We knew the latter half of 2020 would see arguments about Brexit, lockdown restrictions, masks and the US election. What we didn’t foresee was that, in many places, the row of the summer and autumn would be about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – LTNs for short. I had never heard of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods until June of this year, when I was told that one had been proposed for an area near where I live. Even after someone had explained it to me, I still didn’t really get it. It was only when I saw this map that I realised what Ealing Council was trying to do.
It is a very cleverly designed traffic system that ensures everyone still has motor vehicle access to their homes but makes it impossible to use the side roads to drive between any of the major routes. As with so many things, there was not much discussion about it until the day the roads were blocked. Then it all kicked off. I soon discovered it was kicking off all over London and in many other cities too.
The speed at which LTNs have suddenly become topical is due to the speed at which they have been implemented. Councils were given special powers to set up LTNs with a week’s notice and to carry out the consultation period after the implementation, using something called Experimental Traffic Orders. As could have been predicted by anyone who knew anything about human behaviour, the people being experimented on didn’t like it very much.
Local authorities came in for a lot of stick. There was a suspicion in our area that Ealing Council was using the Covid pandemic as cover to implement a radical cycling agenda, the council leader being a keen cyclist. But, while some councils might have been enthusiastic, the drive for LTNs has come from central government. Local authorities have been strongly advised to implement such schemes and told that their transport budgets may be cut if their schemes don’t measure up. The speed of implementation is accounted for by the fact that there was a narrow window to bid for government funding. Councils were therefore in a race to get financial support to implement the schemes. The losers risked a double whammy of failing to get funding and therefore seeing their budgets cut next year for not doing enough about ‘active travel’.
If that sounds far-fetched (which it did to me when I was first told about it), check out the initial statement from Grant Shapps in May:
The government expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians.
Followed by the detailed report, signed by a smiling Boris Johnson, in July:
There will be first hundreds, then thousands of miles of safe, continuous, direct routes for cycling in towns and cities, physically separated from pedestrians and volume motor traffic, serving the places that people want to go.
And how are councils meant to do this?
Low-traffic neighbourhoods will be created in many more groups of residential streets by installing point closures – for example, bollards or planters – on some of the roads. It would still be possible to access any road in the area, but motor traffic would not be able to use the roads as through routes. Streets within low traffic neighbourhoods will provide clear, direct routes for cyclists and pedestrians promoting walking and cycling.
What if the councils drag their heels?
Many schemes take too long to get started and too long to deliver once they have been started. All future funding will be conditional on work starting and finishing by specified dates.
Those councils that don’t implement enough schemes will face the wrath of Active Travel England, a new Oftsed-style inspectorate:
From next year, Active Travel England will also begin to inspect, and publish annual reports on, highway authorities, whether or not they have received funding from us, grading them on their performance on active travel and identifying particularly dangerous failings in their highways for cyclists and pedestrians.
Active Travel England’s assessment of an authority’s performance with respect to sustainable travel outcomes, particularly cycling and walking, will be taken into account when considering funding allocations for local transport schemes. We will consult on introducing new criteria to measure local highway authorities’ performance in respect of sustainable travel outcomes, particularly cycling and walking, when considering funding allocations for local transport schemes.
Nice transport budget you’ve got there. Wouldn’t want anything to ‘appen to it, would yer?
The government is not messing about here! It is determined to see Low Traffic Neighbourhoods implemented and it will beat councils up if they don’t comply. It’s no wonder, then, that hundreds of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have appeared all over the country in the space of a few months.
In many areas, opinion has been bitterly divided. The vitriol on social media appears, to me at least, worse than that over Brexit. Bollards and planters have been vandalised and people have been threatened. This has led some to characterise the battle over LTNs as another front in the culture wars. It’s a compelling story – yet another divide between the Remainers and Brexiters, the conservatives and liberals, the Somewheres and Anywheres. Now we can add the petrolheads and white van men on one side and the eco-warriors and cycling lobbyists on the other.
Compelling but wide of the mark. As a proxy for the other culture war divisions, the LTN controversy doesn’t really work. The text of the article that appeared in the Observer with the ‘culture wars’ title actually went to great lengths to explain how diverse the supporters and opponents of LTNs are. My area has become, in many ways, the epicentre of the resistance to LTNs. It is from the neighbouring Northfield ward that the legal challenge to LTNs has come. Two veteran local campaigners both of whom I have got to know recently as they have been very helpful to me and my neighbours over our own local difficulties, have found themselves on opposite sides of the LTN argument. The one leading the charge against LTNs is a leftie Remain voter whose hero is Tony Benn. At 71 percent, Northfield was the 22nd most Remainy ward in the UK. Another area where there is a significant anti-LTN movement, Lewisham, voted 70 percent for Remain. If the data is available, someone with more time than I have might want to map the referendum vote against level of opposition to LTNs. Given that most of the LTNs are in urban areas, I’d be surprised if it showed that the Remain/Leave split is much of a predictor of views on LTNs. West Ealing is not Farage country by any stretch but many of its residents don’t like LTNs.
