Down with cars! Up with pedestrians!
A new transport plan is set to give us a taste of Barcelona at home
Today we have a great piece by David Bocking about active travel in Sheffield and how our neighbourhoods will be redesigned to benefit pedestrians and cyclists.
Yesterday, we sent The Tribune’s 618 paying members a review of The Felling, a new film about the Sheffield tree protests. To read that piece, subscribe below.
By David Bocking
Olivia glances at her watch: it’s five past three in the Loxley Valley and she’s in a rush — she needs to pick up her son from school, the fridge is bare and she’s hoping to make it to the supermarket first. She’s been trying to walk more, but the days get away from her and she defaults to driving. She grabs her keys to the Land Rover and slams the door behind her. Sod’s law, she thinks, as the traffic lights at Hillsborough Corner turn red.
An elderly man with a walking frame makes his way past her and she watches him go: he’s conspicuous in a red scarf, strange for this time of the year. It’s been so sunny recently. Alfie weaves his way round the metal barriers and railings guiding him to a crossing point, then waits. After Olivia’s Land Rover and the rest of the traffic forges past him, he checks for trams and crosses, then waits on an island in the centre of the road again for the lights, which eventually turn green. He’s lightly perspiring now, slowly making his way around the corner onto Middlewood Road a couple of minutes after setting off on his 25-yard journey.
Modern journey planning is full of controversy, and why wouldn’t it be? We all have somewhere to get to, and we all have to get there somehow. One thing’s for certain: After last week’s dangerous air pollution figures and city centre traffic jams, we know change has to come. It’s complicated, say the professionals in their public consultation documents.
But if you take a step back and consider how Sheffielders actually travel around Hillsborough or Crookes or Darnall, the complexity dissolves. One question dominates: do we think Olivia’s journey by car is more important than that of Alfie’s, a pedestrian? If not, why have we made getting around our city so easy for one, and so difficult for the other?
Paul Sullivan hails from Hillsborough, and as someone who is often out and about, watches parents with pushchairs and toddlers in cargo bikes wait their turn while cars continue on their way on a daily basis. After years as a senior transport planner for Sheffield City Council, he finally feels he can do something about it.
“The number one aim here has been to get traffic and public transport through the junction as quickly as possible, and pedestrians are the ones who have to go out of their way to accommodate that,” he says. “They’re at the bottom of the transport hierarchy, whereas they should be at the top, particularly if you want a thriving local economy.”
Fortunately, if you look at the figures, change is coming — or at least being prompted by investment. By 2024, upwards of £100 million will have been spent to enable more people to get around South Yorkshire under the active travel strategy of South Yorkshire Combined Authority Mayor Dan Jarvis. It’s about “rebalancing” says Dame Sarah Storey, who helped start pulling in proper funding for human-powered travel when she became the mayor’s Active Travel Commissioner in 2019.
“In the past, we’ve always inconvenienced pedestrians and cyclists,” she says. “But now we’re trying to shift a bit of that inconvenience towards motorists.” She tells me that it’s worth considering the fact that a third of households in South Yorkshire don’t actually have access to “a motor vehicle.”
The local cycling lobby is very vocal and effective, notes Pete Zanzottera, Dame Sarah’s Active Travel Project Director, but it’s important to remember that walkers, runners, bus passengers, and wheelchair users are active travellers too.
After three years, Pete and Sarah can reel off lots of gorgeous and surprising data (potentially worth recycling when piecing together your next local pub quiz) about how people actually travel here. A third of trips of 500 metres or less in South Yorkshire are made by car, for example. Yet two-thirds of people in South Yorkshire want less traffic in their neighbourhoods.
Pete implies that one key issue — perhaps unsurprising to the walkers amongst us — is that pedestrians are just very lovely people who don’t like to complain too much. He tells me that while there’s plenty of people who drive each day, there’s more that walk. “For some reason, those people who walk are very quiet, and don’t complain when their walk is not very nice. But when you ask them if their local neighbourhood is OK, they say, well, we could do with a bit less traffic.”
