The debate about Enfield’s Mini Holland rages on via social media and the local press – will there be gridlocked roads? Vacant businesses? Cyclists mowing down the elderly at bus stops? Meanwhile, some of us from Better Streets for Enfield and Enfield Cycling Campaign decided it would be easiest just to go and look at a Mini Holland that’s already in progress. Waltham Forest is, after all, next door to us, and ahead of Enfield in completing the work.
So on Saturday 2 July, that’s what we did. Some of us were even reckless enough to get there by bike. But interestingly, the strongest impressions that the borough of Waltham Forest made on me had nothing to do with cycling.
Orford Road: a high street closed to cars
Our tour guide, local resident Paul Gasson, started with the ‘crown jewels’ of Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland: Orford Road. This high street used to have heavy car traffic but is now restricted to buses and bikes only between 10am and 10pm. Closing it to car traffic caused huge controversy at the time, with local shop owners claiming that it would be the death of their businesses. (Some of them even disrupted the opening ceremony last year by carrying a coffin down the street.)
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could think like that now.
Cafe tables were full, and no one seemed to be in any hurry. There was no need to look over your shoulder for traffic or worry about what kind of air you were breathing. I could see how you could take your time here, shopping and sipping and chatting to other locals – which no doubt leads to some healthy spending too.
This, of course, is similar to the plan for Church Street in Enfield Town – taking all traffic except buses and bikes off the high street. Both are intended to be the ‘transformational’ centrepiece of their respective Mini Holland scheme. How would that work on Church Street, which is much larger, and currently has three lanes for cars and buses? It’s hard to imagine. But surely ‘transformational’ is the right word, for a high street that is currently hard to relax on, especially if you’re shopping with children, where at busy times you can’t hear yourself think above the noise of traffic, and where a worrying number of businesses are vacant.
Power to pedestrians
Walthamstow now has a number of ‘Copenhagen’ or ‘blended’ crossings. The idea is to raise up the entrance of side roads to pavement level, signalling to drivers that pedestrians have right of way as they cross. Paul points out that pedestrians have always had that right, according to the Highway Code, but here the street design reinforces it – cars have to bump up into ‘pedestrian territory’ to access the road, while feet and bikes can continue on the same level.
Do they work? Not always. Paul stressed that the road the crossing goes across must be calmed by ‘filtering’ (see below) – otherwise some drivers tend to make the turning too quickly in their haste to get down a through road. They have also learnt that there needs to be some sort of street furniture such as a planter or a bollard on the corner, to ensure that drivers turn slowly. I personally felt perfectly safe crossing over, and vehicles readily gave way to us.
This is one of the most dramatic planks of Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland scheme – the creation of ‘villages’ by ‘filtering’, or stopping traffic from cutting through residential streets. We walked around Walthamstow Village, the first of the three villages to be complete. The idea is to keep through traffic out of the residential bloc and on main roads, while residents can still access their homes by car via slightly indirect routes. This means that streets where people live are quiet and safe and form a good network for walking and cycling. Bollards or planters are used to close off or filter one end of selected roads to cars, providing a bit of extra public space at the same time.
The photo below shows what used to be a rat run, leading off Orford Road. It is closed to cars at the Orford Road end, paved, and planted to create a small public square. The planting is managed by a local community group and they were just clearing away after a collective gardening session.
The planting around the village, and the way that residents’ associations have thrown themselves into creating and nurturing beds and planters in public spaces, is a notable success of the Mini Holland scheme.
The council has experimented with different ways to filter roads. West Avenue uses a planter and removable wooden bollards that double as sign posts. While they look great, they each need two people to lift them out, so not ideal for emergency services.
Interestingly, this particular filter was not funded by the Mini Holland scheme at all, but by Network Rail. It’s sited on a railway bridge which needed strengthening to continue supporting car traffic. By turning it into a filter for people and bikes instead, Network Rail have saved themselves a fortune, and done residents a favour to boot.
