Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have been in the news a fair bit recently, often for the wrong reasons. They have become something of a bete noire for motorists with a right wing bent, and there’s a lot of angry shouting about them. That all gets in the way of what should be a grown-up conversation about traffic, because it’s a problem.
The number of cars in the UK has grown consistently for decades, and traffic with it. Recessions tend to put a dent in traffic figures, and the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 slashed them considerably. But overall the trend is upwards, as this Department of Transport chart shows:
There are a couple of other trends to be aware of within the big one above. One is that personal car ownership has been prioritised over public transport. Cars are represented by the turquoise colour above, so it is private motoring that is by far and away the biggest factor in the increase in traffic. Buses on the other hand, which reduce traffic by carrying more people in one vehicle, has declined in the same time – including a pretty sharp drop since the pandemic.
The second thing, which is not in this graph, is that sat-navs have changed the way that we drive. In the last decade or so, it’s been easier to find shortcuts through neighbourhoods, and some parts of the country have seen traffic double on residential roads. This is something I’ve experienced on our own street, which is much busier than when we moved here.
What this means is that we have more traffic outside our homes. Streets are more dangerous and more noisy, making it less likely that children can walk safely to school or play outside. It’s time we rebalanced our urban geography to prioritise people over cars, and the Low Traffic Neighbourhood movement has been leading the way.
There has been in a doubt in my mind about it though: do traffic restrictions reduce traffic in some places at the expense of others? Is traffic simply relocated?
If so, then there’s an added risk that better resourced middle class neighbourhoods might be able to organise traffic restrictions that would then push more cars into other parts of town. This would be regressive, and one of London’s outspoken critics of LTN’s is Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter died of air-pollution related complications. For her, it’s a matter of environmental justice: traffic is being diverted to lower income neighbourhoods, often with a higher percentage of residents of colour. So campaigners for LTNs need to be able to prove that traffic is genuinely reduced rather than just redistributed.
That’s what Possible have just done. They’ve released the most ambitious study of LTNs ever conducted, measuring traffic both within and outside of 46 neighbourhoods in London – counting traffic at 587 different points in total. They found that traffic within the LTNs fell by an average of 46%, while traffic on boundary roads went up by less than 1%.
In other words, closing streets to cars made it easier for people to switch to walking or cycling. LTNs were encouraging people to choose differently, and genuinely were reducing traffic.
There’s a lot more detail in the full report – including the fact that outcomes are different in different places. Schemes still need to be designed and implemented well. Not every council is measuring traffic before and after effectively, and we need good data to make the case for permanent change – some schemes are removed after motorist protests, without really knowing if they worked or not. And the traffic and air pollution on main roads remains a challenge, with different solutions that are beyond the scope of the LTN movement.
The arguments against LTNs aren’t going to go away anytime soon, but the data is very positive and they are worth fighting for. Do we want safer, cleaner, quieter streets? Then we know what to do.