The roads and streets of Tower Hamlets are undergoing wholesale changes as part of the council’s Liveable Streets programme.
The reported aims of the scheme look to make the streets safer and more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists and tackle the worrying levels of air pollution experienced in the borough (currently the 5th worst of all London boroughs). In particular, the focus of the scheme is to reduce the prevalence of rat-running through residential streets.
This would be achieved through the building of new cycle lanes, bus lanes and pedestrian crossings as well as the closing of some residential streets to traffic, often by simply placing bollards.
The scheme is widespread, work is being carried out in 17 different areas covering approximately 60% of the borough including areas such as Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Mile End. The project is at varying levels of completion across the borough with the programme hoped to be delivered over four years.
The scheme is not without controversy, however, and has sparked a lively debate between its supporters and opponents.
At the time of publishing, a Facebook page for the scheme’s opponents, ‘Tower Hamlets residents against the Liveable Streets Proposals’, has over 1,800 members and has created a petition which to date has over 500 signatures.
Road closures focused around the Bow and Roman Road area, in particular, have sparked concerns for local businesses. Emma Tabard, who is the manager of The Florist Arms pub on Globe Road, says that the “pedestrianisation of roads make it harder for customers to reach already struggling businesses.”
Others question whether the scheme in some areas is actually counterproductive in its attempt to improve the local environment. One member of the Facebook groups says of the road closures, “Generally, traffic has increased all around the affected areas as everybody is forced to use the same roads. This can’t be good for the environment and it surely contradicts the whole premise for implementing the scheme in the first place.”
There is also a concern for elderly and disabled residents, who are more reliant on cars for transport and may be harder to reach with road closures going ahead.
It is yet to be seen whether those opposed to the plans will be able to successfully lobby the council.
On the other side of the argument, many residents look forward to the promise of the cleaner, quieter and safer streets the Liveable Streets programme hopes to deliver.
The ‘Better Streets for Tower Hamlets’ campaign argues for the merits of Liveable Streets. A key aspiration outlined in their vision found on the campaign group’s website are ‘Streets that enable children to travel to and from school without cars”.
This follows the concerning news that was unearthed by a King’s College study which showed that children in Tower Hamlets have 10% less lung capacity than the national average.
The campaign also seeks to ‘myth-bust’ over some of the perceived flaws of the scheme. They point to successes of previous Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods in neighbouring London Boroughs such as Hackney. They dispute the claim that retail-businesses do poorly in Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods, citing a University of Westminster study that found that “Overwhelmingly BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) rated an appealing environment for spending time in, walking, and cycling, as either very important or moderately important for business performance”.
Thus, there is a strong belief that consumers choose to spend more time visiting businesses in areas which are easily walked and cycled in.
These changes will be of some significance for the many Queen Mary students who live in the borough. Creation of new cycle lanes such as the one towards Westferry, starting at Burdett Road adjacent to Mile End Park, may encourage more students to take up cycling. For many others, the commute to campus is a short walk, which may be transformed by fewer cars and safer crossings.