Before coming to Waltham Forest I’d heard some bad press about the filtering, from Enfield friends who tried to reach somewhere in the borough by car, and got snarled up in what appeared to be a warren of one-way streets and dead ends. I could imagine that was frustrating – perhaps people’s sat navs will need updating and clearer signage provided – but the benefits for residents of keeping out through traffic were undeniable.
Basil Clarke was on the tour, and used to be a frequent visitor to this area in the 1970s and 1980s before moving to Palmers Green. ‘The traffic was heavy even then,’ he said, and Paul Gasson confirmed that until the filtering, the crossroads we were walking over had been a dangerous confluence of rat runs. Yet here we were, strolling along in the sunshine, able to hear birdsong and people talking at the far end of the street – with a 5-year-old child riding her bike right down the middle of the road. Paul says that he now lets his 10-year-old daughter cycle on her own to the park without any qualms about traffic.
Is it perfect? Nearly. The council allowed one through route in the ‘village’ to stay open, resulting in worse traffic on that road. They did this to appease opposition to the scheme and allow it to go ahead; in the future, hopefully, this road can also be filtered. Paul sees no reason for the council not to widen the filtered area to benefit more streets, so long as main roads are kept as through routes.
And has filtering increased traffic on main roads, causing congestion? It doesn’t appear so. This was a huge concern for some residents. Every so often roadworks or a burst pipe will cause a traffic jam and Mini Holland opponents immediately blame the scheme, but on the whole traffic appears unaffected. Here is reassurance, then, for residents concerned about the displacement of traffic in Enfield’s Mini Holland – for instance along Cecil Road if Church Street no longer gives access to cars. (Supporters of the scheme point to the phenomenon of ‘traffic evaporation‘: drivers choose other routes or other modes of transport, and the predicted traffic chaos never materialises.) The hope is that safer cycling routes on main roads and through filtered streets will also steadily result in fewer cars on the road, as fewer people need to drive local journeys.
We came to more businesses around a corner – a second hand furniture shop and a cafe. The shop owner was out on the pavement chatting to a customer. Had Mini Holland helped his business? I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Before they filtered the streets, this road was like: zoom – zoom – zoom. Cars racing past all the time. Now it’s like this. People walk around, take their time – it’s much more sociable. And nine months ago a cafe opened up next door.’
Parking for cycles
Only 20% of the cycling infrastructure is complete in Waltham Forest, but that was enough to give us a taste of what’s to come. Walthamstow Central station, for instance, has a two-storey ‘bike hub’. It offers secure parking for 80 cycles, plenty of outside bike parking, and even folding Brompton bikes for hire for £2.50 a day (the Brompton lockers have a blue roof and bike design, on the left in the photo below). The bike hub is already full to capacity so another one, holding 100 bikes, is being built on the other side of the station. The brand new Lea Bridge station has yet to open but a similar bike hub is already in place.
Major cycle routes
Another significant plank in the scheme is the provision of major cycle routes, linking secondary town centres, on Blackhorse Lane, Hoe Street, Ruckholt Road and Lea Bridge Road. Of those that are built, there’s a mixture of designs: some cycle lanes are at pavement level, separated from the footway by a lip of concrete. Other sections are on the carriageway, semi-segregated from cars by a dotted line of ‘orcas’ (curved lumps of plastic fixed at intervals along the white line – this is the design that we will mostly get in Enfield.)
What makes these lanes much higher quality from what we’re used to in the UK is that they’re segregated from motor traffic; they’re at least 1.5 metres wide; and crucially, they don’t stop when it gets a bit tricky. In the photo above, the cycle lane doesn’t peter out at the mouth of the side road – it goes boldly across, at the same level as the footway, signalling clear priority over turning cars. At major junctions cyclists also get protective measures, such as being released 30 seconds ahead of motor traffic, or a ‘simultaneous green’ phase where all the cycles cross the junction at once while cars are held on red. This is planned at the Orient Way / Lea Bridge Road junction, and is a first in the UK. There are already several ‘tiger’ crossings – a zebra crossing with a cycle crossing next to it. You can go straight across without pressing a button, getting off your bike, or mingling with pedestrians. Cycle lanes don’t give up at bus stops either; the lane ‘bypasses’ or runs around the back of the bus stop, on an island where passengers get on and off.
