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Climate Champion

Walker Syachalinga, Climate Safe Streets Champion for Greenwich, shares why action on climate crisis and cycling is so important to him

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When did campaigning on the environment and road safety become important to you?

When I first started cycling in London, it was because I wanted a convenient way to get to work. But in recent times, the climate emergency has become really important to me. We’ve been seeing really extreme weather events like flooding both around the world and in London, and extreme changes in temperature. We can all agree now that there is climate emergency.

I recently had a baby boy who is now five months old and I want him to have a safe future. And what’s more, I want it so that as a family, we can enjoy the quality of life where we are not afraid to go cycling together or to do the school run. I want all of my family to be safe on our own streets. Safety from air pollution, from cars, and noise pollution too. All of these things have been sort of playing on my mind, so I’ve become a LCC Climate Safe Streets Champion because I want to do something for the planet, but also for my own family and our quality of life in London.

Walker – what is it about cycling and climate that makes you so passionate?

I’m passionate about it because cycling, for me is immediate, it’s accessible, and it’s a way people can be involved in action on climate change within very easy reach: it’s something ‘on the doorstep.’ I get on the bike because oftentimes cycling is preferable to get on the train.

Most people won’t be involved with ‘high level climate talks’ at COP 26, but by campaigning on local environmental issues, they can add their voices to something that’s relevant to them while also contributing to the campaign to improve the climate globally . By campaigning for cycling to be safe and enjoyable in my neighbourhood I can have an immediate effect on my surroundings, by improving the safety of the roads that we use, and the air that we breathe. In the long run safer streets mean more people taking on alternatives to vehicle traffic and in the process a reduction to vehicle emissions and global warming.

How long have you been living and cycling around Greenwich? What’s changed in that time?

I’ve been living in Greenwich for the last three years, and in London for seven. I’d say there is a growing awareness of cyclists on the road – like people are more aware of me when I’m on the road. There is better infrastructure around London as well for cyclists. I’m really looking forward to the upgraded Cycleway Four which will be a protected cycle track from Greenwich all the way to Tower Bridge, that’s an example of excellent cycling infrastructure that’s going to make a difference for cyclists coming from the Southeast of London.

I’ve also seen some really great signs of Councils being more pro-active. So in my neighbourhood in Greenwich, the Council will put up a free cycling mechanic on a Saturday where people can drop in their bikes and have basic repairs done. I don’t recall it being a thing sort of seven years ago, when I moved to London, it was much harder to come by.

I’ve seen many employers have been doing their part too, for instance providing changing facilities at work and showers or lockers to make it easier for people to cycle. But of course, we still have a long way to go, especially with respect to safety, but certainly a lot of positives.

Do you have friends and relatives in and around Greenwich who have given cycling a try? What’s been their experience?

I speak with a lot of friends about this – they’re really in two camps. Some of them can see the benefits of cycling, especially at the weekend and the freedom it gives you to travel long distances just on your own effort. But there’s also a group that is very reluctant, and it’s all from a safety perspective. One friend I’ve known for seven years was involved in a ‘dooring’ incident, he was cycling along a street when somebody opened a car door and injured him in the process – he’s not been back on the bike, for commuting purposes, since. And I’ve other friends who are willing to cycle off-road, but the moment you mention commuting to work or around London for transport, they’re really reluctant because it’s a life and death issue where they fear being injured badly, especially when we read stories of people dying at junctions on London streets.

So in summary I would say the majority of my friends and family who take up cycling do it at weekends in a controlled environment where they are protected from motor traffic. What’s frustrating is I think people are concerned from, like, a climate perspective. They would be willing to do their part to reduce the usage of the car, for instance, which would reduce pollution. But it’s the safety fears that stop them from doing it.

As an LCC Climate Safe Streets champion, what are the things you really want to see in the climate emergency action plan from Greenwich Council?

Greenwich Council declared a climate emergency in 2019, and they have a lot of their policy papers that ‘talk the talk’ about making streets safe for ‘vulnerable users,’ whether that be disabled people or young families. But there is a gap between the rhetoric and the policies that they actually put in place. The Greenwich climate emergency action plan needs to make our neighbourhood’s streets safe and attractive to cycle and walk on. I’ve been campaigning as part of my Residents Association to stop dangerous short-cut driving on the street right next to our estate. We managed to get quite a lot of signatures for that, nearly 200 people agreeing to this point where we asked them whether they wanted traffic calming measures such as safe pedestrian crossings. However, despite the overwhelming support of residents, the Royal Borough of Greenwich has continued to drag its feet. That is a common feature across the Borough where residents vote in favour of safe streets in the Council’s own consultations but the Council does little to implement such demands or ven publish the results of the consultations.

There’re many other roads near where I live that need to be made safe. Many don’t even have pedestrian crossings, or the ones that there have drivers approaching them dangerously fast. So my campaigning is going to be all about saying to Greenwich Council ‘you’ve declared a climate emergency, you say you’re going to prioritise climate streets: here are examples of how you can actually put your words into action by installing traffic calming measures, safer cycling routes etc.’ There’s a lot that can be done to make our area cycling and pedestrian-friendly very quickly.

Thanks for your time, Walker.

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