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Slow Streets



A Slow Street in Barcelona - this image is from Luke Spray's excellent Twitter thread on this topic which features many more examples.  Click here for more

Greetings from the Plague House. Two of us caught Covid this week, so I thought we needed a more cheerful topic. What's a Slow Street, I hear you ask? Slow Streets aren't just those where someone sticks up a limit board saying 20 KPH or plonks down one of those annoying roundabouts in the middle to calm traffic. I have seen some of this work going on around my home town - for example, tree plantings in the middle of some of our already narrow streets, but didn't understand the rationale behind it, so here goes.

What do we mean  by Slow Streets?

Slow Streets are ordinary urban streets which have been transformed to be more people friendly, not just spaces optimised for cars. Some may ban cars altogether, though delivery vehicles are usually allowed.  The main thing is that cars take second place to walkers, cyclists, scooters, the disabled, the elderly, people who want to sit and children who want to play. This is usually achieved through the use of barriers, plantings and visual markings such as signs on the road (see above), but may extend to widening footpaths or removing car parks and parking spaces.

Although the idea predates the pandemic – Paris for example had 1000 kms of cycleways well before the Pandemic as did a number of other European cities as part of their emissions reduction strategies, but the pandemic turbo -charged it in a number of ways, providing both greater need and the opportunity.

As traffic slowed and people began to work from home, they still wanted outdoor exercise despite many parks being closed. For those who still had to travel to work, cycling became more popular as people sought to avoid having to travel on crowded transport. Paris even offered a 500 subsidy for the purchase of electric bikes and people began to line up at bicycle shops in their thousands.  Italy introduced a 70% subsidy on bicycle purchases to reduce capacity on subways to allow more social distancing and Milan opened 35 km of bike paths. Restaurants began to expand into outdoor areas to enable them to operate effectively despite social distancing. 

The benefits of Slow Streets

The streets became quieter, cleaner and safer and there were other advantages too such as reduced emissions and pollution. Poor air quality is the cause of many respiratory and pulmonary ailments. They were also much more pleasant places to be, especially for the elderly, the disabled and young children.

Another reason why Slow Streets got a boost during the pandemic, was the injunction to “Build Back Better,” to resurrect the fortunes of ailing businesses. This saw the UK allocating £250 million for cycleways, footpaths and bus and cycle only lanes.To encourage walking and cycling for short journeys, the UK Department of Transport has also instituted a Cycle to Work program for employers. This involves tax breaks via salary sacrifice for employees, or for loans by the employer for the purchase of bikes and safety equipment which may be tax deductible, in return for providing facilities such as secure parking, showers and change rooms. See their freely downloadable instruction manual. So far 40,000 employers are involved, 1.6 million commuters have taken up cycling and the UK government expects to reap a reduction in public health costs as people become fitter and healthier. 

One of the big pluses for City Planners and the like is that Slow Streets don’t necessarily require major or costly alterations. See for example what Barcelona has been able to achieve with planters, paint and umbrellas and its Super Blocks. As our cities warm in unprecedented ways, Slow Streets can also help to keep temperatures down and reduce heat stress. It is also a win for those who want to see “less car dependence and more walkability” for environmental reasons.

Some criticisms

Yet, despite the many pluses, not everyone is thrilled about the Slow Street concept. Some people questioned why, if parks were off - limits during the pandemic to avoid the spread of infection, they were now being encouraged to exercise and mix and mingle in their street? While some communities were celebrating the fact that children could once again ride bikes safely on the street, the number of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians had also increased.

In poorer, more marginalised communities, Slow Streets have made life more difficult for those residents who still had to commute log distances.Those who involved in delivery of food or goods were especially likely to find them a hindrance rather than a blessing. Others argue that closing off some streets has simply driven more noise, traffic and congestion elsewhere, making more pleasant places for some, but creating worse conditions for others. Even worse, residents often had little say in the planning.

Another criticism comes from communities which fear that it’s a middle-class thing which will only lead to more gentrification. They fear that making areas more attractive to middle class residents, housing prices would go up and become unaffordable for existing residents. There is some anecdotal evidence of this among some early adopters such as Oakland in the USA.

However, the answer according to Corine Kishner, Executive Director of the US National Association of City Transport Officials as reported in Bloomberg, is not to abandon the idea of the Slow Street but rather to move slowly, communicate well and make sure there is ample community consultation beforehand, rather than top-down imposition by enthusiastic town planners and traffic engineers. 

Slow Streets are nice. You hear the birds sing, feel the fresh air and sunshine on your face and don't need to live in fear of being clipped by a car, though good separation is important. 


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