Exchange Street to be re-opened to car traffic

Exchange Street has functioned as something of an indicator for the city’s future direction: if we can’t keep a pedestrianised city centre street free from cars how can we address larger issues? Peter Silburn reports

The fate of Exchange Street has barely been out of the news this year. Among the many eventful happenings was a protest in April against the endemic law-breaking by drivers ignoring the traffic ban. Only last month there was another peaceful protest to reclaim the street as a Pedestrian and Cycle Zone.

Last month’s protest against car drivers flouting the traffic ban – Photo James Harvey

Sadly, all this was to no avail as Graham Plant – Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for highways, infrastructure and transport – has unilaterally decided to re-open the street to general traffic. The decision was opposed by both the Labour and Green opposition parties and was “called-in” to a scrutiny committee meeting, again to no avail. The Conservative majority on the committee overruled the call-in so the decision stands.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this wrong-headed decision by Cllr Plant. Both the way the decision was arrived at and the decision itself are deeply flawed.

It is simply wrong that decisions about transport in Norwich are taken by one person – who doesn’t even live in the city. Decisions affecting how the city moves about are too important to be made by one person alone and should be made jointly involving councillors who actually represent the city.

The decision was also made without consulting the businesses affected who complained about not being kept informed and the impact opening up the street to traffic will have on them.

Drivers causing chaos on Exchange Street – Photo Peter

The decision to open up Exchange Street to cars runs counter to both the city and the county council’s policies on a wide range of issues, from reducing car traffic, enabling active travel, and cutting down on carbon emissions and air pollution.

We have asked for clarification from Norfolk County Council on what happens to the cycle contraflow. Exchange Street forms part of both the Pink and Blue Pedalways and the cycle contraflow provides a vital direct north-south cycle route.

Exchange Street and Gaol Hill are in the very heart of the historic, cultural and economic centre of the city. Rather than being a through road they should instead be places for people – where you can meet, relax and stroll around without the noise and danger from cars.

Social interaction in a pedestrian and cycle street in The Hague – Video Adam Tranter

It is nonsensical to suggest – as Cllr Plant claims – that allowing through traffic removes the danger caused by drivers illegally trying to access the street. You surely do that by removing the cars.

Both the county council and the police have already acknowledged that enforcement cameras would be the solution to this problem. When the police finally started issuing fines the impact was immediate as the number of drivers breaking the law significantly reduced.

The primary reason given for allowing cars back in Exchange Street was the “poor level of compliance” by drivers. What sort of message does this send? That if enough people break the law we’ll just let you get away with it?

This is clearly a political decision by Cllr Plant to align with the government’s pro-driver agenda and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s call to “slam the brakes on anti-car measures”.

The problem is too many cars in the city centre. We don’t solve that problem by opening up streets to motor traffic and making it easier to drive. Instead, we need to be making it easier for people to choose alternatives, whether that is buses, or walking and cycling.

Other cities around the world are looking to the future: at reducing carbon emissions and making their city centres attractive places to be where businesses thrive. With this antiquated decision to allow cars back in Exchange Street, Norwich has instead been forced to go back in time.

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