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Transportation

Lessons From a Car-Free Street Fight in London

As part of a safe streets program, officials in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets closed a road to car traffic for 10 days. Things didn’t go as planned.
A cyclist in London, where bikes, buses, and cabs are vying for road space.
A cyclist in London, where bikes, buses, and cabs are vying for road space.Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The East London borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the U.K.’s poorest areas. The district has greater London’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and its economic challenges are accompanied by environmental ones: With several major highways nearby, some 40 percent of Tower Hamlets residents live in areas breaching EU and government guidance on safe levels of air pollution, though only 37 percent of households own a car or van.

In an effort to cut down on traffic and clean up the neighborhood’s air, the Tower Hamlets council embarked on a £15 million, four-year Liveable Streets program sponsored by the London mayor’s office, which has been trying to steer the city toward a car-free future. Part of the program’s mission was to discourage cars and trucks that were “rat-running”—that is, taking shortcuts through residential streets.