All about low traffic neighbourhoods

‘Low traffic neighbourhoods’ or LTNs for short, are sometimes also called Liveable Neighbourhoods. They have been popular in transport planning terms for some time, particularly as part of the Mayor of London’s transport strategy to improve our air quality, get us all moving more, and moving more short car journeys onto other ways or ‘modes’ of travel, particularly walking and cycling.

In these strange, tentatively post-lockdown days, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are more important than ever as a way of helping us to move around safely, as we emerge into the light, blinking a little and keeping our distance from each other. And they are coming to Newham, more specifically to Forest Gate, so now seemed like a great time to write a bit about what a LTN is, how it works, what the benefits are, and anything else that I can think of to help us all get more familiar with the idea, and with what is coming.

In essence

A Low Traffic Neighbourhood is basically a way of managing a group of roads to reduce traffic, and encourage people to walk and cycle. You take a discrete geographical area or ‘neighbourhood’ of roads, and design a series of  ‘filters’ so that vehicles can access for visitors, residents, and deliveries, but not to pass through on their way somewhere else. In its simplest form, a filter can be a bollard placed in the middle of a side road junction. This filter allows pedestrians, people on bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs,  pushchairs, and cargo bikes through, but does not allow ‘rat running’ cars. Effectively, vehicles driving through the area are moved onto main roads and off residential streets.

This video from Oxfordshire Liveable Streets explains it rather brilliantly (they use the term ‘connectors’ rather than ‘filters’, but I can live with that, frankly):

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are quieter and safer, cleaner and more pleasant, and I could not be more pleased and excited at the prospect of bringing this kind of transport planning to Newham. There are significant benefits to doing this, and although I’m far from an expert, I would like to spend a bit of time running briefly through the main ones.

If you are looking at this post and thinking, ‘Blimey, Rachel, ANOTHER long and wordy post’ then you might want to save time by just having a look at this, from Lambeth Living Streets:

In fact, I would recommend having a look at Lambeth Living Streets on twitter regardless, as their social media content on this topic is absolutely on point.

Air quality

I have spoken on this blog before about the absolute necessity of taking action on air quality. Air quality in Newham is notoriously poor, it affects people on lowest incomes worst of all. We have various contributors to bad air quality here, including London City Airport and the proposed Silvertown tunnel, and this makes it even more important that we take whatever action we can locally to improve things. Doing nothing is not an option.

Waltham Forest have been doing fabulous work for years now to encourage walking and cycling, and the difference they have made in terms of air quality is frankly staggering.

There is plenty of information online with evidence (and believe me, I’ll be linking to plenty of it in future posts), but I tweeted these memorable results from some training I attended, which shows the results achieved very clearly.

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Benefits – increased activity levels

Another very stark impact across Waltham Forest is that where Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been introduced, levels of activity have increased for residents who live there. People are walking more and cycling more. This not only has an impact on pollution and reduces congestion, but it’s particularly important here in Newham where so many residents have or are at risk of health conditions like type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. It is imperative that as a public body, we do everything we can to encourage people to become more active, and it is a sad fact of public policy that it is really incredibly difficult to do anything that creates behaviour change. The results our neighbours have achieved, with on average 30 minutes more walking per week, are really significant.

Benefits – road safety

Of course it’s pretty obvious that with fewer cars on the roads, there are then fewer accidents, and the streets become safer for all of us, but particularly for vulnerable road users such as children, and people with reduced mobility.

Benefits – quality of life and community

What is less initially obvious, however, is the benefits that more walking and cycling bring in terms of community and quality of life. When I visited the work done in Waltham Forest (kindly shown around by Clyde Loakes, who has been an absolute powerhouse in terms of getting this work done there) he said that something people often commented on was that with quieter streets they could hear bird song again. I know I’m not the only person to have noticed more bird song, and in fact more birds full stop, when traffic reduced so starkly when lockdown was introduced.

But also a quiet road is not just a means of getting efficiently from one place to another. It’s a place where children can play, where you can learn to ride a bike, where you can linger, and chat, and also a place where you can get to know your neighbours, and increase your sense of community. There is even evidence showing that the less traffic there is on a road, the more of your neighbours you are likely to know, and the more of a sense of ownership you have over your area. This brilliant blog post goes into that in more detail:
https://mattturner.blog/revisiting-donald-appleyards-the-environmental-quality-of-city-streets-a-residents-viewpoint-in-21st-century-britain/

Benefits – for businesses

One concern that people have is the impact on local businesses. This is particularly important at the moment, as our high streets are slowly reopening, and many of our small businesses have been significantly effected and continue to be close to the edge. Concerns and even staunch opposition to any through traffic restrictions are often expressed by small business owners themselves, and also local people who use and value them.

There is much to say about this – rather more than will fit into a summary blog post! But in essence, the correlation that some people feel to exist between parking and money spent locally is not as straightforward as it might appear. For instance, providing free parking is detrimental to businesses, as people will park up and use bays for long periods. It’s also very interesting that businesses tend to over-estimate the number of their customers who arrive by car, and also that people travelling on foot, by bike or by public transport, actually spend more money. If you are not travelling in a car, you can wave to friends, stop for a catch up, read a poster, notice a new shop opening, make an extra stop for some groceries on your way home, and you can do all these things easily and quickly.

