The Street Fight Over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, Part Two


In Part One of this post, we looked at the controversy over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), an initiative meant to tackle the increasing amount of traffic on the UK’s residential streets. Essentially, the schemes allow vehicle access for residents, but prevent any through traffic. For supporters, LTNs bring back cleaner air, and some much-needed peace and quiet, to car-dominated urban areas. What’s more, it’s a relatively low-cost solution.

This all sounds peachy, but there’s another side to the story.

Big Problems with Low Traffic

The basic problem with LTNs is that many people’s lives are dependent on the car. That means that anything making it harder to drive directly to their homes also makes life considerably more difficult. LTNs may mean that getting to work, or getting the kids to school, suddenly involves taking a longer and more roundabout route.

Take a working mum, for example, who has to drop the kids off and then get to work, all in rush hour traffic. That can be tough and stressful as it is — but when LTNs add extra travel time, it could become intolerable.

Then there’s the impact on people whose livelihoods depend on easy motorised access. That includes taxi, Uber and gig-economy delivery drivers. For them, time is money, and blocking through traffic makes it harder to earn a living wage.

What’s worse is the way in which these measures are often imposed. In The Guardian’s excellent piece on LTNs, they point out that in the Hackney traffic-reducing scheme, residents had very little warning about the changes.

A Question of Class

In the UK, divisions over class are never too far away. For some, LTNs are just the latest battle in an ongoing class war. From this viewpoint, they are another example of out-of-touch metropolitan elites benefiting at the expense of ordinary working people.

As an example, LTNs are intended to help the UK meet its climate targets. And yet other major sources of emissions, such as aviation, remain untaxed. Now,if you’re a taxi driver trying to earn a living, it might seem grossly unfair that your actual livelihood will be affected, while well-heeled people don’t pay a penny extra for their long-haul holiday flights. Most people agree with the principle of becoming greener, but they want the tab to be paid equally.

Layered on top of this, maybe, is an association between LTNs and gentrification. Closed-off streets, people commuting into work by bike: it all raises the spectre of wine bars, artisan bakeries, and rental prices going through the roof. It’s not a prospect that everyone welcomes.

LTNs: an opinion

Looking at both sides, here’s a cautious opinion (and it is cautious… obviously we’re not town planners, nor do we live anywhere that’s likely to be turned into an LTN anytime soon).

We love cars. We make our living out of repairing them, servicing them, testing them and so on. We love driving too. But even so, when you look at the traffic statistics — or just try to get anywhere in a reasonable-sized town — you can see that the love affair with the car has gone a bit mental. When one-quarter of car journeys in the UK is under one mile, something has gone badly wrong.

We can’t hide from the human cost of all this. Recently, for example, air pollution was judged to have contributed to the death of a nine-year-old girl.

When you look at it that way, LTNs are a way of reducing pollution where it really counts, around people’s homes.

Yet there are good ways and bad ways of doing things. In Hackney, LTNs appear to have been dumped on unsuspecting neighbourhoods from on-high, without much explanation, consultation, or warning. That’s a recipe for backlash and people jumping into their respective trenches.

If LTNs are put into place thoughtfully, with some consultation and explanation (and with measures to help people who are really disadvantaged by the schemes)… well, it’s still optimistic to say everyone’s going to be on-board. But, used judiciously, they could be part of a solution to a very big problem.

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