Are experimental road closures at least worth a try?

About five weeks ago, the government sprung yet another surprise on local authorities, this time an ‘emergency active travel fund’ of £250M to be used to deliver pop-up cycle lanes, wider pavements that allow for social distancing, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors. This is of course very welcome, although inevitably the Byzantine structure of transport management in Cambridge makes any coherent planning very difficult indeed.

In the end, various ideas were quickly worked up that included input and funding from the Government, Cambridgeshire County Council and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (which includes Cambridge City Council). Here, for example, are the GCP ideas.

The scheme welcomed input from the public and local organisations, but it’s a shame that side of things couldn’t have gone further. The Queen Edith’s Community Forum held a community workshop just a few months ago which had produced some joined-up thinking that was exactly what was needed. One of the significant outcomes was the idea that we should promote the Red Cross Lane – Nightingale Avenue – Wulfstan Way route as an active travel route: somewhere people would want to be, and the primary access to the hospital from this direction for people on foot and bike. More of that in a moment.

I think the idea of experimenting with changes, to at least see if we can keep streets quiet while we remember how nice it’s been, is a good one. The reduced traffic in recent weeks has brought home to many people how subservient we have become to motor vehicles, with our neighbourhoods split up by the almost insatiable need to get cars (mostly those just passing through) from A to B as quickly as possible. It’s been lovely to see families able to socially-distance by walking down the middle of a residential street, or the sight of kids playing in the road for the first time since, I don’t know, 1980 or something.

The local authorities’ plans consist of dozens of small local changes throughout the county which they think will have a positive impact. In Queen Edith’s, the main recommendations are blocking a couple of well-known rat-runs through residential streets, Nightingale Avenue (used to cut through from Hills Road to Queen Edith’s Way) and Sedley Taylor Road/Luard Road (used to cut through from Long Road to Hills Road). This will be done by creating a barrier to motor traffic at a point on the street. Pedestrian and cycle movements would not be blocked, and indeed would be made easier.

It’s important to note that these appear to be experimental changes, an approach which many progressive groups like Smarter Cambridge Transport have been promoting for a long time. However, we do need to know if these are truly ‘experimental’ or whether they are ‘temporary’. The distinctions have different implications for the permanence of the arrangement.

The Nightingale Avenue proposal seems to have created the most reaction. According to the paper to be put to the County Council this week, motor vehicles will be prohibited “at all times on a short section of Nightingale Avenue between Rotherwick Way and Topcliffe Way.” This would stop through motor traffic, and would mean some residents of Nightingale Avenue and beyond would only be able to drive to their homes from Queen Edith’s Way, and others only from Hills Road.

One resident who does not like the plan has decided to take some positive action and create a petition against it. In it he says that “The proposal is unlikely to reduce traffic volumes; it will simply divert more traffic onto the Queen Ediths Way / Fendon Road roundabout and put more pressure on the Hospital roundabout”. The petition has gained a lot of signatures.

Residents from further afield have also been in touch expressing reservations. One – from Field Way – tells me: “We shall continue to require reasonable motor vehicle access to our home from all directions and these include the essential Nightingale Avenue. To squeeze Nightingale Avenue traffic into Fendon Road and Addenbrooke’s Roundabout will add significant delay – and pollution – to what in normal times gives rise to much congestion and delay, ill- temper and so poor driving.

“The real need here is to keep as good a traffic flow as possible around Fendon Road – Hills Road – Addenbrooke’s Roundabout. Ambulances need clear roads. Allowing traffic to bypass these ‘pinch points’ by using roads like Nightingale Avenue helps somewhat. Closing it will make congestion worse. Buses will lose more passengers to private motoring, creating yet more congestion.”

However, another Nightingale Avenue resident writes to say: “I’d be very happy to see it closed to the 90% of traffic which is ratrunners. Yes, there is the occasional journey when it’ll be less convenient than before, but most of the time it’ll just be a much nicer environment. And of course, it being a bit less convenient to drive for short journeys is part of the point: it shifts the balance in favour of active travel. More journeys become quicker by bike or walking. For long journeys to another town or the other end of the country, having to go via the main roads makes no significant difference.

“The Dutch understood the importance of quiet residential streets decades ago. We British have come to the idea late, but I think more and more people get that it’s time to make changes.

“Think about the places in Cambridge where roads are filtered, like St Andrews St, Riverside, Rustat Road, or the lesser filtering of Grange Road or the one-way-at-a-time section on Baldock Way. Do you think those residents would want to open them up to ratrunning now? It’s easy to think about the inconvenience of change, but harder to imagine the advantages. Similarly would the town centre really be improved by allowing through-traffic back in?”

