More than a hundred experimental Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) schemes, which stop through-motor traffic in sets of residential streets by means of barriers, planters or cameras, have been trialled across the capital over the past ten months, paid for with money allocated by Transport for London from the government’s emergency active travel fund. Ealing, which initially trialled nine LTNs with no pre-consultation as introduction of the schemes allowed, is a prominent example of how they have divided opinion – and not only among residents.
Local Labour politicians are arguing about them too. Ealing Central and Acton MP Rupa Huq has been a forthright critic of some trial LTNs – she would like a referendum on each one – and has in turn been criticised for not referring to reported street crime reductions in Waltham Forest’s pioneering “mini-Holland” in a comment article about women’s safety fears in the zones. Following an online meeting with more than 100 local people, Huq’s fellow Labour Ealing MP, Ealing Southall’s Virendra Sharma, asked a House of Commons question about concerns that Ealing’s LTNs are pushing traffic onto arterial routes and worsening air pollution for poorer people.
Sharma also wrote to Ealing Council leader Julian Bell highlighting worries around antagonism on both sides of the debate. Meanwhile, recent rush hour gridlock in South Ealing following an accident on an LTN boundary led some residents to wonder what similar situations might be like after lockdown ends.
Part of the backdrop to all this is a long-term trend towards greater use of motor vehicles in the borough. Ealing saw car and taxi traffic rise to 688 million vehicle miles in 2019 – its highest level since 2003, up from 603.3 million in 2012 and in line with general Outer London trends. Under the leadership of Bell, a keen cyclist and a member of the Transport for London board, Ealing has set great store by active travel.
LTNs have featured in its transport strategy for some time, and in 2017 the council won £6.5 million from TfL for a scheme called West Ealing Liveable Neighbourhoods, though the funding programme was postponed. Meanwhile, cycling’s modal share in the borough seems to have plateaued at around 2.4 per cent.
But the collapse in public transport use at the start of the pandemic and fears that many residents would turn to cars as an alternative rallied the council. Ealing initially received £652,314 from the government’s emergency fund, the 17th highest amount among the 30 recipient boroughs.
The council says its LTNs aim to reduce air pollution, decrease vehicle collisions and increase community activity. Its criteria for successful trials are “a combination of traffic impacts, walking and cycling impacts, non-transport impacts such as air quality and feedback from residents”.
Bell takes the view that as only one third of Londoners’ car journeys are longer than three miles, the remaining two thirds can “for most people, probably be made on foot or bike”. He believes LTNs could help Ealing be “kind of the cycling Copenhagen of London,” contributing to the council’s 2030 “net zero” target and tackling obesity.
How is their impact being measured? While the council is monitoring traffic volumes and air quality, there’s a frustrating gap in December’s interim assessment, with only figures for traffic levels on some boundary roads given. TfL SCOOT data found increased traffic volumes on Lower Boston Road and Uxbridge Road (declining again towards the end of the monitoring period), and lower levels than before the pandemic at Northfield Avenue/Uxbridge Road.
Locals say they are regularly stuck in tailbacks at Pope’s Lane and South Ealing Road, but this junction isn’t covered by SCOOT. Private satnav and TfL bus data is pending. A degree of temporary displacement onto boundary roads is expected from LTNs and council officers will be hoping any increase will dissipate. The interim report said it was “too early to establish any reliable causal relationship” between traffic and the trial LTNs. The council plans “another interim assessment utilising all the data sources it can”.
However, West Ealing LTN opponent Simon Calvert queries why comparisons in the interim report are made with previous years, rather than with other areas, given that Covid restrictions mean “the movement of traffic is completely different: the peaks are more concentrated”.
Another criticism is the very incomplete baseline data, meaning that however much monitoring the council carries out now, its usefulness for assessing change is limited. The council explains that this omission occurred because of the speed of introduction of the new LTNs, though Islington included baseline figures and air quality readings in its report on its St Peter’s LTN. And last September it emerged that Ealing had emailed the London Ambulance Service about the trials at a dormant address, which meant it was initially left out of conversations about them.
