Show Hide image

Low-traffic neighbourhoods: How the culture wars came to a street near you

Conflict over the government’s latest car reduction measures is dividing communities across England.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

It starts off innocently enough. Two wooden planters in the road, blossoming with flowers. A bike lane you swear wasn’t there before, filled with eager new cyclists. Children scootering merrily to school, unhampered by cars.

And then you hear horns honking in the distance, and see traffic building up on the horizon. It takes you twice as long to do your weekly shop at the big supermarket by car. You are fined on a road you have always driven down.

You log into your local Facebook group or browse the community network Nextdoor to find out what’s going on. You enter a dark world of vandalism, doxxing and death threats on your doorstep.

Welcome to your friendly neighbourhood low-traffic zone.

***

On 9 May 2020, the UK government announced a £250m “emergency active travel fund”. It was the first part of a £2bn central funding package to create a “new era” for cycling and walking in England.

It made sense. Because of lockdown trends – including less car and public transport use, and mass home working – huge numbers of people were cycling and walking more. Some places in Britain experienced a 70 per cent rise in the number of people using bikes.

Community spirit, inspired by the first wave of coronavirus, and a relative bounce in local business as people stopped commuting, meant residents were newly discovering the benefits of their neighbourhoods.

Listen to Anoosh and the New Statesman ​podcast team discuss this story:

The government wanted to harness this rise in activity, and the accompanying drop in air pollution, to ensure a healthier, greener post-pandemic recovery. Statutory guidance telling councils to reallocate road space to cyclists and pedestrians was fast-tracked, published and made effective that same day.

Although it was only advice, the government “expected” local authorities to implement these plans before lockdown eased:

“Measures should be taken as swiftly as possible, and in any event within weeks, given the urgent need to change travel habits before the restart takes full effect.”

Usually, a council would have to consult residents before any traffic interventions. But many opted for “experimental” or “temporary” schemes, which can be trialled before local people are asked.

More than 50 councils used the funding to create around 200 new “low-traffic neighbourhoods”, or “LTNs”. Over half are in and around London. 

Low-traffic neighbourhoods are residential roads where motor traffic is limited or closed off completely. This obstructs or redirects “through traffic” or “rat running”, when cars use local streets as corridors to and from destinations outside the immediate area. Planters and other infrastructure close LTN roads off to motor traffic.

"Planters were tipped over and daubed with graffiti reading 'abuse of power'"

Already, some of the plans are unravelling. The east London borough of Redbridge and south London borough of Wandsworth have suspended their LTN schemes, and Lewisham Council is reforming the Lee Green LTN after local opposition.

In Ealing, west London, bollards were uprooted, and planters moved, tipped over and daubed with graffiti reading “abuse of power”. An LTN in Hackney, north-east London, was also graffitied (“Khan out” – although City Hall is not behind the schemes).

Ealing Council leader Julian Bell – depicted as a “dictator” with a military cap on one placard at an Ealing anti-LTN protest – narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence called by his own Labour councillors in September over mishandling of LTNs. Jon Burke, the cabinet member for transport on Hackney Council, and his family received a death threat over road closures. The deputy leader of Lambeth Council in south London, Claire Holland, described the hostility over LTNs as a “culture war” in a recent interview with the Guardian.

Two campaigners I spoke to for this article on either side of the debate have had their addresses posted on social media to intimidate them (an abuse known as “doxxing”).

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps threatened in September to withdraw cash from councils “abusing” the funding, forgetting to mention it was his department that triggered the hasty changes in the first place. Later that month, demonstrations against LTNs were held simultaneously in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Ealing and Wandsworth.

***

To some, LTNs mark a long overdue change in England’s relationship with car use and a bold reimagining of the very nature of our local streets. To others, they are blunt and disruptive – dividing communities and damaging day-to-day lives, despite good intentions.

Unlike the usual debates over car reduction measures, the heartache over LTNs goes far beyond predictable battles between irate motorists and pious environmentalists.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah embodies these dividing lines. A campaigner against pollution, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella died in 2013 after severe asthma attacks, she is a health and air quality advocate for the World Health Organisation and ran as the Green Party candidate for Lewisham East, south-east London, in the last election.

A full inquest to determine the role of air pollution in her daughter’s death is due in weeks. Ella lived 25 metres from the South Circular, one of London’s busiest roads.

“There are other, more deprived places that could have done with less traffic”

Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, however, is concerned about the effect of LTNs in her borough. In Hither Green, Lewisham, where she lives, her street is outside of the local LTN, and she has seen traffic surge on the South Circular, affecting her own and adjoining roads.