Fortunately the local councillor under whose remit the scheme falls is Amanda Taylor, one who makes the effort to keep us all informed about what she’s doing. Amanda has been on the case, and writes: “We are disappointed that neither body (the County Council or the Greater Cambridge Partnership) sought advice from councillors or local residents as to which roads would benefit from changes, or the form those changes might take.

“Councillors do not have a vote or a veto on the schemes, although we will be meeting the GCP to discuss the details of the road closures, while the schemes are being developed. This will provide an opportunity to incorporate feedback we have already received from residents, and to make recommendations.

“There has been a broad mixture of views, both strongly for and strongly against, particularly in the case of Nightingale Avenue. We will do our best to get the GCP to address people’s concerns.”

With the Nightingale Avenue scheme, it’s essential that any changes are introduced in conjunction with improvements to Red Cross Lane, to complete the desired access to the hospital. Sorting out the madness of the parking arrangements there seems to me to be of far greater importance than the other roads being looked at. The Red Cross Area Residents Association has been active on this one, as well as councillors and local activist Sam Davies, who has taken up the issue on their behalf with the County Council. The potentially good news resulting from this is that Red Cross Lane has now been added to the list of interventions, using some of the Government money rather than the GCP’s, although the only information we have is the label: “Temporary measures in advance of permanent works to improve cycle access”. Presumably this means to Addenbrooke’s.

The other experiment listed for our area is also a road closure, this time in Luard Road, by Luard Close. This would stop hundreds of vehicles a day from using that road (and Sedley Taylor Road) as a rat run, although I worry with this road closure that it will lead to many cars driving the whole length of Sedley Taylor Road and most of Luard Road, to then be met by a barrier and have to turn around.

However, if the number of vehicles exiting on to Hills Road can be dramatically reduced, that would be great news. At this exit, vehicles have to cross a particularly busy footpath and two-way cycleway as well as the main cycleway. Many drivers simply appear to be unable to cope with this at peak times, and collisions and injuries are frequent.

Unlike Nightingale Avenue, I haven’t heard of any objections to the idea from local residents, but perhaps the local councillor has. Unfortunately for Luard Road residents, the County Council has now – absurdly – seen fit to declare their road as being in Trumpington, and the councillor there isn’t nearly as informative as the one in Queen Edith’s, so I don’t know.

One final question is this: has the County Council done any modelling on the impact on the wider road network? The Hills Road / Long Road junction is already at capacity, as is the Addenbrooke’s roundabout. And what will be the impact of the reopening of the Fendon Road roundabout?

We shall find out on Tuesday if the schemes get the go-ahead.

7 Replies to “Are experimental road closures at least worth a try?”

  1. I think we all agree that consultation is good so people don’t feel like stuff is just sprung on them, but I was really disappointed to see someone delivering leaflets all around the area framed largely from the view of ‘my car journey might be less convenient’. The question of what sort of place we want to live in, and how to develop transport policy is so much wider than that. We have a pollution problem which kills more people than covid every year, a climate crisis that is going to cause untold misery, especially for our children, and the immediate health emergency to deal with, and some people’s reaction to a measure that tries to help with all of those things is ‘how dare they make me drive 300m further to get to the shops (without asking first)’!

    So yes, of course we should discuss what we want, but we have to get beyond ‘how fast can I drive everywhere’ as the primary consideration. That’s just arguing for ‘no change’, and we have to change something if we are to maintain a planet not too different from the one we grew up in. Apart from anything else it’s wildly unjust for all the people who don’t even have a car.

    I know that some parents taking their kids to school go the long way round at the moment to reduce the amount of fumes their kids in the trailer get to breathe, so it’s wrong to think of it as just making journeys longer – it makes some journeys shorter too – the journeys lots of people want to make more of, but are discouraged by traffic levels.

    We’ve all just seen with our own eyes that simply removing much of the car traffic produces a much more pleasant environment and enormous numbers of people walking and cycling, especially families with kids. Walthamstow made some changes a couple of years ago which were largely various levels of traffic filtering, and overall traffic reduced to half what it was. Opportunities to cheaply try out a change on the ground and see how it really works in practice don’t come round very often. I think it would be a huge shame to not even try this.

    Finally, we should consider that the proposed full filter is not the only possibility. There could be camera-controlled ‘residents access only’, a selection of one-way-at-a-time features (a-la Grange Rd) to both reduce speeds and make it much less attractive as a rat-run, but keep access in both directions open, or a more convoluted through-route via Topcliffe and perhaps Almoners, so it was still possible, but no quicker than the main roads.

    This tiny little debate about a filter on our road is our contribution (or not) to a better, decarbonised world. One which, overall, would improve the lives of residents, people travelling through and people living on the other side of the planet, who are suffering increasingly from our wasteful and selfish society. I like to think that’s the direction most of us want to go in.

