Streets for People or Streets for Cars? Newcastle, it’s time to choose

A whole-day event took place in the Civic Centre, on Saturday 11 March, bringing together groups from the three areas Newcastle Council has selected for its ‘Streets for People’ project.

Residents and councillors from Jesmond, Heaton & Ouseburn, Fenham & Arthur’s Hill came to hear talks from Cllr Ged Bell (cabinet member for Investment and Development), Graham Grant (Head of Transport), Jon Little and John Dales (consultants from Phil Jones Associates). The presentations were inspiring and if these words can be translated into action we could achieve some great stuff with the £3 million set aside for this project.

Ged Bell outlining the vision for Streets for People

There were lots of very positive talks about the necessity to tackle the serious issue of traffic blight in residential areas including air pollution, unpleasant and dangerous cycling and walking conditions and streets which are not safe for children to play in or travel to school on.

Following this there was time for the three groups to discuss potentials for proposals in their own areas. Unfortunately, this is where it all began to lose focus. Ged Bell had made some fantastic strong statements about the need to reduce traffic in residential areas by removing through traffic. This policy is key to making any improvements for walking and cycling in these areas. Graham Grant had highlighted the need to take an area-wide approach to planning, something which he stated was a failure of DIY streets. However, when it got down to it, some of the proposals appear not to be adopting these principles.

This is a statement from Newcastle Council about the project:

‘Using their local knowledge, people can tell us what is stopping them from enjoying their area and making more journeys on foot or on bike. The ideas and issues raised will be analysed and used by community groups and street designers to prepare proposals to address residents’ concerns and improve local communities.’

In the some of the groups, tackling rat-running didn’t seem to be high on the agenda and it was unclear how proposals for particular sites fitted into a longer term plan. Whilst there isn’t the money to put in fully separated cycle lanes on the main roads in the three areas, it would be good to identify streets which would benefit from this in the future so that future investment can be prioritised. In addition, it was also unclear how all of the plans fitted in with a citywide plan. It is hoped that this will be addressed in the coming weeks.

Jesmond Streets for People workshop

In one of the Streets for People areas, Jesmond, we already have a new cycle route running along what should be a quiet residential street, Highbury, but which is used as a rat run with average speeds which are considerably higher than the speed limit. Residents on that street have been writing to complain about traffic for many years. Part of this cycle route also runs on a street (Forsyth Road) which, during rush hour, can only be described as a car park with a traffic jam down the middle. And this is the time when most cyclists want to use it. You have to wonder, if it isn’t possible to make a cycle route safe, do we really stand a chance on other streets? Streets for People will certainly be a test of the council’s commitment to creating high quality cycle routes.

We’d love to support the council’s plans and hope that they are going to be good enough for many other people to support too, but in order for this to happen, they do need to be  bold enough to make the experience of walking on, cycling down or living on these streets much better than it is now. No one wants minor changes which help no one and inconvenience everyone. In previous schemes for the city there has been no political support for building consensus around traffic reduction, this was one of the major failings of CCAF 1. It was great to see so many local councillors at the event and it is now up to them to push for high quality plans that actually work.

Some residents in all three areas have major reservations about being involved in this project having been seriously let down by DIY Streets, which notably failed to improve the areas around two primary schools in the city suffering from high levels of traffic and dangerous parking. It is important to acknowledge that local people are being asked to spend time and energy on something which ought to be their right in the first place – everyone should have the right to live in a neighbourhood which is not dominated by traffic and is safe for walking and cycling. Newcastle Council has stated that it does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, therefore we hope this time round to see rational plans and transparent decision making.

In a time when Newcastle is facing huge financial problems, we need to spend every penny of this funding wisely. We would like Newcastle to be a nice, clean, green city where everyone who wants to walk and cycle can do so. We hope Newcastle Council can turn those nice words into action now.