Setting wheels in motion

Writer and cyclist James Burgess talks to Councillor Clyde Loakes about the latest progress with Mini Holland

Mini Holland tour

Councillor Clyde Loakes leads a cycling tour of the Mini Holland projects so far completed in Waltham Forest

I spent much of last year cycling across Europe, on a tour from London to Greece, and then through France and Spain later in the summer. It was incredible to ride on quiet roads and well-designed cycle lanes across the continent.

Having recently moved to Leytonstone, I was excited to hear about the work that Waltham Forest Council was doing to create more ‘liveable streets’ through its groundbreaking Mini Holland project, having won a £27m pot of money from Transport for London (TfL) to improve cycling across the borough.

The scope of the work is potentially revolutionary. Data from similar projects on the continent point clearly to improved air quality, health benefits, reduced demand on health services, lower congestion and better residential areas, not to mention the economic benefits to the local community.

But for it to be a success, it has to be safe for pedestrians and cyclists, and easy to get around for young and old alike. It has to be for all kinds of cyclists; people who just want to travel to the shops by bike, take their kids to school, or commute to work, as well as for the sports enthusiasts.

I was initially sceptical and disappointed, riding around Walthamstow and Leyton one gloomy December day, as small sections of segregated bike lane gave way to busy roads, or made me dodge bollards in the cycle track. I contacted Councillor Clyde Loakes, the man responsible for delivering the project, to find out more.

Clyde joined me on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning to take me on a tour of the parts of Mini Holland completed so far. He was riding one of the new Urbo dockless hire bikes now available around the borough. Anyone can use the bikes by downloading an app, paying £1 for a year’s membership, and then 50p for every 30 minutes use.

We started off in Forest Road, outside the William Morris Gallery, where a team of workers were putting in the latest section of segregated lane that will eventually run the whole length of the road. Just around the corner, we turn into Greenleaf Road, and suddenly the traffic noise disappears.

“Two years ago, there were 2,500 vehicles constantly up and down this road every day,” Cllr Loakes says. “Now, with a modal filter at the end, that’s been cut to just tens, and you can ride along the road without fear of coming into conflict with cars. The road closures have also made it easier for residents to set up play streets and street parties.”

The ‘modal filter’ road closures allow cyclists and pedestrians through, but stop cars, and have transformed busy rat-runs into pleasant residential streets. Or, should I say, restored them most of the roads are Victorian streets that weren’t built with the car in mind.

We continue to ride along to one of the bike hangars the council is installing across the borough, where residents can securely store their bikes in on-street parking spaces. Clyde says: “In the next couple of months, we should have over 200 of these across the borough. I think we’ve got something like a thousand people requesting them in their roads. We had none three years ago, and now we can’t keep up with demand.”

Just along the road at Stoneydown Park Primary School in Pretoria Avenue, there’s been a transformation of the school rush hour: “The school drop-off used to be like ‘carmageddon’. This was all of the reasons why you’d want to do something.” A supportive local community helped to achieve the transformation. “They’ve got a good school travel plan, and they’re working with the parents, with the staff, with the wider school community to reduce the impact of car-borne journeys at drop-off and pick-up.”

At Blackhorse Road Station, you can see the potential for what the scheme can deliver. The two main roads are busy with cars, vans and lorries, and there are hundreds of bikes locked up outside the station on cycle hoops, fences, railings and poles.

Mini Holland tour

James Burgess tests out one of the new modal filters

The junction will be transformed with funding from TfL while, at Walthamstow Central, you get a glimpse of what the station could be like. The council has put in cycle hubs; large, secure glass sheds where people cycling to the station can lock their bike. There’s also a Brompton bike hire scheme, something you can also find at Leyton and Leytonstone tube stations.

Next, Cllr Loakes leads us along Orford Road in Walthamstow, one of the pedestrianised high streets created through Mini Holland funding. The project was not universally popular when it was brought in, with some concerned about the lack of motor vehicle access. But it’s hard to argue that the street is not a better place. It’s now pleasant to walk and cycle along, and has brought more people to the shops and cafés in the area.

Clyde says: “Look at the pictures of what it used to look like. You could barely walk down here and you would have vans parked up on either side of the road, half on the pavement, half on the road, it was not a great place.”

The biggest chunk of Mini Holland funding is being used to transform the busy Lea Bridge Road every cyclist’s nightmare as you battle with traffic, potholes, and car doors opening without warning. Once work is completed, there will be a segregated lane the length of the road, providing cyclists with a safe 2.5-mile route from Hackney to Whipps Cross Roundabout.

It would be great to see more of this sort of infrastructure. My concern is that without further investment, some of the projects won’t be able to deliver on the aspirations of the original plan. In the Netherlands, if a bike lane is not safe for an eight-year-old to ride along on his or her own, then it is not a proper bike lane.

As my tour with Cllr Loakes concludes, I ask how the money the council has spent compares to that in great cycling cities like those in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany: “Nowhere near! I don’t even begin to think that three years after the council began working with TfL we’ve suddenly changed our streetscape, but you know, it will take some time to get there.”