Understanding the new normal. Engaging the community in developing active travel solutions

Like many other people working in highways and transport planning I have been involved in discussions over the past few weeks focused on how we need to adjust the layout of our streets and places to accommodate the new conditions in which we must live our lives.

This new normal means in many towns and cities we are trying to work out how we can make best use of our existing street networks and transport systems. The message has now come from the top that wherever possible we need to enable more people to make walking and cycling trips instead of public transport trips.

This is of course to try and ensure that public transport trips are not replaced by private cars trips. The main reason being our street networks don’t really cope with traffic in normal conditions. This additional congestion from people switching to car would quickly grind cities to a halt. 

Not to mention the fact this isn’t normal; we actually need that space for people to walk to the local shops. Then there’s the usual reasons and the potential link between air pollution and Covid-19 transmission which adds further weight to the argument that mass car use certainly isn’t the answer.

Currently, local authorities throughout the country are reacting to immediate issues and planning for a short to medium term with little idea what funding they may have and to a certain extent what they are planning for. Whilst they know what now looks like they have no idea what it will look like on a rainy November evening. Councils are therefore quite rightly asking the general public and stakeholders what changes they think should be made to streets to support more walking and cycling.

I was thinking what lessons we, who were involved in the Enjoy Waltham Forest programme can hand on to people embarking on developing similar schemes in the next few years. There's lots that is transferable, from the use of temporary materials for the trial in Walthamstow Village to how we helped community groups help residents during tube line closures.  

My involvement in the programme began with a relatively small commission to look at a concept design for a cycle super highway for Lea Bridge Road for inclusion in the response to the initial expression of interest from the borough's. This grew into being the lead author for the bid and then performing different roles in the project management team over the next 5 years.  

I hope to have other people join me to give their views, memories and top tips but for now I’m going to start by writing a bit about the early engagement stages and skip over the beginning and planning the concept that became the successful bid for funding for now.

So, let’s get started. Not necessarily where it started for me but let’s jump forward a bit to where people are now. Trying to figure out what streets should look like and what they want them to do.

I think it’s fair to say that when I started working with Waltham Forest on mini-Holland that they, like most local authorities weren’t that good at engagement. Most street design projects or transport schemes asked the public their opinion on a finished scheme. People of course either liked it or didn’t, could see the potential or couldn’t. Local people hadn’t fed into that process much so didn’t feel like the ideas were their own. So, as with most things when people are not sure they often went with the safer option of no thanks. Not always in massive numbers but often in enough number to force change that undermined street design schemes.

With something as potentially landscape changing as Mini-Holland (now Enjoy Waltham Forest) that wasn’t going to work. There needed to be a conversation with the community to build the solutions they wanted. The bid and subsequent programme borrowed all its best ideas. This included street design templates, supporting programmes and measures and the approach to engagement. Lots came from Lambeth where I’d been working previously, and this included the approach to speaking to the community.

In Lambeth I was working with the internal transport team to deliver an area-based traffic management programme called the Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme (or the NEP as we affectionately knew it). Lambeth was a cooperative council and resident involvement in decision making, strengthening communities, and encouraging involvement. The project board and governance reflected this with senior staff from a broader range of departments involved.  

An engagement strategy laid out how we were going to engage, including how we were going to ask people their views on proposals at the end. The idea was the scheme delivered more than just street design outcomes.  We developed a pretty simple approach, mapping data from traffic speed to existing community resources and groups. We then interrogated this information and presented back to the community but we also wanted people to understand what other people thought.

We engaged resident and community groups where feasible to help increase the reach of engagement. The key tool was a postcard that asked three simple questions. They were what do you like about your street, what don’t you like and what would you change if you could? (We borrowed the same approach recently in Levenshulme).

The information we got back from the postcards was used to develop ideas that could be developed further through co-design to solve issues people had identified by providing what people wanted more of. Crucially it wasn't just the ideas for modal filters and flowers we did something with. 

To build trust, and because it is the right thing to do, we found homes for the issues that fell out of scope of the project. The process also confirmed the fact that lots of anti social issues are actually street design issues. We worked with the local community to develop ideas with local residents from school children to resident architects. These ideas were then put back to the public but crucially to gain understanding of the most popular not to ask yes or no.

The programme was pretty successful in its own way. Not massive modal filtering or massive public realm changes but light touch interventions, lots of planting in place of street clutter, improved and breathed new life into public spaces and created some great new ones.  New resident groups formed, schools and community groups adopted planting and 300 trees were planted on street with Trees for Cities.

It wasn’t perfect, and arguably didn’t always bring the big change people wanted but it was a good example of how people can get involved in the conversation around streets. The project continues today and like all good projects now goes under a different name of the Our Streets programme. It’s also nice to see many of the original NEP areas now progressing into low traffic neighbourhoods as part of Lambeth’s response.

Fast forward to 2014 in Waltham Forest and we had been successful in securing £27 million for a ‘mini-Holland’. As mentioned, the scheme was pretty landscape changing as many people now know and again based on pretty simple design principles borrowed from elsewhere (mainly the Netherlands). The idea was pretty much to put high quality infrastructure on main roads where there was lots of traffic and not much cycling; and reduce the ability for motor traffic to travel through residential areas to make them better places to walk and cycle but also importantly live.