  2. Thanks for this summary Chris. To me, there are four elements to this:

    * The process – poor. Issuing a diktat with no detail and no effort to find out what people want is only ever going to be a recipe for contention.

    * The proposals themselves – why these roads rather than any others? Why have other roads been omitted which would be at least as high on any pedestrian’s/cyclist’s list of priorities? Why these measures rather than others? As Wookey (above) says, other approaches would be possible.

    * The response so far – see point 1! There is a danger that people, all of whom genuinely care about their neighbourhood, will be driven into polarised positions, rather than working through a process where everyone’s input is heard and respected. That’s why the Queen Edith’s Community Forum workshop which Chris mentions made progress – because residents with different viewpoints and different experiences were given space and time to move towards a consensus. But clearly the County Council thinks that’s all far too much effort …in fact, it’s too much effort to even find out what discussions have already occurred.

    * A way forward – to the best of my knowledge, the proposal for completely closing Nightingale and Luard to through traffic has come out of nowhere. Is there a middle way, appropriate for an experiment whereby the parking suspension is continued; the extra road width is allocated to segregated cycle lanes; and build-outs (maybe some attractive planters) are used to deter traffic and slow vehicles which do choose that route?

    However, none of this makes any sense without matching measures on Red Cross Lane and side roads. I have on several occasions watched the behaviour of drivers parking/waiting there. A significant proportion are utterly oblivious to other users of that space – cyclists, pedestrians and indeed residents. The No Right Turn from Hills Road into Nightingale Avenue also needs to be enforced, otherwise cyclists lulled into a false sense of security on a remodelled Nightingale Ave will have to run the gauntlet crossing into Red Cross Lane to get the Biomedical Campus.

    And that’s the point really. All of this is driven by the ceaseless expansion of the Campus, yet there is still no vision for how our community can sit comfortably alongside its behemoth neighbour, which don’t forget is going to generate 40% more trips in the next five years. The clock is ticking.

  3. Just a few points.

    The Council is pushing through with these because they were given a target date of the 5th of June to come up with a list of roads where measures supporting cycling and walking could be implemented. I was tweeting about it since May 20ish. I started working straight away with other local contacts to get something done on first tranche, as otherwise money lost, and no change, according to central govt DfT not an option. So County Council had little time, and they decided to paint some cycle lanes in Milton and other villages, but then these won’t be accepted for Central govt funding due to not being within the remit (basically only modal filters, road closures, pop up cycle lanes with cones, wand orcas or similar and other similar infra allowed). So Councils didn’t have the time to consult.

    This is happening all over the country, Queen Edith’s is not being singled out, nor is the odd one out basically.

    If any of you want to see what the local authorities were sent please let me know.

  4. What about Hills Avenue/Hinton Avenue? This is a easy rat run between Hills Rd and Cherry Hinton Road, thankfully quiet now. In normal times, vehicles frequently exceed the 20mph speed limit. In addition, we have sixth form and taxi parking on both sides of the road. Taxi drivers leaning on their vehicles and chatting to each other across the road can be noisy, although this has the effect of slowing down traffic! We’re longing for a new normality after the lockdown, which returns traffic and parking in the area to how it was in the 1990s, when we moved here.

  5. I have to say I did note at the weekend as I biked asking that there were a few cars parking in section that has not been double yellow lined along nightingale. I did however also note that the surrounding roads Topcliffe, Kinnaird, Almonders, Beaumont etc have got cars parked on them now.
    I fear blocking off the parking on nightingale has just pushed the parking issue further out. In my opinion, they would have been more sensible putting parking meters in place with a low cost for 2hrs to allow visitors to the park and then a residential permit parking scheme with easy use to the surrounding areas to prevent hospital patrons getting free parking. In a visit to Chelmsford a family member was able to record the fact I was visiting using his permit but online stating how long I would be there.
    Maybe with regards to nightingale they could put sleeping policeman in and give way sections? Rather than a complete block.
    Just some thoughts

  6. This is a long overdue initiative – well done to all of the bodies that have put together the plan at such short notice. There is now really compelling evidence (some of which is referenced in the comments above) that measures such as these reduce (not displace) traffic flows, reduce pollution, reduce accidents, reduce crime (more eyes on the streets), increase safety and the feeling of safety, promote health and well-being, have significant general environmental benefits, create closer communities etc. etc. Our family lives on Nightingale Avenue and we are all eagerly looking forward to the road closures being made permanent. OK, it may add a couple of minutes to our journey when we drive to Tesco or Asda, but any trivial inconvenience is FAR outweighed by all of the benefits. W’s asthma may improve without the queues of stationary traffic belching fumes during rush hour, and the children can feel safer cycling to school and their friends and visiting the park without having to negotiate cars racing along the road at 50mph at all other times. And we may just be making a small but important step in helping the environment and climate. Bring it on!

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