In February, when facing a Judicial Review called by residents’ groups, the council revoked the Experimental Traffic Orders (ETOs) enabling five trial LTNs less than 48 hours before the case was due, then issued new ones for the same areas with changes including replacing bollards with number plate recognition cameras. This had the effect of restarting the clock on the trials, meaning they could continue for six months longer than originally. Ealing agreed to meet the campaigners’ legal costs. However, one group, One Ealing, has issued a pre-action protocol against the council for breaching statutory obligations around the new ETOs.
London-wide, LTNs appear popular – Redfield & Wilton’s most recent poll showed 47 per cent of Londoners support them and 16 per cent opposed, in line with previous polling. But local soundings in areas with LTNs can paint a very different picture. Ealing Council’s interim report notes that 76 per cent of comments on the council’s Commonplace website inviting reactions to LTNs were negative.
There is disagreement over what this means. Some LTN critics argue it underestimates opposition, as the site steers people towards positive comments (there are perhaps fewer options, further down the list for negative ones), and query the objectivity of other feedback monitoring by the council. But LTN supporters say the 76 per cent figure only indicates negative points, which don’t necessarily translate to where people stand on LTNs, and that initial resistance to such schemes is overcome as people grow used to them.
An ecosystem of groups in Ealing represent LTN opponents and supporters alike. Common refrains among the former are how counter-productive LTNs seem to be and their apparent lack of consideration for tradespeople, care workers, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Ealing resident Chris Greenshield contrasts the formal consultation for electric charging points in his street, which is within the contentious LTN 21, with the absence of consultation on the LTN itself. Ironically, he says, he is now less likely to buy an electric car despite the charging points on his street, because the positioning of bollards means he now parks around the corner from his home.
Before the January lockdown, handyman Paul Stewart, who works almost exclusively in West Ealing and Hanwell, says he was losing about half a day’s work a week due to having to make lengthy journeys around the houses to get to jobs a few hundred yards away. He laughs at the idea that he could fit the contents of his car – a workmate’s bench, vacuum cleaner, sheet of plywood, paint tins – in a cargo bike. He’s a keen cyclist and says he feels less safe cycling on the area’s congested main roads than he did.
Ruth Small, who runs South Ealing salon Hair We Are, says the company that collects her refuse cancelled its service because of LTNs, she’s stopped using local shops as getting to them now takes too long, a pregnant staff member has a three times-longer journey to get to work, and customers are inconvenienced because new free parking bays are on the opposite side of the LTN barriers or else they face delays if coming by bus. Her elderly mother, who lives nearby, is highly restricted for parking because of LTN barrier positioning and the nearby borough boundary, Small says. “If you want to have cars not come down your street, why should you be privileged?” she asks.
Under alterations to the scheme, disabled Blue Badge holders can now go through camera restrictions in their “home” LTN in a registered vehicle they are driving, but that doesn’t help non-driver Blue Badge holders who rely on lifts or their carers. Acton-based charity founder and former broadcaster Sara Nathan has secured a blue badge for her own vehicle in order to reach her elderly disabled mother in a quarter of the time it previously took going around LTN 25. “If you were not as assertive as I am, you would be put off,” she says.
In LTN 21, Tony and Catherine Wade say journeys to help care for Tony’s aunt before she died were made more difficult by the barriers, with Catherine sometimes unable to make the trip to a chemist to buy bulky boxes of incontinence pads, take them to Tony’s aunt and return in her lunch hour, because the route took her all round the boundary roads. Carers who travelled by bus were regularly delayed, and sometimes cancelled visits because of heavy traffic, they say.
On the other side of the fence, LTN supporters lament what they see as opponents’ short-sightedness and unwillingness to suggest alternatives to cutting car use and pollution. Kate Crossland, the Green Party’s 2019 general election candidate for Ealing Central, has written a defence of LTNs, arguing that while pre-consultation is ideal the council would have been irresponsible not to take advantage of the funding made available. A community palliative care doctor and residents’ association chair, she says she has a “lot of empathy” for those with caring responsibilities now facing delays, but says “we have to address individual car use”.