“I thought about it long and hard, and I gave it a month, but traffic is building up,” she says. “I am never going to support anything that could send a child to hospital… But people are very upset about my point of view on it.”

Not only is Adoo-Kissi-Debrah a clean air campaigner, she lives the life for which LTNs are designed: for five years, her main form of transport has been a push scooter, and her two surviving children “cycle all the time, they’re fanatics. Ella was the same.”

She sees the issue in her borough as one of social justice, as it appears traffic is being displaced from the more affluent Hither Green east end to poorer surrounding areas. “The middle classes are very good at lobbying to get these things,” she says. “There are other, more deprived wards in Lewisham that could have done with an LTN.”

***

“Green gentrification” is when environmental policies have adverse impacts on poorer communities. It is a concern among those who live on roads near but not within LTNs, where traffic appears to be rising. Tower Hamlets councillor Puru Miah has given voice to local fears of “social cleansing”, particularly from ethnic minority residents, in the east London borough’s LTN proposals.

Walthamstow, a suburb in Waltham Forest, north-east London, encapsulates the perception that LTNs benefit smarter areas. In many ways, it is the original low-traffic neighbourhood, starting life as a “mini-Holland scheme” in 2014. Now it is hailed as a “20-minute neighbourhood”, where most essential trips can be made without a car in 20 minutes.

Its “villagisation” is clear to see, in an area that has attracted wealth rapidly in recent years: Walthamstow has recorded London’s highest increase in house prices since 2010 – a 117 per cent rise, according to Rightmove.

“Across London as a whole, low traffic neighbourhoods are more often in parts that are more deprived and have lower car ownership”

Yet these trends are difficult to measure. Only 10 per cent of people live along main roads, according to Dr Rachel Aldred, professor of transport and director of the Active Travel Academy at the University of Westminster, and deprivation data is not available at street level.

“If you look across London as a whole, low-traffic neighbourhoods are more often in parts of inner London, places that tend to be a bit more deprived and have lower car ownership,” she says. “You see Bromley [the south-eastern-most outer London borough] has done nothing and Lambeth [an inner city borough] has done a lot, and clearly Lambeth is more deprived than Bromley and has lower car ownership.”

Dr Aldred is currently analysing whether councils are putting LTNs into “more or less deprived” streets, and her findings are due soon.

On other measures, early research suggests pre-2020 LTNs are working. Exposure to air pollution fell by 15 to 25 per cent between 2013 and 2020 during typical cycling and walking journeys in Waltham Forest, a reduction which is estimated to increase individual life expectancy by 1.5 months, according to a 2018 study by King’s College London (though wider trends as well as the specific mini-Holland measures were credited with this change).

Car ownership in parts of Waltham Forest with traffic interventions has fallen by a fifth over three years, and people there are spending 40 to 45 minutes walking or cycling a week more than those in areas with zero changes, according to research by Dr Aldred. (She does point out, however, the small sample size and how this data may not represent trends in inner London boroughs).

***

If you live in a low-traffic neighbourhood, you’ve probably noticed the difference already. They feel quieter, cleaner and calmer. Some people’s lives have been dramatically changed by their arrival.

“I never learned to ride a bike as a kid, and I never found myself feeling safe enough to get the practice in to take it up until the LTN was put in,” says Sarah Berry, 29, who lives in Brixton, south London, and recently moved from the Railton LTN to one in Tulse Hill in the borough of Lambeth, where she lives with one housemate.

“It became much safer on the road for someone on a bike and now it’s my main way of getting around London. The road was super-busy before.”

Now a confident cyclist, Berry was able to meet her newborn nephew by cycling from Brixton to Kingston in south-west London, and also credits the LTN with helping people relate more positively to their surroundings.

“I know so many more of my neighbours now – it’s changed the way we interact”

“You interact with the world much easier than if you were in a car, there are more people out and about, and I know so many more of my neighbours,” she says. “It’s changed the way we interact.” She and her neighbours recently clubbed together to buy some wood to build a bench for the end of their road.

Landmark research published by the iconic US urban designer Donald Appleyard in his 1981 book Livable Streets found that residents of lightly trafficked streets in 1969 San Francisco had two more neighbourhood friends and twice as many acquaintances as those on heavily trafficked streets.

These findings were replicated by a 2008 study in Bristol, which revealed that people living with high levels of motor traffic were more likely to be socially disconnected and even ill than those on quieter streets.

Having become an LTN advocate, Berry created green “Road Open” signs to indicate LTNs were still accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair and mobility scooter users – even if they were closed to cars (as the standard red “Road Closed” signs indicate). This involvement has led to some abuse; someone found her address and messaged her, threatening to run her over.

