Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: what are they and why are they so controversial?

A Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) is designed to discourage or restrict use of cars by non-local motorists. But the concept divides opinion.

What is a Low Traffic Neighbourhood

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are splitting opinion. Dividing communities. Ruining friendships.

On the one hand, a Low Traffic Neighbourhood will improve the quality of life at a local level. Improved air quality, less pollution, quieter streets and a greater sense of community. Streets free of the stranglehold of traffic. Streets that breathe again.

That’s the theory. For many motorists, a Low Traffic Neighbourhood is an inconvenience. A loss of civil liberty. The micromanagement of motoring. There are even suggestions of this being a class war.

But what exactly is a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN)?

What is a Low Traffic Neighbourhood?

‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are groups of residential streets, bordered by main or ‘distributor’ roads (the places where buses, lorries and non-local traffic should be), where “through” motor vehicle traffic is discouraged or removed.’

This quote from the policy makers document is a good summary. Measures are put in place to discourage or restrict the use of motor vehicles. Some are temporary, while others are permanent.

It remains possible for residents and delivery drivers to use the streets, but it’s harder or impossible to drive through from one main road to the next. ‘Rat-runs’ will be a thing of the past in a future of LTNs.

Why do we need Low Traffic Neighbourhoods?

LTN in London

In May, the government announced a £2 billion package to ‘create a new era for cycling and walking’. Of this, £250 million was allocated for an ‘emergency active travel fund’, to include the likes of wider pavements, pop-up bike lanes and cycle-only corridors.

People have been reluctant to use public transport during the pandemic, which has led to ‘unprecedented levels’ of walking and cycling across the UK. More than 200 new LTNs have been proposed in the last four months, with London accounting for around two-thirds of these.

“The government and councils needed to act fast because of Covid,” said Giulio Ferrini of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans.

“Lots of people understandably don’t want to travel on buses and trains during a pandemic so there’s a real risk those with cars will just drive more, causing gridlock and adding to dangerous levels of pollution, unless councils provide viable alternatives by making walking and cycling safer. This is what low-traffic neighbourhoods can do.”

Opponents would argue that the pandemic is another opportunity to persecute motorists. Yet another attack on drivers. Opposition groups have said LTNs benefit the middle classes in the centre of the schemes, at the expense of those living outside the neighbourhood or who are dependent on their vehicles to earn a living.

How does a Low Traffic Neighbourhood work?

Most LTNs use so-called ‘modal filters’ to stop vehicles driving beyond a certain point. These are placed at strategic points around the neighbourhood to stop drivers using the streets as ’rat-runs’.

Traffic on minor roads and residential streets has increased, as drivers are directed away from minor roads to avoid congestion. Traffic-based navigation systems and apps such as Waze have contributed to soaring traffic levels on back roads.

There are many forms of modal filters, including bollards, gates, planters, opposing one-way systems, bus gates, width restrictions and so-called ‘school streets’. These are timed sections of road designed to discourage parents from dropping off close to school.

Some LTNs are enforced using rising bollards and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. Others rely on width restrictions and the assumption that motorists will adhere to the rules.

As footage sourced by the BBC reveals, some motorists will take to the pavement to avoid a blockade. There have been protests and petitions demanding the removal of LTNs in some London boroughs, while planters have been overturned in Ealing.

The case for and against LTNs

Low Traffic Neighbourhood

Local Traffic Neighbourhoods can be implemented using emergency traffic orders, with the subsequent consultation taking place over the first six months of operation. That’s one of the aspects that has angered many.

Some councils have dropped the plans. Ravi Govinda, Wandsworth Council’s leader, said: “We are also absolutely committed to our ambitious target of growing the greenest inner London borough by 2030. 

“But the LTNs we had in place were just not working for local residents and businesses. There were gridlocks on our roads which increased carbon emissions; emergency vehicles were getting blocked in, and the daily lives of many residents were being disrupted.”

There’s also a concern that an LTN does little more than shift a problem elsewhere. Sam Cooray, who lives on the border of a scheme in Oval, in the London borough of Lambeth, told The Guardian: “I’m between two main roads so I’m in a cloud of pollution, and my children are in a cloud of pollution,” she says, “sitting in a park cafe beside a busy road.”

Supporters point to the social and environmental benefits as reasons to get behind the concept of LTNs. The first scheme in Waltham Forest saw traffic levels fall by around half inside the residential area and by 16 percent even when including the main roads.

Chris Proctor of Enjoy Waltham Forest said: “The average road within the village saw a 44.1 percent reduction in vehicles on the road and a reduction in speed from 21.6mph to 19.5mph.”

LTN Road Open To sign

Simon MacMichael, news editor at road.cc, said: “Is it too much to hope that as more and more low traffic neighbourhoods are introduced, and more local residents get used to their streets being closed to rat-running drivers, there is a future around the corner in which people are encouraged out of their cars – if they have one in the first place – and use cycling or walking as their default way of getting around?”

One thing’s clear: there’s no middle ground in the LTN discussion. Like Brexit or wearing a face mask, either you’re in favour or you’re not. The topic on social media is surrounded by vitriolic attacks, bitterness and anger.

It all comes down to whether you view LTNs as ‘road closed’ or ‘road open to pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists’. It’s far from an open or shut case.

All images © Sarah Berry.

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Gavin Braithwaite-Smithhttp://www.petrolblog.com
Writer with a penchant for #FrenchTat. Also doing a passable impression of Cousin Eddie in an Italian-German beige motorhome.

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