Ealing Cycling Campaign borough co-ordinator Nick Moffitt believes council communications over LTNs could have been better, but now “everyone’s had an experience of it,” there can be “a much more informed response”. He thinks hardened opponents of LTNs are a minority – “I see more individual faces walking and cycling through these neighbourhoods and enjoying them than arguing for and against”.
But some LTN opponents are dismayed by armchair criticism and London or nationwide surveys about the zones. “Until you have lived in an LTN you wouldn’t understand the negative effects,” says Simon Calvert. “The increased congestion, the acrid air in the parks, the frustration of the delivery drivers and the division created amongst the residents”.
Peter Mason of Coldershaw and Midhurst Traffic Action Group (CAMTAG) describes gradations of opinion, depending on people’s travel patterns – with the north-west corner of LTN21, which previously suffered from rat-running, being strongly pro-LTN. “The total inability of the council leadership to address these nuances is very frustrating,” he says.
Both Moffitt and Ealing Liberal Democrat councillor Jon Ball – who is on the other side of the argument about the LTN trials – look back to an LTN-type scheme introduced in 2004. It was “designed in co-operation with the community, popular with drivers and cyclists”, says Ball. He thinks the new LTNs are “simply making it harder for drivers”.
The spectacle of “councils crashing through the normal process of public consultation” has amazed Imperial College transport policy expert Professor Stephen Glaister. He emphasises the need for “proper constitutionally framed” debate around road space schemes. There are some signs of change in that direction.
Following January’s High Court ruling against the Mayor’s Streetspace programme, TfL advice has led several councils to temper their approach to LTNs. Sutton, for example, removed five of them and is planning to consult again on two others after design alterations. Mete Coban, Hackney’s new cabinet member for transport and environment, has sought to assure residents that his door is open and the council hasn’t “already made up its mind” on LTNs. And Ealing has just finished a 21-day pre-consultation on three further LTN trials.
Recent weeks have also seen the release of monitoring reports on trial LTNs, with some hailed as proving that LTNs work. The one about Railton in Lambeth finds that car traffic is down 31 per cent across the LTN and its boundary roads while cycling is up 51 per cent. In Islington’s St Peter’s LTN, traffic has fallen by 57 per cent and on boundary roads by two per cent. These surveys may raise pressure on other authorities, including Ealing, to produce more data of that kind.
But sceptics argue that the reports vary in methodology and quality. Lewisham was slammed for “embarrassingly poor” errors like getting the implementation dates wrong and losing a month’s worth of figures. Lambeth’s baseline traffic calculation has been queried, as has its reliance on a single, seven-day traffic count. LTN objector Paul Lomax of campaign group One Lewisham Healthy Streets for All says Islington’s is “the best so far” but still lacks data on displacement to roads like Upper Street.
Then there are wider transport issues for both LTN opponents and supporters to consider. As London emerges from the pandemic, a revival of bus travel will have a bigger impact on whether London avoids a “car-led recovery” than boosting cycling: buses had a pre-pandemic mode share of 19 per cent of journey stages and 14 per cent of complete trips in 2019 compared with 2.4 and 2.3 per cent for cycling. There are questions around how LTNs will impact bus journey times and service reliability and the possible implications of that for fare income for TfL in its current dire financial straits.
For the present, though, any wider thinking about these issues seems to be secondary to rages about the right and wrongs of LTNs. Some national media reports wrongly suggest they are purely a mayoral responsibility and some mayoral candidates are groundlessly claiming they will be able to scrap them if elected. When the issues are sensationalised, the particular is missed: in Ealing, much of the critique is about the council’s tone and responsiveness, or lack of it. LTNs will no doubt continue to animate London politics this year. How much closer will we be to a sustainable transport system – and being nicer to each other – by the end of it?
This article was updated on 29 March 2021 to include a fuller description of Rupa Huq’s view of Ealing’s LTNs and to correct an initial misspelling of Jon Ball’s forename as John Ball. Apologies.
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