Paul Wheeler: London needs a new approach to reducing congestion and air pollution

Paul Wheeler: London needs a new approach to reducing congestion and air pollution

Last month Greenwich Council removed its Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme in West Greenwich. In doing so it joined eight other boroughs of varying political persuasions that introduced LTNs or other Streetspace schemes without prior consultation at the onset of the pandemic and have since removed some or all of them: Ealing, Harrow, Brent, Sutton, Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth.

It is clear that the rushed attempt to introduce these measures has failed to capture Londoners’ imaginations. Every time a council consulted about their continuation a majority of respondents rejected them. It didn’t help local democracy that a number of councils used the equivalent of creative accounting to claim success for their schemes. Meanwhile, car ownership and usage has continued to increase even in the LTN heartlands of Hackney and Waltham Forest.

So, if LTNs have a limited future in changing travel habits and improving air quality, what else is on offer? Well, whisper it, but it looks as if London is seeing an increase in road pricing, albeit by stealth. As part of the financial package for the new Silvertown Tunnel both it and the existing Blackwall Tunnel will be tolled. There is also an intriguing discussion about a possible “bridge tax” being introduced as part of resolving saga of Hammersmith Bridge.

And perhaps the most noticeable development is the decision by Sadiq Kahn to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover the whole of London. As well as helping to improve air quality across the capital, this decision means the provision of infrastructure that can be adapted for further regulation of the types of vehicles that use London’s roads and the times of day they use them. Paris already limits the hours in which HGV and other commercial vehicles can use its roads. Perhaps in future London can do the same.

The current piecemeal approach to road pricing justifies specific schemes and is taking place in the context of Transport for London’s precarious financial position. But it is now time to be bolder and make the public case for a more comprehensive road pricing strategy which, if implemented properly, could lead to fundamental changes in driver behaviour and help transform public transport.

For that to happen will require courageous politicians and a shift in the debate to include a better way to talk to London’s motorists.

Maybe all those involved in today’s fractious transport debate could learn something from the campaign that persuaded Britain to stop smoking in the 1990s. Younger readers may be astonished to learn that before then it was perfectly possible to smoke in pubs, buses, Tube trains and workplaces, and millions did.

It’s now against the law to do so, but the legislation was preceded by a huge health and media campaign to persuade people to quit. This included incentives and alternatives to smoking, such as nicotine patches, for those who needed them. Smokers weren’t hounded and their predicament was understood. They went from the majority to the minority within a decade, despite the efforts of the powerful tobacco lobby.

We could adapt that approach for the traffic debate. For example, we could offer subsidised or free travel to motorists willing to give up their cars, as they’ve begun to do in Barcelona. In Stockholm, they’ve experimented with a scheme that rewarded motorists who kept to the speed limit with entry to a monthly lottery whose prizes were funded by the fines of the motorists who didn’t.

While we must acknowledge the strained finances of TfL – largely caused by that champion of cyclists, Boris Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan – we could focus much more on improving bus reliability. London buses are the workhorses of the capital’s public transport, providing a staggering two billion passenger journeys a year. Unlike expensive grand projects like Crossrail, improvements to bus services are relatively cheap and quick to implement.

Instead, we are going backwards by prioritising cycle lanes over bus lanes in large parts of London and directing traffic onto already congested main roads. Perhaps given the relative sizes of the bus and cycle communities maybe it’s time the Mayor created a Bus Czar?

Sadly, far too many of the current transport advocacy groups seem intent on demonising drivers as uncaring “rat runners” and similar charming epithets. It’s the equivalent of the anti-smoking lobby going round pubs in the 1990s accusing smokers of killing all the customers there – good for the soul but unlikely to change behaviour.

Moreover, the road rage fuelled by LTNs has split a coalition that should be working together to reduce congestion and poor air quality. It’s time for a truce after the road wars about the Covid LTNs – a surreal struggle over less than four per cent of London road space. If we instead work together, an advanced road pricing system and a significant reduction in motor traffic could be closer than we think.

