Post by Dr. Jemima Stockton
Three of London’s busiest rail termini are on Euston Road (part of the A501) and, between them, they absorb and discharge over 100 million pedestrians each year. Hot on the heels of the enormous footfall generated across and along Euston Road through the use of these stations is motorised traffic. On the stretch of Euston Road by the Wellcome Collection building, the estimated annual average daily flow is around 82,000 motor vehicles – well above the average traffic volume for a British motorway – and the nitrogen dioxide concentration is around three times the European Union’s legal limit. Needless to say, crossing Euston Road as a pedestrian to reach the Wellcome Collection is a lengthy and, probably, health-damaging affair. It was fitting then, and possibly cruel, that on 8th March delegates of the world’s first (as far as I am aware) conference on community severance – the barrier effect of busy roads on people’s health and mobility – had to do just that.
Held in the Wellcome Collection Building, UCL’s Street Mobility and Network Accessibility Project conference marked the end of a three-year multi-faculty collaboration and the launch of the project’s main output, a toolkit to assess community severance. It drew a diverse sell-out audience of around one hundred and fifty, comprising people from all over the UK – and one from Sweden – from a range of backgrounds including health, transport, geography, engineering, politics and economics. About a third of participants were researchers from universities. There were also representatives from local, regional and national government; industry; charities; and community groups.
The conference began with a networking lunch which, true to the health theme, was eighty percent vegetarian. After an hour of dining and discussion, including perhaps reflections on recent experiences of community severance in reaching the venue, participants sat down in the Henry Wellcome auditorium for the first session, chaired by Henry Kelly of the Transport Appraisal and Strategic Modelling Division at the Department of Transport. First we heard from the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Jenny Mindell, who gave an explanation of community severance and why it is important. This was followed by an excellent joint presentation by Dr Lou Foley and Dr Amy Nimegeer on their research into the effects of the construction of the M74 motorway in Scotland on communities living nearby. Next, one of the project’s Co-Investigators, Prof Peter Jones, introduced the toolkit and two of the researchers, Dr Ashley Dhanani and Dr Paulo Anciaes talked in some detail about the tools they had developed, a walkability model and a valuation and appraisal tool. Jenny gave the concluding talk of the first session, describing how, on the whole, the tools produced consistent findings and could be used together in a neighbourhood or area to develop a fuller picture of community severance. She also directed people to the team’s paper on this. The first session ended with questions for the speakers from the audience and a lively discussion.
After some light refreshments, including fruit and delicious biscuits produced by the Wellcome Collection’s friendly and helpful staff, the second session began, chaired by Prof Eugene Milne, Director of Public Health at Newcastle City Council. Carl Petrokofsky, a Public Health specialist from Public Health England, was the first speaker. He described the various health impacts of the built environment, with a focus on road transport. He highlighted how pedestrian-friendly environments had the potential to increase physical activity, reducing the risk of diseases such as diabetes and colon cancer. Project Co-Investigator Prof Muki Haklay gave the next talk on the use of participatory mapping, one of the tools in the toolkit, to learn about the impacts of community severance among older people. Dr John Miles, a Community Worker from Kilburn Older Voices Exchange, followed, showing three poignant short films (Crossings-George, Crossings-Nancy and Mrs Ekanem) made by his organisation to illustrate the challenges faced by older people in getting about on foot around Kilburn High Road. Dr Jemima Stockton, one of the project’s researchers, presented findings from the Health and Neighbourhood Mobility Survey. The final two presentations were from representatives of the Greater London Authority. Deputy Mayor for Transport, Valerie Shawcross, talked about the GLA’s commitment to prioritising walking, cycling and public transport to create more healthy and sustainable streets. Finally, Lucy Saunders, a Public Health Specialist and author of the multi-award winning TfL Health Action Plan, gave examples of how Transport for London is taking the “Healthy Streets Approach” wherein London’s transport network is designed and improved to promote walking and cycling. The conference drew to a close after questions from the audience.
Overall, there was much interest in the toolkit, particularly among community groups keen to use some of the tools to assess the effects of busy roads in their neighbourhoods. The presentations given at the conference are available on the Street Mobility project website.