Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Good idea badly implemented?

A flagship transport scheme designed to increase physical distancing and reduce exposure to air pollution in the post-Covid era has come under fire from campaigners who claim it is counter productive. Concerns have been raised that  measures of the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods designed to relieve pressure on the transport system are actually causing gridlock through poor design and implementation. Green Party Women (GPW) Co-Chair Dawn Furness spoke to GPW Air Pollution Spokeswoman Rosamund Kissi-Debrah and Greater London Assembly member Caroline Russell about the issues affecting those living in the vicinity of the scheme. 

Dawn Furness

This article was originally published in the GPW newsletter.

In the ongoing battle against Covid-19, social and physical distancing measures have reduced public transport capacity to one sixth of pre-pandemic capacity. Whilst a large proportion of the population can continue to work remotely, those who cannot rely on private transport to keep the country and economy moving. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are one of the transport measures currently being funded by central government nationally and by Transport for London (TfL) in London with the intention of eliminating gridlock and a pollution spike.

The principle behind the measures

Each neighbourhood or “cell” is a group of residential streets, bordered by main or “distributor” roads (the places where buses, lorries, through traffic should be), or by features in the landscape that form barriers to motor traffic – rivers, railway lines, etc.

Groups of cells or neighbourhoods should be clustered around key amenities and transport interchanges on a grid system within a four to eight-mile radius with approximately a 1.5-mile walking distance across each cell. What would have been through-traffic is diverted into a one-way system around the outside of the grid. 

That sounds like a great idea so why is this an issue?

The link between air pollution and increased Covid-19 mortality is established with an ever increasing body of scientific evidence. [Also watch the GPW conference with the team’s key researchers here.] Rosamund Kissi-Debrah has been campaigning to highlight the prevalence of deaths from asthma following the death of her daughter to a rare asthma condition in 2013. Kissi-Debrah is focusing her awareness-raising on the Black and Asian population (predominantly the Bangladeshi community) who already suffer greater health inequalities, and where Covid-19 is yet another factor exacerbating poor health outcomes. 

Poster of Rosamund Kiss-Debrah's daughter Ella

Kissi-Debrah feels it is important to specify the identity of the communities affected as the current terminology ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ (BAME) is a “lazy way of lumping distinct communities into a single group.” Focusing on minorities that are ‘non-white’ ignores, for instance, the Polish community in the same geographical area. She argues that a more nuanced approach is needed when talking about health outcomes for particular groups as they all have different needs.

Case Study – Hither Green

During lockdown, air pollution was low as we all realised we needed to walk more, cycle more, use public transport less. The government-funded Low Traffic Neighbourhoods provided a solution to social and physical distancing, while maintaining reduced air pollution levels. However, Kissi-Debrah argues that although the concept is sound in principle, the actual implementation of the programme at Hither Green is poorly thought through and badly designed. She explains that emergency measures due to Covid-19 allowed councils to push through changes without the usual consultation with local residents.  

A few days ago, on the hottest day of the year, single-lane traffic flow effectively reduced the road layout by half, and caused gridlock with thousands of vehicles idling as temperatures rose. A further concern has been that due to the road layout design, all traffic displaced from the more affluent Hither Green East Lee End is channelled into the less affluent borough of Hither Green – Kissi-Debrah’s local neighbourhood – and an area where residents are already dealing with the impact of the South Circular in Hither Green West.

Kissi-Debrah describes the single-lane segregation of traffic as ‘Lung Apartheid’: “One side has low/no traffic and the other side is completely gridlocked!”. Residents are concerned that the traffic keeps ending up in poorer neighbourhoods. The communities argue that they already have more than enough traffic and don’t need any more. 

Whilst Kissi-Debrah is keen to stress that this was not the intention of the scheme, it is, nevertheless, the impact. And with schools going back on 3 September, things are expected to get much worse. Campaigners are demanding that the roads are returned to normal to relieve the gridlock, but this would go against the local council plan and the government’s initiative. 