The real benefits for people who live there come from the transformation that is possible when you remove through traffic, or at least significantly reduce volumes. You can rethink how streets look, their purpose, and make them more about living there than moving through. Sounds great doesn’t it? We need to remember the bit about people not being so keen on change though don’t we.

The first problem was really that the scheme had already been framed as a scheme for those bloody cyclists. Then there was the name and the fact it was part of then Mayor of London Boris Johnson's cycling revolution. But let’s try and ignore the noise for a minute as we had to. What we needed to do and what was included in the original bid, (and borrowed from Lambeth) was the need to engage properly.

People were given the chance, whether they wanted it or not, to get involved in the rethinking and redesign of their local streets to make them great places to walk, cycle and importantly live. Originally included in the bid was an approach based upon trialling most proposals and working with the community to finalise them. Prior to funding being awarded the Council had to their credit, started asking people in the southern part of what would become the Walthamstow Village scheme about their streets and issues and opportunities. The feedback provided was absorbed into 'the village' area scheme and is now part of the award-winning area scheme.

The Walthamstow village area scheme was subject to the now famous trial. For those who don’t know a scheme was piloted for 3 weeks that removed the ability for motor traffic to travel through the Walthamstow Village area and roadspace was repurposed for people.

The trial was held as it provided an opportunity for people to experience the proposals firsthand. Going back again to people being able to imagine change, the trial meant they didn’t have to try and imagine what a 2d plan in a document full of confusing terms would be like in real life. The trial meant that whether they liked it or loathed it they could stand in the middle of a living consultation document talking about how great or how rubbish it was.

The trial offered lots of learning that will be useful to people in the coming months, particularly the temporary reuse of roadspace, but we’re focusing more on engagement at the moment. The current situation of course provides a good reason to try and reallocate space to people walking and cycling and probably more importantly enabling people to visit local shops and services in relative safety and comfort.

The council engaged a lot. There was an on-street presence most of the day asking people somewhat bravely to provide comments. There was a strong reaction which you can find easily with a google search including demonstrations, lots of online shenanigans and media coverage. There were issues.

Features were moved and added to solve problems mainly with people driving trying to get through the temporary barriers. It was of course important we understood how people felt about the temporary layout and how it could be refined.

We used among other approaches a likert scale survey to understand attitudes to the trial during and after it. This showed whist trialling the layout had certainly got people excited more people liked the idea after the trial than didn’t like it and by some way. It was then about refining the ideas and it got to the scheme that is in place today.

The trial was an integral part of the engagement approach for the Walthamstow Village scheme. Following the trial, the interest it raised not to mention the complexities of managing and engaging on such a scale, the approach moved on to using an online engagement platform. This was to enable people to feed in with issues, ideas and opportunities on top of outline project ideas. The platform chosen was Commonplace, now used on many similar projects including Levenshulme at the moment, and offering its platform to local authorities free as part of the response to Covid 19.

The use of Commonplace enabled the Council to engage on a number of projects concurrently with a relatively small team and importantly continue to have a conversation with the local community as the projects developed. The strength was that this was still based upon lots of people telling us their views about the streets they live in and travelled down. Why they did or more importantly why they didn’t walk and cycle and how things could be changed so they would.

It’s especially important to understand what people want from their streets at the moment and the coming weeks and months. If we want to avoid lots more car use its vital we understand what might enable them to walk and cycle more. Broadly we know the answer is better infrastructure, but people always need convincing that’s the case, that it will work where they live and work and unfortunately often start thinking the reverse.

It’s also important for relatively fit and healthy people to understand that there are lots of people who are currently afraid or being told not to come out of their houses at all. How do we at least make it possible for vulnerable people to get some sunlight in their own street? How do we provide more for people who don’t have gardens? We need to think about how to engage with them and what they may want from their streets not just think about how everyone can best cycle into town.

Local streets will become even more important to the people who live there in the next few years. We need to help them make them places people want to spend time again.  

So, what are the key lessons? Its worth noting that whilst I can proudly say Enjoy Waltham Forest projects are still to this day delivered using the 7 stage project delivery process I helped embed back in 2014, there have still been plenty of lessons learnt along the way. 

The process now includes lots of different engagement approaches and behaviour change programmes that enable people to engage in all kinds of ways. But back to basics as they used to say when stay alert was the sort of thing only a goalkeeper said to his back four. 

In some form of poetic justice I ended up working with Lambeth again to develop their Liveable Neighbourhood plan for Brixton, funded in 2019. The approach borrowed back the lessons from Waltham Forest. It completed the circle by placing community involvement in the heart of the project delivery process for Brixton, which Lambeth are now going great guns with. 

So what are the key lessons or pointers that are relevant for local authorities and others who want to see and help drive change at the moment?

I think some of them are:

Ask people what they don’t like about their streets?

Ask people what they want from their streets?

Help people understand why change is needed

Understand we might not get it right first time

Use the current need to trial changes but it is exactly that and can change things again if you need to

Give people a real-life example to experience even if its smaller than your aspirations

Ask people what they think about change?

Use that to guide decision making, make the scheme better and shape concept ideas for other places

Tell people why we need to change streets, how they will benefit and how they can help

Help people understand this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for real change