Chris Harrison explains how the re-design of a once busy, polluted and noisy main road in Bethnal Green, east London, has won widespread approval among local residents

Chris Harrison
17 November 2021


Old Bethnal Green Road was choked with more than 8,000 vehicles per day in 2019 when Project Centre started to work with residents and businesses to design a new-look neighbourhood and remove the rat-running vehicles.

The work is part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ Liveable Streets programme to reduce through-traffic, improve air quality and encourage more active travel in several neighbourhoods. The borough boasts the highest traffic flows in the UK and some neighbourhoods suffer from very poor air quality, with some children suffering from reduced lung capacity as a result.

As a key street within the wider Bethnal Green neighbourhood, Old Bethnal Green Road links residential areas to a green space, two schools and a local parade of shops and a café.  The street was dominated by vehicular traffic, which inhibited the local community from using or enjoying this vital community asset.  

The key aim of the scheme was to strengthen and improve the connection between the green space and retail area, thereby redefining the area as a place for people. This connectivity was achieved by removing traffic and providing infrastructure for sustainable travel modes. 

Engagement and consultation took centre stage in the development of the scheme. After early engagement surveys to establish local trends and issues, co-design workshops helped shape a series of proposals. A public consultation received more than 2,300 responses to more than 10,000 information packs sent to local properties.

More than two-thirds of respondents supported the proposals, and their feedback shaped the detailed designs, which also benefitted the bustling Columbia Road flower market area. Following two years of community outreach, a parklet was introduced to reduce through-traffic on the road, with filters and one-way access introduced on residential side streets as well as a segregated bike lane.

Thousands of children of all ages attend schools on the street and benefit from the quieter, safer environment with a 69% reduction in traffic across the area and a 4mph reduction in average vehicle speeds, which helps reduce road danger.

An assistant headteacher at a nearby school said: “The road changes are very positive. Staff move between sites on foot as the changes have vastly reduced traffic and made this much more pleasant for staff and also for students walking to school. It is also far less challenging to safely get students across the road at the end of the school day.”

The programme team is working with social enterprise Bikeworks to provide free basic repairs and maintenance to encourage residents to dust off old bikes and bring them back into use as well as support regular commuters to cycle safely.

Road closures are not the only key feature of this scheme and wider low traffic neighbourhood; wider pavements and continuous crossings help vulnerable residents and visitors get around, improving access for those using mobility aids or walking with pushchairs or prams. 

More greenery was planted to improve air quality, drainage, biodiversity and the overall look of the area. 

Extra seating offers an opportunity for rest or relaxation to allow everyone to enjoy fresh air or open space in such a built-up neighbourhood with businesses introducing tables and chairs to allow customers to enjoy a drink or lunch al fresco. Enhanced street lighting and CCTV is planned to tackle fears of crime and anti-social behaviour following feedback from residents.

Balancing the needs of residents and businesses is a challenge, with loading and parking bays a priority for traders in an inner London borough of just eight square miles where road space is at a premium.

Several cycle hangars have been introduced in residential roads and estates. Additional cycle stands have been installed near the shops to help people support local shops hit by pandemic restrictions.

A shopkeeper in Columbia Road said: “We have been here for 24 years. I was a keen cyclist but found cycling in London just too terrifying and dangerous so during those years I cycled less and less. With the Liveable Streets initiative, I suddenly feel confident to get back on my bike. We are now thinking differently about how we deliver in London. For example, because of the reduced traffic on the roads we were able to do many of our deliveries within London on bike.”

The programme team will continue to monitor the longer-term impact on local roads as commuters return to their workplace more regularly. Other schemes comprising similar interventions have been implemented in Barkantine, Wapping and Bow. 

Chris Harrison is technical director at Project Centre



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