A short history of the Harringay ladder traffic problem

The Harringay ladder is a set of residential streets that were laid out and built up between 1880 and 1900 on land that was previously open countryside. There are 20 parallel streets running westwards from the line of Green Lanes which already existed as an ...

ancient north-south route. These streets fill a rough rectangle 1600m long by 400m wide lying between Green Lanes and railway land associated with the East coast main line. The Northern edge of the rectangle is formed by Turnpike Lane, a pre-existing lane that joined Hornsey to Tottenham and passed beneath the railway line. The Southern edge of the rectangle is formed by the northern boundary of Finsbury Park which was opened in 1869. Endymion Road was built along this boundary in 1875 providing the first road way from Stroud Green, over the railway, to Green Lanes while skirting the new park.

The Western ends of the ladder streets were all connected by a newly built north-south street running parallel to the railway and connected to Endymion Road at the southern end and to Turnpike Lane at the Northern end. This new street is known as Wightman Road (the southern 100 metres were named Alroy Road).

London was expanding quickly but at that time Hornsey was the northern edge of the increasing urban sprawl that we know today as Greater London.

The houses in the ladder streets were conceived as residences for the increasing population of office workers employed in central London. To take them to work there were trams on Green Lanes and there were stopping trains at Hornsey and Harringay stations running into Kings Cross. There was also the east-west Gospel Oak to Barking line accessible at what is now Harringay Green Lanes station. In 1932 Piccadilly Line tube stations were opened at Manor House and Turnpike Lane. This is one of the longest gaps between stations on the tube network and, for the Harringay ladder, was a lost opportunity. A Tube station between these two would be a great asset.

The ladder streets, including Wightman Road, were filled on both sides with long rows of mostly single fronted houses (except for Endymion Road which is single sided facing the park). No industrial premises of any kind were permitted anywhere in the ladder and the only commercial premises (at either end of Wightman Road) were small shops, all with flats above, intended to provide services to residents. The only exception to this is the former pub (now a hotel) close to Harringay station and Jewson’s building materials business which occupies a former railway yard . There were also a couple of schools and half a dozen churches. This is still the position except that the rise of the motor car has led to the appearance of several business connected to the motor trade. These occupy premises originally conceived as shops, premises previously behind the former public house and premises built as a municipal workshop. Of the thirty or so premises built as shops with residences above, a quarter have been converted entirely to residential use and a further quarter are vacant. Wightman Road cannot therefore be described as anything but a residential street.

All of these streets evidently conform to what in the late 19th century was regarded as a desirable design for residential living, ie private back gardens and public mixing space in front. Beyond two or three exceptions in each street, no provision was made for residences that might own vehicles of any kind. The carriageways were spaces in which an occasional horse drawn delivery cart or taxi might appear but were otherwise given over to children playing and people walking and socialising. Most front garden spaces are too small to park a car off the street and, in some cases, barely large enough to stand refuse bins.

Most of the ladder streets (including Wightman Road) are 12 metres wide from fence to fence and have a footway on each side on average 2.25m wide. This leaves a carriageway for vehicles just 7.5m wide. In the case of the twenty east-west streets, which today are all one-way, the carriageways have a 2m wide parking lane on each side for residents’ cars. This leaves a 3.5m lane for moving vehicles. In the case of Wightman Road the parking lanes have been moved half onto the footways on both sides of the street. This has several consequences. In the first place, the space left for pedestrians, push chairs and wheel chairs has been reduced to 1.25m. This is completely inadequate for parents walking children along the footways and is often inadequate even for solitary pedestrians, especially if they need an umbrella. The width problem has been made worse in places by street furniture and where the houses happen not to have a place to stand the now mandatory Haringey wheelie bins off the footway. Finally, the surface of the footway is far from smooth because of the frequency of digging to gain access to the services beneath. This is due to modernisation and maintenance of utility installations (water, electricity, gas, telephones and cable tv) and, in the case of Wightman Road, damage done to these services by the weight of vehicles parked on surfaces that were not designed for this purpose.

Having stolen an extra meter on each side, the space for moving vehicles in this street is increased to 5.5m but it has two way traffic. The lanes in each direction are therefore too narrow for safety as any parent who needs to strap a toddler into a car seat will testify. Drivers passing cyclists are tempted to pass too close and they also face frequent traffic islands (very necessary for pedestrians to cross safely) which make passing a cyclist difficult to judge. This situation prevails for the full length of a residential street nearly a mile long on which the traffic load had risen to over 120,000 vehicles a week. By some interpretations of the recent survey, the figure is a lot larger even than this.