It is also likely that social media is giving a distorted sense of the level of polarisation. Most of the people I speak to have mixed views but Twitter and Facebook seem to be split into hostile camps. Research on the discussion of LTNs on Twitter by social network analyst Jimmy Tidy found that 50 percent of the activity on Twitter came from just 20 accounts. A few very convinced and very vocal people are shaping the online debate.
The politics around LTNs are similarly complex. Ealing’s Labour council and most of its Labour councillors that have expressed an opinion are in favour of LTNs. One of its Labour MPs has criticised the schemes. Conservative councillors in Ealing and Hounslow have attempted no confidence motions against the Labour administrations, yet it is difficult to accuse councils of doing anything other than what the Conservative government told them to. The claim that many of the LTNs are poorly designed doesn’t really stand up. Yes, planters and bollards are a nuisance but that’s what’s recommended in the government report. Sure, they inconvenience people but that’s what they are supposed to do. They are meant to discourage people from driving along side roads and from making short journeys by car. The inconvenience is not a bug, it’s a feature. Grant Shapps has flipped backwards and forwards, colluding with his party’s councillors while still trying to stick to the government line. He has admonished councils to implement LTNS, threatened to punish them for ‘poorly designed’ schemes, told them to get on with it and not be derailed by noisy opponents, threatened to reclaim the money granted if they don’t consult, then re-iterated his earlier threat to hammer their budgets if they don’t get with the LTN programme. Perhaps a man who ran businesses under assumed names finds it easy to dissemble but the mixed messages are certainly confusing for everyone else.
Some of this will, no doubt, strike those of you with long memories as a bit odd. This is a Conservative government deliberately making it more difficult for people to use their cars. Margaret Thatcher, it is said, was not particularly interested in public transport, because ‘our people drive’. The Tories, being the party of the more affluent suburbs and smaller towns, were also the party of the habitual driver. Whatever else, this campaign for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods doesn’t sound very conservative.
Things have changed since the 1980s though. After a fall in the mid 2000s, traffic levels are increasing again. It is likely that Covid will encourage more people to take to their cars, given that it is the only way you can move about while self-isolating.
In London, the entire net increase in traffic has been on minor roads. The development of satellite navigation and associated apps have opened up streets where previously only those with local knowledge would drive. Using real-time data, powerful algorithms are diverting vehicles down whatever roads are available in a given area. Traffic has become like water, flowing along the shortest route to a given destination and automatically changing direction when obstacles are placed in its way. It is reasonable to assume, at least in London, that without sat nav, the increase in traffic would not have been possible.
This presents a problem for councils of all political colours that had been trying to reduce the level of traffic in their boroughs for some time and, until recently, thought they were succeeding. It also doesn’t bode well for the UK’s carbon emissions target. Achieving that would have been difficult enough even with a gradual decline in road traffic. The jury is still out on whether or not LTNs have much impact on the level of traffic or vehicle emissions. Supporters will point to Walthamstow as an example but the very fact that the same survey comes up so often is indicative of how little robust evidence there is. There is some evidence to suggest that, over time, LTNs discourage car ownership but the authors of the study carried out in London concede, “Sample size for LTN areas is small and hence uncertainty about effect magnitude is large.”
But even if LTNs were proven beyond doubt to reduce levels of traffic and emissions, I suspect it would have little impact on the debate. LTNs require a significant shift in behaviour and such things are not generally popular.
The row over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods may turn out to be a storm in a teacup. Maybe we will just get used to them or perhaps the opposition will kill the idea stone dead. The outcry does draw attention to an important question though. Most of us recognise, at least in the abstract, that we will need to change our behaviour if we are to have a hope of even slowing down the rate of climate change. The government’s emission targets will be unachievable without reduced car use. But that ‘we’ is abstract and somewhere in the future. I’m reminded of St Augustine, who is supposed to have said, “Please God, make me good, but not just yet.” Supporters of LTNs point to a survey (which I can’t find online) that says most people are in favour of such schemes. Opponents argue that a majority of people who actually live in LTNs don’t like them and point to the large turnouts at demonstrations. It is quite possible that both are right.
When cities have been designed and lifestyles have been built based on decades of assumptions about the availability and speed of car use, it is very difficult to change behaviours overnight. Yes, I know reducing the number of short car journeys is a good idea but not in my area, or, at least, not yet. Yes, I know we have to save the planet but right now I need to get to West Ealing Sainsbury’s for my weekly shop and I’m annoyed that I have to do a 270 degree journey to get there. The row over LTNs isn’t a culture war, it’s a microcosm of a much more fundamental question. How the does a society built on fossil fuels shift its behaviour quickly enough to have an impact on the looming climate change catastrophe? It’s a question that’s not going to go away.