While most people are focused on saving lives in the current pandemic, yesterday MP for Kensington Felicity Buchan revealed she’d been spending her time rather differently. She released an extraordinary and long open letter opposing the road safety scheme on Holland Park Avenue and Notting Hill Gate on multiple grounds.
“While I support more cycling, I do not think CS10 is right for Kensington” she tweeted, which we would translate as “saving lives on hostile roads is not right for Kensington”.
Her motivation? She has received “so much correspondence” against the scheme – and goes on to regurgitate in her letter the misinformation being put out by the highly organised opposition, Save our Streets. We have called out Save Our Streets’ arguments and myths before – to see those points rebutted click here.
Ms Buchan seems to think all of Kensington hates the proposals. Yet in the weeks before the coronavirus shutdown, we were overwhelmed by the positive local response to our Safer RBKC campaign, both through talking to people on the street and online. In one week alone we saw 150 emails to the council supporting the Transport for London scheme, via our web page here.
Who would object to a road safety scheme?
The ‘Save Our Streets’ campaign opposes Transport for London’s scheme to stop the many injuries to people walking and cycling on these hostile roads. There were 32 casualties in 3 years on Holland Park Avenue alone, of which 16 were classed as ‘serious’. Save Our Streets is supported by local resident associations, businesses and even three schools.
But Save Our Streets is not saying anything new. It’s a classic case of ‘bikelash’ – organised opposition to bike lanes or any space taken from motor traffic. RBKC council should not be surprised. The same arguments have been used all over the world from New York to New Zealand. They are based on fears about pollution, congestion and harm to local business, but there’s no evidence for any of these ill effects, as our myth buster points out here. And the campaign does not mention the serious danger to those walking and cycling, how to make our streets less dominated by motor traffic, or how to get more people travelling actively in a borough beset by physical inactivity and toxic air.
There is another voice
Dismayed by all the opposition and misinformation, we launched our ‘Safer RBKC’ campaign . We advertised it on social media and via flyers handed out on the street. This led to all the emails stating strong support for the scheme, the vast majority of which were from people who live, work, travel or have children at school in RBKC. People, in other words, who have a very real stake in the area – who shop on the shops along Holland Park Avenue, who pass through often, or live right round the corner. These people tell us they want the scheme, indeed, they often tell us they are baffled and angry about the opposition to it. Talking to people on the street was a massive eye-opener for our group – we weren’t expecting such a positive reaction.
Nearly a quarter of the emails are from residents, for instance:
I have lived in RBKC all my life. I used to cycle to school along Holland Park Avenue. It was a shock that a small number of vested interests on Holland Park Avenue were able to derail a very good proposal.
I regularly frequent Holland Park, it’s close to where I live and is where my chemist is. Every time I am appalled about the sheer volume of motor vehicles and traversing the road is always an anxiety provoking ordeal. It shouldn’t be this way.
Those who work in the borough spoke out as well:
I have worked in Kensington for 26 years. I cycle to work every day and regularly feel scared by the behaviour of people driving cars. We need segregated space for cycling. This also improves the environment and safety of people walking
It’s time for RBKC to step into the 21st century, make the best use of available road space to prioritise streets for people. That means more people walking and cycling, and delivering this revised scheme.
Most heartbreaking were the emails from parents, like the mother concerned for her pre-school daughter breathing in toxic air on her way to nursery school and the father feeling stressed about crossing the road with his six-year old daughter.
Do cycle commuters not matter?
We lost count of the emails that said, “I have to travel through your borough on my daily commute and it’s the most stressful/unpleasant/dangerous part of my journey”. One email said:
“I cycle from home to work, but when I reach Kensington I am forced to get off and walk.”
Should these people be ignored because they are not RBKC residents? Shouldn’t any Londoners who choose to travel to work by bike, refusing to add to pollution and congestion, be given a safe, direct route? Instead, people riding bikes to work experience RBKC like a shark-infested river to be crossed without a bridge.
Moreover, RBKC is a hole in the city’s growing cycle network – a central, strategic hole that affects residents from many boroughs. The emails were from Southwark, Ealing, Lambeth, Hammersmith & Fulham, Wandsworth and beyond, all basically saying, ‘Please grant me (or my loved one) safe passage’. This central void is making London as a whole a less safe, sustainable, healthy city.
We need better leadership
Our campaign has shown that SoS wasn’t the only voice in the borough – just the best-organised one. While resident associations are important stakeholders who deserve to be heard, they aren’t representative of the whole borough or even in most cases, the neighbourhoods they operate in.
Sadly, RBKC has a tradition of ‘elite capture’ in consultations such as these. A tiny but well-resourced minority dominates the debate. Resident association members tend to be older, wealthier and more time-rich than the average resident, and more engaged with the political system. They tend to be small ‘c’ conservative, wary of change, protective of the status quo. They know how to get their views across and from the council’s point of view, theirs can sound like the only voice. But for a fairer society, the council should not be sitting back and letting these residents dominate the debate.
For a fairer society, the council should not be sitting back and letting these residents dominate the debate
Now we’re in a pandemic and that’s where the authorities need to focus their attention. But when it’s over, for this and any public consultation, the council needs to seek views from every demographic – in workplaces, businesses, schools, community groups and so on, using tools that are accessible for everyone (such as online mapping tools for consultations, and pop-up exhibitions in public places). They should also be tackling misinformation, and reassuring residents that their fears are unfounded. Indeed, the political leaders of Kensington & Chelsea – both our MP and councillors – appear to view political leadership as “echoing the voice of whoever shouts loudest”. In a climate crisis, as with other crises we are living through viscerally, political leadership needs to come from the front, to listen to residents – but also to show them principles and support plans that residents need to get behind.
If Ms Buchan and the council are genuinely listening to all residents, and many others with a stake in the borough, they will realise that there are many who want this scheme and many more who need it. Attacking it now, in the middle of this crisis, is not only wrongheaded, but incredibly insensitive and a waste of precious resources at this difficult time.