Not only is it intolerable, it has become a blight on the whole area and a testament to inaction over a long period during which a series of ad hoc measures have been adopted in many separate streets to placate local interests while avoiding the real problem.

What is this real problem?

The huge growth in car use since the streets were built.

What has been the result?

Our pleasant Victorian residential streets which can only just accommodate the parked cars owned by residents have become passage ways for people from elsewhere who wish to drive through our area as quickly as possible regardless of the impact on the quality of our living environment. Despite recent claims to the contrary, I am quite sure that 80 or 90% of all vehicles passing through these streets are not going to or coming from a ladder or Wightman Road address.

The density of traffic on these streets has become greater in recent years for a variety of reasons:
1. Increased car ownership generally.
2. Proliferation of traffic restrictions in other residential streets that leads drivers to find unrestricted alternatives.
3. Increasing influence of SatNav systems such as Waze which direct drivers to use unmarked routes not otherwise known to them.
4. Increased tendency to run children to schools (competition between schools probably contributes to this).
5. Rising cost of housing pushing more local workers to other suburbs.
6. Increasing attraction of the Harringay Green Lanes restaurant trade.
7. Increasing relative cost of public transport that incentivises car owners to drive.

Wightman Road was classified as a “B road” in the 1930s when the density of road traffic was infinitesimal. What did this classification mean? It meant that if a driver followed signs marking this B route, he wouldn’t get lost. It did not mean he would find a well maintained road, or a wide road, or a purpose built road. It merely meant that if a driver in Mayes Road, Wood Green wants to get to Endymion Road, then route B138 would get him there. Often, such classifications were little more than a record of what routes, early adopters had already found.
Mayes Road itself is also classified as B151 and, in fact, so is Endymion Road (B150). When the B151 route was so classified it ran from a point 170m further east on Green Lanes/Wood Green High Road. This little section of road was blocked by the construction of shopping city in the 1970s by which time mass motoring was well under way. Cutting off this short piece of road had the additional effect of diverting more traffic on to the B138 thus condemning both Hornsey Park Road and Wightman Road to increased misery which has endured ever since.

In non-urban areas, a B route can be a single track road with passing places. If such a B route is intensively used it can result in the roads concerned being improved, straightened, realigned or widened. Indeed there are “B roads” in this country that are dual carriageways. None of this is possible in the case of the B138 and it is high time that drivers accepted that none of this route it is suitable for dense traffic and that there are limits to the freedom of the road.

At the time these B route classifications were made by the Ministry of Transport and the local authority – if it had an opinion at all - would need to convince the ministry of its views. This ministry was not at all concerned with the interests of residents, the environment, health or of other users of the roads. When, in the late 1980s I met David Trippier (junior environment minister) and told him that cars were the biggest environmental problem in our street, he instantly responded that this was a matter for the ministry of transport not his ministry.

It is not as though any of this is news to Haringey Council. Indeed, the Haringey Sustainable Transport Commission which was set by the Council reported in 2010 and drew particular attention to the problems we have, citing Wightman Road by name.

Central government appears to have opted out of these difficult “local” issues and since 2012, local highway authorities (such as Haringey) have had delegated powers to manage road classification themselves. Our council should now grasp this particular nettle and use its new powers to protect its residents from the abuse of our streets and living environment that has built up over years.

It is worth adding that the government’s current guide to designing new residential areas recommends that all residences should be on cul-de-sacs so that there is no through traffic. I agree with this and I am sure the Victorians would have done so too. It probably never occurred to Victorian urban designers that it might be wise to close narrow residential streets at one end to prevent abuse by the drivers of future machines. Slapping a layer of tarmac on top of the original cobble stones has not made our narrow residential streets suitable for dense traffic. Nor, I suspect, has it made the carriageway strong enough to carry heavy vehicles without risking damage to the services beneath. Much work was done in recent years to replace leaky water mains and similar efforts are now going for gas mains. No doubt heavy traffic has had its part to play in weakening these mains. We can expect before long our sewers to go the same way – an effect I seem to remember that closed Burgoyne Road for several months not so long ago.

This article was first posted on Harringayonline by Dick Harris, to read the original post and comments click here.