“Change is loss” is what Boris Johnson said as London Mayor when his officials advised changes to the capital’s road network. Over the last nine months we have seen that view expressed time and again, as over 70 Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have come into force, funded by the government’s emergency active travel fund in a response to the pandemic. Sadiq Khan’s campaign launch was disrupted by anti-LTN protesters this week and councillors overseeing the changes have been subjected to more than the usual abuse thrown at local politicians and communities have been divided.
Some of the arguments deployed against them are that the well-heeled are effectively privatising their roads while they are still being maintained by local authorities and that people that need cars, such as the disabled, are being seriously affected. It is often heard (generally as an unsupported fact) that traffic is being displaced onto the main roads, where poorer people live, exacerbating air pollution. There have also been complaints that, as these schemes first came in under Covid emergency legislation with minimal consultation, there has been a lack of community engagement and they are therefore anti-democratic.
While many of these criticisms are certainly emotive and, on occasion, intuitive, with increasing amounts of actual data knocking them down. Sadly, however, as we have seen in other recent policy arguments, it is unlikely that facts will sway some when it comes to the increasing culture war about how the limited resource of our streets should be shared.
An analysis of all of London’s LTNs led by Professor Rachel Aldred, which looked in detail at demographics such as indices of deprivation, ethnicity and car ownership, showed that “people in deprived areas were much more likely to live in a new LTN than people in less deprived areas.” While cynics may argue that this is because only Labour boroughs, with generally higher levels of deprivation, have maintained their LTNs, Professor Aldred’s paper also points out that at the super-local level the demographics of the people living within LTNs are similar to those living just outside.
The equity of LTN location within boroughs does vary from authority to authority, but the overall picture across the capital is not, as the policy’s detractors argue, one where richer, eloquent and influential residents are driving traffic from their leafy streets on to their poorer neighbours.
Recently Lambeth Council, which has been one of the leading London boroughs in implementing LTNs, released its analysis into driving patterns following the introduction of its first scheme in Brixton. The consultants took into consideration the different driving patterns pre-pandemic in order to calculate what the baseline would have been without the LTN, and have come with remarkably positive and, indeed counterintuitive, data on whether traffic was displaced onto boundary roads.
Within the LTN, a decrease of car movements of almost 60% and an increase in cycling of around 50% were observed. That much, at least, might be expected. More surprising, was the data that the boundary roads saw car movements down by a fifth, goods vehicles down by almost 15% and cycling up by 17%. Analyses for all the new LTNs will be published in due course and I understand that the picture in Lambeth is likely to be mixed. But what has become clear is that it is not inevitable that LTNs lead to increased congestion on their boundary roads or surrounding neighbourhoods.
That is one of the aims of LTNs: to reduce the total amount of traffic on our roads, not just displace it. Figures released last year showed that traffic on residential streets has increased by 70% over the last decade, driven by the prevalence of sat nav – rat runs that used to require local knowledge are now on Google and Waze. That does not seem fair when in much of the capital fewer than half have access to a car – no one was consulted over the sudden increase in traffic on narrow, residential streets clearly not intended for large numbers of vehicle movements.
Streets are also the places where we live and should be made safer for vulnerable road users. A third of car journeys in London are under 2km, and another third are between 2km and 5km, which could be completed by many people through walking, cycling or some of the new micro-mobility services such as e-scooters, which are proliferating across our cities.
Of course, we should be aware that there are people who disbenefit from LTNs. I know it must be infuriating for people, perhaps who do not live on a rat-run, that their journey times have been increased seemingly on a whim by their local council, and I am sure some businesses have been alarmed by how LTNs may affect their custom. While studies do show that incentivising active travel (pedestrians spend 40% more than motorists) increases rental values and results in fewer empty shops, some businesses may suffer.
However, it is up to locally-elected leaders to show leadership and analyse the pros and cons of schemes like LTNs, which the data is indicating can deliver transformative benefits. If it is beyond our leaders to implement fairly small scale measures such as these, then what hope can we have in making some far greater nudges to meet our net zero commitments?
Sadly, it has proven beyond Conservatives across London to deliver a Conservative government policy. Wandsworth dismantled its LTN after just a fortnight and Kensington & Chelsea ripped out its Kensington High Street cycle lane after receiving just 322 complaints from residents and two business organisations, while a more recent survey suggests that over half support and just 30% are opposed.
While Conservative Twitter feeds across the capital rage against LTNs, the Prime Minister continues to support them, citing his experience as Mayor that “there is always opposition to these schemes but as the polls show and as I found in London the majority support them and we should crack on.” It does seem to me that this is an example where local Tories, speaking up so vociferously on behalf of a minority view – if polling is to be believed – will find themselves on the wrong side of this particular culture war.
Some of the anger with LTNs has been aimed at the lack of consultation, though I suspect that those who complain most would be opposed no matter how thorough the consultation process. But they are temporary experiments – to keep them, there will have to be a full consultation following further detailed analysis. Some will need tweaking, others may have to be removed because the data show that the unintended disbenefits outweigh the benefits. There are also the London Mayor and borough elections coming over the next 14 months, when voters will have the opportunity to remove those responsible for implementing these schemes
While some will never be reconciled to LTNs, good policy should not be vetoed by a vociferous minority and I have no doubt that most, as polling is already showing, will have come used to them, enjoy the benefits, discovered new routes and new ways of travelling and find that reverting to how things were would be a great loss.
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