He talks about the old town in Barcelona. People love those sorts of places, he says, where there’s very little traffic, but lots of people walking, talking and socialising together. Barnsley and Beighton might not turn into Barcelona overnight (even with global warming, we’re a way off from Spanish-level sunshine), but Dame Sarah says she’d like to see as many “active neighbourhoods” in South Yorkshire as possible.
And it’s not about what’s happening tomorrow — it’s about what’s already here. In Kelham Island, for example, Little Kelham Street is designed so kids can play on their own, neighbours can talk, parked cars are hidden away, and road surfacing, bends and build-outs make visiting drivers feel uncomfortable driving much quicker than a brisk walking pace.
“You could imagine you were in the Netherlands,” says Paul Sullivan. “This is designing for people, rather than the car, without actually excluding cars.” He tells me this is exactly the kind of thing they hope to achieve in Sheffield’s residential areas.
Tribbers looking for a taste of the piazza-lifestyle — sipping lemonades in the sunshine while watching their kids play — should head to Crookes and Nether Edge. People-first design is arriving there this summer, where two trial active neighbourhood schemes will curtail through traffic, still allow car access when needed, but prioritise people walking, cycling and socialising. (The schemes are temporary to see how they work, but planners are already hearing from other neighbourhoods wanting similar changes).
And now Pinstone Street has been formally opened up for pedestrians and cyclists but closed off for through motor traffic, Sheffield will soon have one of the country’s finest city centre active travel routes, says Pete Zanzottera, to help make the city centre feel that little bit more like Barcelona too.
Plus, there’s even more good-mood news: A route for walkers, runners and cyclists along the Sheaf Valley arrives this summer (with reduced car parking and a closure to through motor traffic under the old Little London Road rail bridge), an improved city centre to Kelham Island route should be here by the end of the year, and routes to Nether Edge and Attercliffe should follow in 2023.
Paul Sullivan has calculated that £25 million a year over the next 25 years should build an active travel network that will reduce the need to travel by car and increase cycling to 15% of trips (or over 20% if national proposals to incentivise e-bike purchases finally arrive). But new thinking suggests that network could arrive quicker (and cheaper) if more neighbourhoods are subtly changed, with planters and minor road changes, to favour people-powered travel, which could then be joined up to create a network of neighbourhoods.
Of course, this is extremely exciting news for some and concerning news for others. Retailers often worry that making car access less convenient will deter customers and drastically reduce trade, but Pete Zanzottera maintains that evidence from around the world shows otherwise.
“If you listen to retail businesses, they’re interested in footfall, not wheelfall,” he says, adding that retail habits are changing too, to favour more local ad-hoc shopping and fewer big shops at the supermarket. Paul Sullivan added: “One solution is to make local district centres more attractive places to be, so you don’t think you have to go to a retail park or Meadowhall.”
“Retailers worry about drivers not being able to park outside their shop, come in and buy something and then drive away again,” says Pete. But he says it’s key to remember that this is just one transaction. “The evidence tells us that walkers and cyclists spend more at local shops than drivers, partly because they often visit several places in one trip.”
National and local government are not philanthropists: one main reason so much investment is going into walking and cycling is the vast financial cost of inactivity, which is behind a host of illnesses, he says. “If we don’t start designing activity back into people’s lives, we’re going to bankrupt the nation on servicing people who are not very well.”
Pete Zanzottera and Dame Sarah Storey will head over the Pennines in May to start work on Manchester’s active travel programme. Pete says they’re going simply because their jobs were tied to Mayor Jarvis, who hands over to a new mayor soon. But he added that he expects the local active travel programme to continue without them, under the watchful eye of Chris Boardman and Active Travel England, who will ensure new walking and cycling facilities are up to scratch before they get funded.
Designing streets and neighbourhoods for people, not cars, will make our towns and cities safer, more pleasant and more equitable, say the planners, for Alfies and Olivias (even if the Olivias aren’t too sure about it at first). “It’s absolutely blindingly obvious for those of us working in active travel that the solution is to have fewer vehicles driving less often,” says Pete. “But for some, the transition to that place will involve some pain.”