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No green light just yet to stop traffic 'rat run' through Columbia Road's famous flower market

PUBLISHED: 12:29 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:40 12 November 2019

Two householders at the Royal Oak residents' meeting in Columbia Road study the council's plans to close off their neighbourhood to traffic. Picrture: Mike Brooke

Two householders at the Royal Oak residents' meeting in Columbia Road study the council's plans to close off their neighbourhood to traffic. Picrture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

A packed evening meeting above a pub in the Columbia Road flower market heard from a Tower Hamlets Council planning officer why they should have a road barrier to keep traffic out of their neighbourhood.

What Tower Hamlets Council wants to do with Columbia Road. Picture: LBTHWhat Tower Hamlets Council wants to do with Columbia Road. Picture: LBTH

But the town hall's plans to stop 4,000 vehicles a day using Old Bethnal Green Road as a "rat run" have upset sceptical householders who fear the barrier would split the community.

Car-owners say they would be forced to make long detours if they're the wrong side of the barrier just to get to the main road.

"This plan has caused great stress," protester Nick Fiveash told the East London Advertiser. "A barrier divides the community into a north-south divide.

"We understand a need for cleaner air, but would have to make a two-mile detour to Cambridge Heath just to reach Queensbridge Road 400 yards away, adding fuel pollution and increasing main road traffic which defeats the object of cutting emissions."

Half the traffic along Old Bethnal Green Road is just avoiding the main roads, the planning official told the Jesus Green residents' meeting at the Royal Oak on Monday night.

The scheme would deter drivers from other parts of London short-cutting between Shoreditch and Cambridge Heath, he promised.

Angry neighbours lining the spot where the council wants a traffic barrier in Columbia Road which they say would divide the community. Picture: Nick FiveashAngry neighbours lining the spot where the council wants a traffic barrier in Columbia Road which they say would divide the community. Picture: Nick Fiveash

But the people from surrounding turnings fear the barrier would throw traffic onto their normally quiet streets. Some living around Jesus Green cited empty streets "safe enough to walk down the middle of the road".

The council maintains its Liveable Streets programme being rolled out in 17 areas across the East End is to improve air quality.

But even this has been challenged—and not just by car owners railing against the barrier.

Sara Dixon, who doesn't drive, argued that it won't prevent pollution drifting in from main roads which would become more congested, but would cause "massive disruption" to her life because her estate would be separated from the rest of the community.

"Invisible particles float everywhere," Sara points out. "This barrier is just moving the pollution slightly to the left and right of the schools, not eradicating it."

She suggests "more plants and trees to clean the air around us, not pushing problems into surrounding neighbourhoods."

Columbia Road flower market stallholders Shane and Yvonne Harnett fear the traffic barrier will uproot their livelihood. Picrture: Mike BrookeColumbia Road flower market stallholders Shane and Yvonne Harnett fear the traffic barrier will uproot their livelihood. Picrture: Mike Brooke

Ironically it's the flower market traders who could supply those trees and shrubs. But the stallholders worry that the barrier would uproot their livelihoods and choke Columbia Road's reputation.

Shane and Yvonne Harnett are pot-plant growers from Essex whose families have sold flowers down Columbia Road since the 1930s who were at the meeting.

Shane told the Advertiser: "We don't know where we'd be able to park to unload our bulky goods. We need our vehicles to be close to our market pitch.

"Pollution needs to be controlled, but has to be a balance between traders, shopkeepers and the people living here."

The council's Liveable Streets programme aims to stop rat-runs, to improve air quality and also to tackle street crime.

But residents rejected the idea that a barrier would prevent drug dealers in cars who would merely adapt to the environment, perhaps using motorbikes instead, one householder pointed out.

Mayor John Biggs turned up in Columbia Road with kids on bikes hoping residents would give his barrier the green light to stop through traffic. Picture: Kois MiahMayor John Biggs turned up in Columbia Road with kids on bikes hoping residents would give his barrier the green light to stop through traffic. Picture: Kois Miah

Public consultations are being held Thursday evening at the council's Professional Development centre in Bethnal Green Road, 5-7pm, to "make tweaks" for a final design. It follows air quality tests showing pollution around schools exceeding recommended EU limits, with Tower Hamlets having the fifth worst levels of air pollution of any London borough.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said in a statement to the paper: "We want to encourage more people to walk and cycle to reduce congestion and make our neighbourhoods safer, cleaner and greener."

Proposed restrictions around Columbia Road include Arnold Circus, Warner Place, Old Bethnal Green Road and Sale Street, putting "rat run" traffic back onto Bethnal Green Road or Hackney Road and leaving the area to pedestrians and cyclists.

But the "traffic calming" scheme isn't calming those living around the East End's famous Columbia Road flower market.

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