You can read a full and detailed report on ‘the Pedestrian Pound’ here:https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/media/3890/pedestrian-pound-2018.pdf

or if you’d prefer some graphics and a summary, once again Lambeth Living Streets have saved us all some time with this excellent thread:

 

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Especially now, post-lockdown but in a world where we still have to social distance, we have some stark realities to face in London about transport. All over the world cities are turning over their road space to support small businesses, especially those in food and drink, turning spaces that would have been taken up by cars into places where socially distanced tables and chairs mean that restaurants and cafes with tiny profit margins can open up again. Creating quiet streets where people want to visit: not just drive in and clear out again as soon as possible, but places to linger, to eat, and socialise.

Traffic evaporation

One of the most fascinating things about traffic (and yes, I am being serious. This is what 6 years as a councillor will do to you) is that we tend to think of it as being ‘like water’, flowing mindlessly through the path of least resistance if displaced. Actually, traffic does not behave like this, and one of the ways that this difference is demonstrated is through ‘traffic evaporation’. This quite literally means that when you displace through traffic, some of it moves onto main roads. But some of it also literally evaporates. People radically change their route, or change how they travel, and some of the cars that were there just, well, ‘evaporate’.

So a common concern about a low traffic neighbourhood is ‘what about the impact on the main roads’ and this is of course natural. But some of that impact is mitigated by reduced numbers of vehicles. Main roads are also built to carry more cars, and the percentage increase in numbers of vehicles is relatively small, compared to the residential streets where the same number of vehicles as a reduction in overall traffic has a proportionally huge impact.

But we know from the evidence of transport planning around the world that ‘if you build it, they will come’ has rarely been more true than when applied to how we move around cities. If you open up roads, increase the space for vehicles, build additional lanes, and make parking cheaper, many more people will use a car. And what you might have hoped would ‘free up traffic’ or ‘allow traffic to flow’ actually has the opposite effect.

Resistance

I have written before about resistance to changes to our roads, particularly when it comes to cars. Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with my tales of the quite extraordinary strength of feeling that comes up on the subject of parking, for instance. I don’t underestimate this: much of it comes from uncertainty and concern. People are always worried about unintended consequences, and concerned about their quality of life. But there is often strong resistance to making changes to roads that make more space for people, rather than cars, and it’s just worth flagging up that I know some of these changes will be controversial, and won’t be shocked when people feel that way. I think there is a lot of work to do so that we can all discuss the potential downsides, the compromises to be made, and the benefits that are possible. Social distancing makes these conversations much more difficult, but still important.

Very normal

Exactly as with my post on parking charges, I did just want to flag the fact that there is nothing particularly unusual happening here. Low traffic neighbourhoods are happening right across London: funding is being announced regularly for fast interventions and it seems new schemes are announced daily. I’ve been admiring the comms work for the ‘Oval Triangle’ low traffic neighbourhood (and not just because I used to work around there) which includes a rather beautiful little hand drawn map by artist Charlotte Mugarra

https://ovalltnproposals.commonplace.is/about

Islington have announced ambitious plans for a third of the borough to be part of a low traffic neighbourhood by the end of the year.  Waltham Forest are continuing to do work all over their borough, despite the impression that some of us have that there was only ever one ‘mini Holland’ that was hotly contested, they have moved on and created many more neighbourhoods, with much less controversy than surrounded their first. Hackney are moving so fast that I joked on twitter (often a mistake, to be honest) that they are making the rest of us look bad: more school street closures, and more and more filters to cut out rat runs.

What’s happening here

So, I hear you ask, what is happening HERE in Newham? Well, we applied some time ago for funding from TfL for a joint Liveable Neighbourhood Scheme with Waltham Forest, which I talked about in this post here. That pot of funding is now not available, after the disasterous impact that Covid-19 has had on TfL’s finances. But we are pressing ahead anyway, in partnership with Waltham Forest, to implement a lower-budget version of what we had originally planned over an area that covers the Western, Maryland side of Forest Gate north ward, also the Olympic Village, and goes into Waltham Forest to Cann Hall.

More information on this scheme should be coming out any moment now, and of course I will be publicising this when it does. After that, I’ve been talking to officers who are looking at other places in the borough that would lend themselves to this approach, and am delighted to say that one of those areas is what some people term the ‘village’ area: bounded by Sebert Road, Woodgrange Road, Capel Road and extending past Tylney Road into Manor Park. (On a side note, I will offer a small prize to anyone who can come up with a better term than ‘the village’, which I find desperately twee and try-hard, but keep coming back to as it’s so much faster than a geographical description of the roads).

I think it’s obvious from the above that I am a passionate supporter of this approach. I am so excited at the opportunity to really have an impact on the environment we live in, and am thrilled at the prospect of the benefits extending to many of our residents. From a selfish point of view, I am also really excited to think of the impact of reducing through traffic on my road, which will form part of what I hope will be the second Forest Gate LTN. The idea of my girls cycling safely on the roads around us, going out to visit their friends on quieter roads, is lovely. At night I can often hear cars speeding down Capel Road, screeching to a slower speed before each speed bump, and hitting the top of each bump with the chassis of the vehicle. Obviously it’s possible that all these drivers are locals who are forgetful about the humps. But it seems to me that if the scheme is designed well, these cars may well not form part of our evenings any more.

Quieter, cleaner, healthier, better for children, better for businesses, better for all of us. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, coming soon to a road near you. What’s not to love?

 

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