“Public opinion will flip – no one ever wants traffic back”

“Any traffic reduction scheme is always controversial,” says Leo Murray, a climate change campaigner and director of innovation at the zero-carbon project Possible.

He has designed self-watering planters called “concrete jungles” that are being used in Hounslow, west London, instead of wooden planters to filter out motor traffic. These help to stop plants dying, and are hardier than wooden planters.

“We’ve seen vandalism and damage – it’s commonplace for planters to be emptied out, pushed out of the way. Lots of the first wooden planters have had to be reinstated and bolted to the ground,” says Murray.

Yet he urges councils to “hold their nerve”, and says short-term disruption of drivers eventually gives way after six to 12 months to reduced car use.

“Something magic happens, called traffic evaporation,” he says. “Traffic is like a gas – it just expands to the space you give it. Once you get a shift, public opinion flips. No one ever wants traffic back.”

***

Paul Lomax, 42, a tech worker who lives in Hither Green, Lewisham, was also doxxed because of his public views on LTNs. He lives within the Lee Green LTN, and both he and his wife cycle. They have two young children and “barely drive”. He is a member of a local campaign group called One Lewisham that is pushing for changes to the scheme rather than its removal, concerned about its impact on the wider community.

“I’m on a road that benefits, and it is nicer,” he admits. “But it’s a social inequality issue. Blanket policies like these create indirect discrimination.”

He lists numerous roads, particularly the South Circular, surrounding his neighbourhood that became filled with traffic “overnight” after the scheme was implemented. He believes the streets, like his, which benefit are more affluent.

Although Lomax is not against reducing traffic, he says alternatives must be provided for those adversely affected by road closures.

“They’re dividing us: ‘Now entering Hither Green East, get your avocadoes ready’”

“They’re trying to fix the area that least needs it,” he says. “LTNs are dividing a neighbourhood. We’ve got this thing now where we’ve created ‘Hither Green East’ and ‘Hither Green West’. This never happened before, it’s like ‘the other side of the tracks’ mindset. People have put up amusing signs: ‘Now entering Hither Green East, get your avocadoes ready.’

“You wonder how civil wars start,” he jokes. “They could start over an LTN!”

Jane Alaszewska, 47, a fine artist and resident of Lewisham for 15 years, lives in a flat on a street that has been designated a “through road”. Her family does not own a car and relies on cycling and public transport. Her husband has asthma, and her nine-year-old son is autistic, travelling by a council-funded taxi to a special educational needs school in Kent each day.

Their main bus route is now “congested seven days a week” since the changes came in, restricting their leisure activities, and her son’s journey to school has increased from 90 minutes to two hours because of how traffic flow has changed. His transport is often delayed, which distresses him and affects the whole family.

As the new LTNs this year were implemented so quickly, their impact on people with disabilities who rely on cars, taxis and buses to get around has not been measured.

“Politicians have no idea of the consequences on our lives, because they didn’t ask us,” Alaszewska says. Ironically, her family chose not to own a car for environmental reasons, but now she is “leaning” towards buying one because their journeys have become so difficult.

“My road is a residential road, and it has some halfway houses, council and housing association accommodation,” she says. “I don’t think people were as invested in it. It’s now a ‘residential main road’.”

Damien Egan, mayor of Lewisham, commented:

“We are committed to improving the safety, health and broader quality of life for all of our residents no matter where in Lewisham they live. We know that residents have already benefited from cleaner air and safer streets as a result of the low-traffic neighbourhood.

“We have listened to resident feedback and in response we announced changes to the scheme which will be in place from next week that aim to ease traffic congestion. Over time, we expect the impact on surrounding roads to reduce as people choose more active and sustainable ways to travel, especially for short journeys. We remain absolutely committed to this low-traffic neighbourhood and the principles it set out to achieve.”

***

Low traffic neighbourhoods need not fracture our communities. Most voices in the debate agree with their ultimate aims. Drivers themselves can be the worst-affected by pollution, and local businesses can flourish when more customers walk and cycle.

Problems come down to the varying quality of the schemes’ implementation, the demographic make-up of the streets that benefit, and poor outreach by councils. Most LTNs are temporary, and legally locals have to be consulted if they are to be made permanent.

“Councils need to make sure they’re communicating properly, to explain that they will consult people after they’ve had the opportunity to actually experience the benefits and the drawbacks of the change being introduced,” says Leo Murray. “That is very poorly understood.”

Only once people have their say will the true nature of public attitudes towards LTNs become clear. Until then, it may be best to mute your local WhatsApp group.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.