Car-free neighbourhoods: the unlikely new frontline in the culture wars

Covid measures to encourage cycling and walking in UK cities should have been a victory for the environment and wellbeing. So why are communities so divided?

On a rainy Tuesday evening, a couple of weeks ago, Tom – not his real name, for reasons that will become clear – took his 12-year-old son to football practice. Training is two miles away, and usually they would travel by car. But, over the summer, the area where they live in Ealing, west London, was designated a low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN). This meant that its streets would be altered to encourage “active transport” such as cycling and walking, typically by placing planters and bollards across key intersections. The introduction of the LTN scheme in Ealing had created confusion among motorists and congestion on the main roads. It also led Tom to dig out his bicycle, which he bought when he moved to London in 2003 but which had been gathering dust for 15 years.

The journey to football was unremarkable, wobbling through unfamiliar streets, scrabbling to make it on time. Cycling back, though, the rain falling harder now, a strange feeling came over Tom. “There were no cars around,” he recalls. “It was dark. It was wet. But it was magical. It was just seeing the place where I live in a totally different light. Everybody’s quite angry at this moment in time, and I just felt – for the first time in a long while – that lift and that mood change.” When he and his son got home, they decided they would go on their bikes again the following week. “I hope maybe when he gets older, if we keep it up, he’ll remember cycling to football with his dad,” Tom says. “Rather than sitting in the back seat of the car.”

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