The bus bypasses have worked well here, says Paul, but one bus ‘boarder’ that was badly designed in an early part of the scheme has not. At bus boarders passengers wait on the pavement, then cross the cycle lane to get onto the bus. Boarders can work, but in this case the pavement is so narrow and so busy that passengers tend to stand in the cycle lane and there have been near-misses with cyclists. No one has been hurt, but the council are planning to change it after local cycle campaigners showed them video footage of the boarder in action.
In Enfield, a mix of bus bypasses and boarders is proposed. Some boarders were upgraded to bypasses in the A105 plans after ECC raised it as a concern for busy areas of the high street. In less busy areas, bus boarders should be fine – they work in plenty of European cities. But it’s something we should monitor when the scheme goes in.
The most impressive cycle route so far is on Lea Bridge Road. When complete, it will have equally wide lanes for pedestrians and bikes on each side of the road, and motor traffic will be slowed to 20mph. The grass verge gives an extra sense of security and distance from motor vehicles. The surface is comfortable too. ‘Like riding on velvet,’ commented one of our group.
Will these lanes get more people on bikes? I think a less-confident cyclist would feel safe on them. As a parent I’d certainly be happy to let my children cycle on infrastructure like this, and in Waltham Forest they are already seeing more kids on bikes. Paul Gasson, in his indefatigable support for Mini Holland, leads family bike rides every week. Last weekend he was involved in the ‘Tour de Waltham Forest’ which saw over 100 children cycling on a route around the borough. There has been a sudden spike in the number of schools with active travel plans too. Shifting the school run to walking or cycling could have a dramatic effect both on traffic levels and on children’s health.
Lessons for Enfield?
As Enfield residents, what can we learn from all this? Obviously, we were only there for a few hours, and there was a limit to the information Paul could get across to us in that time. We’re also a very different borough. But several points struck me.
It’s not all about bikes
Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland slogan is Walk, Cycle, Enjoy Waltham Forest, and that seems apt. The most striking benefits had nothing to do with bikes: attractive planting; relaxed, traffic-free streets; a high street that makes people linger; a sense of safety for children. If people in Enfield could see this they might stop saying, ‘Why are we spending all this money on cyclists?’
The non-cycling benefits may become more obvious when Enfield moves on to the ‘Quieter Neighbourhoods’ part of the scheme for residential streets, though it’s not clear yet what that will involve.
Working in partnership
Waltham Forest council has been shrewd about partnering with others, such as with residents’ associations to provide and maintain planting, or with Network Rail to create filters. Also with business – when a big new development comes along there is usually money to be had for Mini Holland-type projects from something called Section 106. No, I’d never heard of it either, but apparently it funded a cycle lane and a crossing to a primary school… Our council could look for ways to forge similar partnerships.
The Waltham Forest experience shows that a noisy minority can’t actually stop a scheme from going ahead, even if they do interrupt its launch with a coffin. Like the opponents of Enfield’s Mini Holland, they tried to take the council to court. They were spectacularly unsuccessful. It’s a brave council that decides to carry out unpopular-seeming changes such as filtering roads; or in Enfield’s case, replacing parking with bike lanes and re-routing traffic off Church Street. But in Waltham Forest we witnessed what reclaiming streets from traffic does to quality of life – especially for those too young, too old or too vulnerable to fill in a consultation form, or to shout at a public meeting – and it cannot be underestimated.
Some of us cycled back to Enfield along the River Lea, weary but enjoying the sight of herons, swans and grebes on the river, and people chilling out in their houseboats. Emerging at Ponders End into the traffic on Hertford Road was a rude shock. And when I somehow made it home to Palmers Green in one piece, I heard someone describing our annual shopping festival on Green Lanes that day as ‘a traffic jam swamping a festival’. Clearly, Enfield’s population is far more car-dependent than Waltham Forest’s, and we have a long way to go to achieve a fairer balance for walking and cycling. But all the more reason to take inspiration from what we’ve seen, and to press ahead.