Good Design vs badly allocated funding?

Caroline Russell believes the implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods is a necessity and it is one of three measures that are being funded to help get more people walking and cycling for local journeys:

  1. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, designed to curb through-traffic;
  2. Pop-up bike lanes on main roads; and
  3. Space for physical distancing on high streets to help make shops more attractive to shoppers.

Russell argues that a Low Traffic Neighbourhood ensures that every home is accessible for deliveries or by car but as there is access to only one main road there is no benefit in cutting through residential areas by car. It is a tried and tested way to get more people walking and cycling for local journeys by reducing traffic and tackling sat-nav driven rat-running. She says: “Children growing up in Waltham Forest already have eight extra months of healthy life because their Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have reduced traffic so effectively.

“Clearly we also need measures on the main roads like Copenhagen crossings over side roads to give pedestrian priority, safe vehicle speeds with 20mph speed limits, and where possible protected bike lanes, 24-hour bus lanes and bus stop by-passes. Main roads are more likely to be home for less well-off and BAME communities so it is crucial that they are not left out, but I fully support the emergency move to quickly bring in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods across wide networks of side roads. This will make it less convenient to drive locally and will support public health with more active local journeys, traffic reduction and more people friendly streets.”

Local transport notes (LTNs) summarise the latest and most important ideas about traffic management issues and provide guidance for local authorities.

In support of her position, Russell contacted a Lewisham walk/cycle campaigner who said: “Yes, right now the Lee Green (or Hither Green East) LTN is a positive development. The problem is that traffic has gone from roads without traffic lights to those with (Hither Green Lane) and that there were disruptions on South Circular and Lee High Road as scheme bedded in. Early days are always hard but made them more so. Absolutely need to see more filtering across borough – clear lesson from Waltham Forest.” 

“Challenge is money hasn’t been allocated yet, when it is, a big cell that cuts use of Hither Green Lane but speeds up buses would be ideal. There are already various bits of filtering on South Circular and in Hither Green West so it wouldn’t take a lot to sort out. Also true that areas like Deptford desperately need sorting out. To date most filtering here has been to speed up main roads not to remove rat runners. Lee Green big step change on that. If money gets awarded in DfT tranche 2 (bids in today, awards maybe 1-2 weeks and strong case), Will Bradley has said in a letter to a local campaigner FOI that there should be “an extensive programme” of LTNs in Lewisham so we know city hall are supportive. Could see work here before end September, potentially.”

Next steps

Throughout the summer, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods programmes are being rolled out all over London, and then England and Wales. If designed well, with structured financial support they should have a positive impact, but Kissi-Debrah is not convinced and has seen “no evidence that they work.” Unfortunately, this is not just a localised problem in a London borough. The success of the country-wide rollout of the measures depends on the resources and community available to implement them. It is vital that a dialogue between councils and residents is established that works to benefit both. It is also vital that early adopters of such measures provide best practice guidelines for improving the implementation in other areas. 

Kissi-Debrah is taking her campaign to the Town Hall. On Sunday 16 August 2020, starting at 1.00pm at Hither Green Station, residents are marching to Lewisham Town Hall, hopefully to be met by the Mayor and members of the council to “express concerns and fears”. Each protester will bear a placard with the image of Kissi-Debrah’s late daughter Ella, who died (aged 10) from an asthma attack exacerbated by air pollution. “Letters are good but if you want to enact change, you need to have ‘face-to-face’ meetings,” says Kissi-Debrah. “When they see us marching they will know to take us seriously!” 

Links and resources

http://ellaroberta.org/ella-roberta-family-foundation/

https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/media/3844/lcc021-low-traffic-neighbourhoods-detail-v9.pdf

https://www.sustrans.org.uk/for-professionals/infrastructure/an-introductory-guide-to-low-traffic-neighbourhood-design

Dawn Furness is Co-Chair of Green Party Women.