Reducing car use and encouraging active travel can help reduce emissions and lower pollution levels

How Southwark council is cutting cars and boosting health

With funding from a local health trust, Southwark Borough Council is taking measures to encourage active travel and support areas most affected by child obesity and poor air quality. Reducing car use forms part of Action 23 of the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils

How is this tackling the climate crisis?

Streetspace Schemes are areas with measures to cut car use and boost walking and cycling.

In addition to the Southwark Streetspace Plan, Southwark Borough Council created the Movement Plan which sets out the authority’s approach to travel in and around the borough. The plan makes the health and wellbeing of locals a clear priority for new policy measures, with a focus on making active travel more attractive – so residents make shorter journeys on foot or bicycle, rather than using private vehicles.

The Movement Plan was created in 2019, and recognition of the health benefits led Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation to fund Southwark Borough Council £250,000 towards the plan to improve air quality and reduce obesity.

The steps the authority took included:

  • new traffic filters (measures to prioritise walking and cycling by preventing motor vehicles from travelling down certain roads)
  • temporary footway widening
  • dropped kerbs, to make crossings safer
  • improved crossing points
  • extra seats and benches
  • improved cycling accessibility

Pilot schemes were run in low-income areas with schools, poor air quality, and above-average levels of childhood obesity. Pilots were also targeted at areas rated poorly on the Mayor of London’s ‘Healthy Streets’ indicators, which identify how relaxing and accessible an area is for walking.

The areas where the project has taken place will be part of a wider evaluation comparing active travel levels with those in control areas with similar demographics, street characteristics and health indicators.

What impact has it had?

The local authority is aiming to emulate the recent success of similar schemes in the nearby London Borough of Lambeth. At Tulse Hill in south Lambeth measures increased cycle use by over 50%, while private car use dropped by more than 10%. Other schemes in Railton in the same borough increased cycling by 40%, with private car use reducing by over 20%.

The council partnered with Healthy Streets to monitor the project with an evaluation due in the second half of 2022. This will cover:

  1. How the street looks and functions, using the Healthy Streets Check for Designers (HSCD). 
  2. What people think of the street – residents’ views have been collected through the Clearview community research project, Southwark Council Commonplace websites, and Southwark Council’s online consultation.
  3. How people are using the street, based on traffic and radar counts of vehicle numbers and speed, and video camera footage of levels of walking and cycling.

The council targeted measures at areas close to schools with high rates of air pollution and youth obesity to actively prioritise vulnerable communities, and ensure that the greatest benefits can be felt by these groups.

All 10 Streetspace Schemes that have now been introduced in Southwark have been made permanent, with only changes to timings and access made to some schemes.

What made it work?

Political will and “Experimental Orders”

A significant amount of political will is required for a project like this. Throughout public consultation processes and as road spaces are redesignated, private vehicle owners are highly likely to object. In Southwark, there was a clear political will from cabinet members to rise above this and carry out risk assessments whilst continuing to engage communities on the significant and wide-ranging benefits that these road changes create.

Southwark introduced multiple Streespace Schemes via an Experimental Order (a legal document which imposes temporary traffic and parking restrictions). This has been crucial in avoiding long waits for an initial consultation, which can take up to a year. It’s also allowed the council to quickly and easily demonstrate the value and benefits to local residents of Streetspace Schemes, with many chances to engage with residents at the site of new measures.

Community engagement

Community engagement has been an essential part of this project. The council has used the online tool Commonplace as well as more traditional methods such as surveys, letters to residents, school engagement and working with local community groups.

In addition, to better understand local opinions, the council and Healthy Streets included a group of community researchers to engage with residents of different ages, genders and ethnicities to understand local opinions on the newly implemented measures.

The use of community researchers allows for a fairer indication of local responses. Residents who may normally be hesitant in sharing their views with a local authority-led project are more likely to voice their opinions to a fellow community member.

Initial indications from residents towards the council’s actions on active travel are mixed – but show that many are in support of the measures. Others are concerned about whether this should be the council’s priority. It’s important to consider this mixed response was very likely and that it’s still important for the council to hear the resident’s views. The researchers found that people appreciated being able to talk to someone rather than only have the option to submit views online.

What resources were needed?

This project was initially funded by a £250,000 grant from the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation, designed to create a maximum public health benefit at the lowest possible cost. As well as covering the installation and development of several active travel measures, this funding covered impact evaluations and reporting. The funding also paid an officer at the council to progress the scheme, as well as consultation work within the community.

The funding was a starting point, but certain interventions such as zebra crossings and raised junctions could not be implemented on this budget. However, the council did discover ways to make resources stretch further, such as using temporary kerbs to widen footways in a more economical way.

Lessons learned

When introducing Streetspace Schemes, it’s important to be prepared for potential public resistance, and be prepared to change some aspects of the plans – but not to let this be a barrier overall to implementing crucial measures. It’s essential to get wide buy-in for these measures across the council to withstand and counter objections.

Effective and early community engagement has been shown, in Southwark and elsewhere, to be vital. Co-design can help to overcome objections. The council has learned that a good way of engaging with residents is to meet them and discuss their concerns at the actual sites of the Streetspace Schemes. This allows for a proper explanation of the measures, bringing to life the real benefits they bring, such as improvements to health and the local economy.

The coronavirus pandemic reduced the authority’s funding from Transport for London, which altered the type of work the council could implement. Transport for London also had to place its traffic signalling team onto the government furlough scheme, a further barrier to scaling up action. This meant the body could not collaborate with the council to create more appropriate active travel measures, such as extending crossing times at pedestrian crossings.

Useful information

Southwark’s partnership with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation has ensured a focus on delivering health benefits as well as cutting emissions, targeting measures to locations that will benefit vulnerable communities.

There are important lessons here for community engagement on controversial issues. When ready, the monitoring data – both on residents’ views and the impacts of the measures – will have importance beyond this borough.

Councils should also encourage a shift of remaining car use to electric vehicles to further cut emissions (Actions 20, 24, 25).

Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that council is doing.

This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth.

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