Caroline Thorpe: Streatham Wells – how to get a Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme wrong

Caroline Thorpe: Streatham Wells – how to get a Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme wrong

It’s 8am on a Monday in October 2023. A man in a van is driving slowly down Leigham Court Road in Streatham, honking his horn and shouting at the stationary traffic in the opposite lane. “I hope you’ve brought your packed lunches with you, you’re gonna be here a while!”

He’s not wrong. Leigham Court Road is a little over a mile long, and traffic – including several 417 buses – is at a standstill along its entire length. Pedestrians and cyclists are breathing in the fumes, the latter attempting to navigate the logjam.

The reason? Lambeth Council has just pressed go on the Streatham Wells Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN), banning through traffic from an area that is home to more than 17,000 people. It has poor public transport links and an important distributor road at its heart. Leigham Court Road is one of the LTN’s three boundary roads – dubbed “sacrificial roads” by opponents of such schemes – and it is bearing the brunt.

It will be 137 days from its launch until Lambeth suspends the scheme after Sadiq Khan judged it wasn’t working. In that time, some 10,000 vehicles that used to traverse the LTN area daily will clog and pollute Leigham Court, as well as the two other boundaries, Streatham Common North (which borders a large park full of people trying to enjoy some fresh air) and Streatham High Road (aka the A23 and a major route south out of London), plus their tributaries.

Streatham residents are no strangers to LTNs. Lambeth has installed five permanent schemes since 2020 including the Streatham Hill LTN, which also adjoins Leigham Court Road. Sure, there was some grumbling from drivers used to cutting through its streets when that went in. But despite it displacing traffic onto neighbouring roads – the load on Leigham Court went up 26 per cent – and being unpopular with its residents (51 per cent according to Lambeth), it ruffled relatively few feathers.

Not so the Streatham Wells scheme.

Other than a handful of campaigners living inside the LTN – and lots living nowhere near it, judging by posts on X – the scheme has pissed off pretty much everyone in Streatham and the surrounding areas. Because, here’s the thing: disrupt 10,000 motor journeys a day across a large area poorly served by public transport, and the bulk of them are going to cram themselves onto other local streets unless you give them an alternative. Which Lambeth didn’t.

I am mostly in the pissed off camp. Which is an achievement by Lambeth as I am a daily walker, bus-user and since the LTN (credit where credit’s due) a cyclist. I recognise that Streatham has a traffic problem and am astounded by the ridiculously short distances some people drive. In the early days of the LTN I had to stop myself shouting “YOU ARE THE REASON WE ARE IN THIS MESS” at a 20-something complaining that her drive to work out now took 25 minutes instead of five. I also bloody loved razzing through the LTN on a Lime bike, turning what would have been a 30 minute bus journey into 10 and change.

But in reality this specific LTN was a daily nightmare for most local people, costing them time, money and possibly even their sanity. And if it met its aims of cleaning up the air inside the LTN it did so at the expense of its neighbours.

I was one of many who found myself getting the kids up earlier and walking ever further up Streatham High Road with my younger child in search of a bus that wasn’t stuck in LTN-displaced traffic, just to get to school on time.

The fumes were awful, and often buses kicked us off a mile or so from our destination because the drivers had been at the wheel too long thanks to the jams. Thousands of others, many with no choice about their mode of transport, were similarly affected.

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Increased journey times meant less time for work, and as a self-employed person that meant less income. On top of that, as a family we were now paying for my older child to travel on the school minibus, as the bus delays meant I could no longer drop both children. Plus I had a new Lime bike habit to fund.

From early afternoon the bus service became virtually unusable – queues of more than 40 nose-to-tail buses trying to move south through Streatham were not unusual (and proved to be the LTN’s coup de grâce). When off work, I would drive to pick-up as this was now quicker than the bus. If someone else was bringing the children home, I would sit at my desk trying to work, worrying where they were. Their half hour bus ride home had become well over an hour on a good day, closer to two on a bad one.

We also regularly witnessed some terrifying driving, even by south London standards: motorbikes using the pavement and vehicles travelling down the wrong side of the road.

Yet however bad the congestion got, almost five months in, too many people still sat it out in their cars rather than try something different.

Lambeth Council has been a shambles throughout. Their “consultation” was a joke, their communications appalling and the implementation cack-handed. From installing LTN signs facing in the wrong direction, to suspending the scheme but leaving road-blocking LTN infrastructure in place, officials and councillors have proved inept. Criticism has been ignored or dismissed, residents gaslighted. There was no encouragement to make people change their habits. Just a big stick designed to make people’s lives miserable and a scheme so poorly designed and delivered that it proved unendurable.

In the few days since 8 March, when the scheme was put on hold, the buses have been working better and traffic patterns have become more regular. I am still cycling – one positive legacy – and have found that for much of the day traffic is as scarce in the LTN as it was while the roads were closed off. My kids, and thousands more, get home in time to do their homework and their teachers can get up a little later in the morning.

Meanwhile the pro-LTN locals are desperately trying to find out what happens next. Funnily enough, the council isn’t telling them. One thing though seems sure: the whole debacle has made the task of getting people to ditch their cars much, much harder.

Caroline Thorpe is a freelance journalist and a resident of Streatham. Follow her on X/Twitter. Support and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    How do you get an LTN “right”? The Streatham Hill LTN scheme has led to a serious problem with Estate residents raising the problem of Moped/Bike riding criminals knowing they can escape pursuit because the police cannot follow them through the barriers.

    The petitions against the planned West Dulwich LTN and CPZ both have over 700 signatures and rising – after it became clear that residents comments on the proposals (including from cyclists living locally) were being ignored.

    Will this be enough to help stop them against the LTN “industry”? I am not sure … but the opponents already had fire in their bellies after the experience of Dulwich Village (over the border in Southwark).

    I should add that I personally first learned of existence of the LTN “industry” after a “researcher” for one of the firms which make a good living from implementing and administering them was “outed”, masquerading as a local resident, during one of the meetings on the Dulwich Village LTN.

    It merits an article of its own. P.S. I used to cycle into work in Central London when I was young, using the tow path of the Grand Union Canal as my private Westway bypass to the fury of the anglers who thought it belonged to them. I am now too old and unfit to cycle and am dependent on buses.

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