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Now is not the time for the county council to lose its nerve on a Sustainable Travel Zone

Opinion | Lianna Etkind, Parents for a Sustainable Travel Zone

I’m not the most patient person in the world. That applies to being stuck in traffic, but also to hearing claims that are just plain wrong being wheeled out to attack the proposed sustainable travel zone (STZ).

If there’s one myth about the STZ that is guaranteed to get my goat, it’s this: the myth that it’s regressive and unfair.

Lianna Etkind, of Parents for a Sustainable Travel Zone Picture: Keith Heppell
Lianna Etkind, of Parents for a Sustainable Travel Zone Picture: Keith Heppell

What’s unfair is this: Cambridgeshire’s poorest people (and this goes for the rest of the country too) are least likely to own a car. They are most likely to bear the brunt of other people’s driving, through being killed or seriously injured in a road traffic crash, breathing dirty air on the worst polluted roads, and suffering the consequences - heart disease, cancer, and respiratory problems. Those kids in school who need to keep an asthma inhaler on hand? Statistically, they’re more likely to be from poor households.

Rebalancing Cambridgeshire transport towards people locked out of car ownership is long overdue.

Ending car dependency

Much of the debate around the STZ has centred on the proposed £5 charge to drive into Cambridge, but the other side of the coin - and, as a non-driver, the aspect that I’m particularly excited by - is huge investment in our city’s cycling and walking infrastructure, and buses. It’s the poorest in Cambridgeshire who are most likely to be reliant on public transport, and the vagaries of Stagecoach buses (not to mention the fares rose - again - earlier this year). In this most unequal city, it’s about time that people from the poorest households were given more transport options, opening up more job and educational opportunities and just more possibilities for going out and having a good time.

I grew up in London, where (almost uniquely in the UK) the Transport for London (TfL) bus network is under democratic control of the mayor, rather than left to the market. I have happy memories of going out dancing in central London as a teenager and getting the bus back as the sun rose. When my daughter is old enough to go out dancing, I’d love for her to be able to enjoy that same independence, to go to a party and catch a bus home. If the council approve an STZ, and especially if they honour commitments to extend bus operating hours, that may just become a reality.

It’s not just young people who get a raw deal when it comes to travelling in and around Cambridge. Older people too are too often ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to the STZ debate. Without frequent and reliable bus options, so many pensioners are trapped between four walls, with only the television for company. An STZ and a properly-funded bus network could be transformative, connecting people to friends and family once more.

Bad for business? What a load of codswallop

There’s another myth that I hear routinely peddled about the STZ: that a sustainable travel zone is bad for business.

Firstly, which business? Big, out-of-town supermarkets with enormous car parks thrive on car-centric cities where there are few other transport options. But smaller independent high street businesses tend to do well when there’s high footfall, when passers by can easily stop and pop in for a cheeky coffee here, a loaf of bread there.

Milan, Stockholm, Seville, Ljubljana: all these have thriving city centres where low-traffic measures make the streets a pleasant place to spend time (and money). Many businesses in Cambridge and surrounding areas find that their biggest challenge is finding workers, even as residents in Fenland villages struggle to find good-quality work. Regular, frequent bus services could do more than any formal employment scheme to connect businesses to talented local job seekers.

Some businesses, whether from a desire to avoid rising fuel costs or to make a positive climate impact, are already making the transition away from diesel-guzzling vans towards greener ways of transporting. Camcycle have done a great job of highlighting businesses in Cambridge, from carpenters to bakeries to a laundry firm which operate by cargo bike, and I expect that the introduction of an STZ charge will encourage more forward-thinking businesses to look at this option.

There will always be those who, because of the nature of their business, will need to be able to drive into town. For those people whose bread and butter is making deliveries, congestion costs money. Unpredictable journey times and wasting time sitting in traffic benefits no-one, and will only get worse as the city grows. An STZ will ensure that we keep the roads clear for those who need to drive.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity

Time and time again, public opposition to congestion charging seeps away once people have experienced the benefits of living in quieter, less polluted and more convivial cities. A 2016 paper in Transportation Research: Policy and Practice cites Gothenberg, London, Stockholm, Trondheim, Singapore and more as places where public support for congestion charging has increased ‘substantially’ after charging has been introduced.

This summer, as I read news of heatwaves, floods and wildfires, the climate emergency feels more urgent and frightening than ever. Most people want to do the right thing when it comes to clean air and protecting the climate. We know that leaving the car at home is one of the most significant actions we can take in terms of ‘doing our bit’ for the planet. At the moment, the hassle and expense can make that pretty challenging for all but the most committed.

The county council has a once-in-a-generation chance to shift the equation, so that taking public transport into town is also attractive and affordable. I hope that they stick to their guns and forge ahead with a sustainable travel zone.

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