Paul Wheeler writes about local politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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Categories: Comment


  1. AM says:

    Smoking is an interesting example to pick, and (maybe deliberately) there are a whole bunch of changes that are glossed over here. Things like getting rid of vending machines, introducing plain packaging, enforcing age limits, banning advertising and sponsorship, getting rid of certain words like “light”, banning menthol, and of course limiting where people can smoke. Smoking is inconvenient now–you have to know what to ask for, get someone to fetch it from a closed cabinet, and mind where you light up. Big structural changes that made smoking way more inconvenient. The idea that a few media campaigns and
    some incentives were enough to change behaviour isn’t really convincing.

    As for “the anti-smoking lobby going round pubs in the 1990s accusing smokers of killing all the customers there”, the government did have a “dangers of secondhand smoke” campaign a few years later, which is pretty much the same thing but on a bigger scale. Interestingly, there are groups still fighting against this idea, citing selected studies and data as they go

  2. Andrew Barnett says:

    What a pile of lies, lazy conclusions and bad assumptions.

    Let’s start with the lies:
    -The consultation areas were actually in favour of the LTNs, it’s only when accounting for their motorists friends from all around the country, bombing the consultation of areas they don’t live in, spending their time bullying and organizing garden parties with corrupted councillors, that the results shift in slight disfavour of LTNs.

    Lazy conclusions:
    -We could just solve everything with infinite money I pull out of my hat and not do anything to reduce the use of personal vehicles in highly populated and highly pedestrian areas until we have come up with a global perfect solution that doesn’t cause any disruption to current car users.

    Bad assumptions:
    -Crossrails is expensive therefore a stupid use of public money. We should just add more buses instead. First of all, have you done the maths? Do you realise how many people will be transported to work by crossrails every day and will have their commute made significantly better? I’ll give you a hint, it’s of the order of a million per working day. Definitely written by someone who actually doesn’t have to take the bus to go to work everyday.
    In your this poor attempt at assessing impact of LTN, not even once environment, health, safety, better use of densely populated urban space is mentioned in the article.

    Baby boomers reading this would be astonished to learn that when smoking was banned in public spaces, it was done to protect the interest of the many despite incommoding the few. It turns out if policy makers had actually the interest of future generation in mind who today, mostly don’t own and can’t afford a car (or a home) and have to walk and use these (apparently?) horrible, underfunded, public transports to work and worry about the climate catastrophe you left them. If their interests were considered, just once, LTNs would be deployed in larger scale, as previously done in many European cities, to improve the health and safety of its inhabitants and provide a better use of urban spaces than parking and idling cars.

    1. Blimey Andrew you are a bit all
      over the place here.

      None of the consultations were in favour of LTNs and to their credit councils in Ealing, Greenwich and Brent acted on that.

      It was in councils such as Hackney and Waltham Forest that a bit of creative accounting was done to exclude local residents who indicated the occasional use of a car. Job done and ‘majority’ now in favour.

      No one is against Crossrail just that there are two billion bus journeys a year and a bit more focus on that would help TfL in the short term when budgets are stretched.

      I have no idea what your comments on smoking mean…

      Best to think of LTNs are a form of income generation for cash strapped councils or environmental improvement projects for select roads. They have very little impact on reducing traffic or improving air quality across London.

  3. Nick says:

    The claim that “Every time a council consulted about their continuation a majority of respondents rejected them” is untrue.

    Lambeth is in the process of consulting on its Covid LTNs. Both consultations published so far – in Railton and Oval – supported their continuation.

    1. Hi nick the consultation was only successful in the sense that it excluded any comments from those who identified with using a car! It’s democracy but not as most people understand it…

      1. Nick says:

        Hi Paul. You must have some other consultations in mind.

        The Lambeth Railton consultation report is here:

        The Oval equivalent is here:

        Both reports state that the majority of respondents drove and contain comments about the impacts on drivers.

  4. James Mclaren says:

    Andrew Barnett has his head way above the clouds to actually say the Consultations were in Favour.They were massively against Ltns but the Labour Councillors simply don’t listen to Residents anymore.Hopefully in May they will have plenty of time on their hands to think about their Arrogance against the wishes of the public 🤬🤬🤬

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