Low Traffic Neighbourhoods: Anger, hate and the politics of the planter

Tom Edwards
Transport correspondent, London
@BBCTomEdwardson Twitter

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Media caption,

Cars mount pavement to avoid blockade

It is difficult to remember transport schemes attracting such vitriol.

Perhaps at its peak the bike lanes put in along Embankment by Boris Johnson came close.

But the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are attracting loud noisy opposition in most places they are put in.

LTNs use planters to stop through traffic but they also mean getting around in places like Northfields in Ealing by car becomes a lot more difficult.

And that is the theory behind them - they want to drive down car ownership and get people to switch to cycling and walking.

It is important to state they also get strong support.

And with congestion levels almost near pre-lockdown levels and looking to the surpass them, some councils think LTNs are the answer to create low traffic corridors.

There is also, I suspect, a silent majority and it is very difficult to gauge what the majority want. Many, I think, are waiting to see how the six-month trials work out.

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LTNs use planters to stop through traffic

One thing is certain, these schemes have split communities.

When you are out filming LTNs it takes minutes before people are telling you about how they hate them.

Moments later a family will pass and say: "Keep the LTNs."

It is rare for transport schemes to attract that instant response and in Northfields in west London when I was there, that is all everyone was talking about.

In the middle are the councils which designed them, funded by money from central government.

Crucially for boroughs, there was a set time limit to apply for the funding and controversially the schemes use emergency traffic orders.

The consultation happens over the first six months of operation. Some of the planters were put in overnight with no warning. That type of ongoing consultation has angered many.

Image source, Reuters
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Those behind the schemes hope it will lead to more people cycling and walking

And now local politics seems to be coming into play.

If there was ever a quick U-turn, then the Conservative council of Wandsworth did it last week by scrapping their LTNs.

It will be interesting to see if scrapping LTNs improves congestion in the borough.

And Conservative councils do not seem as keen on these schemes.

There also seems to be almost a culture war developing between those who are against them and those who are for. A right to drive unhindered against a right to quiet streets and clean air.

Image caption,
Ealing Council say they have no plans for removing their LTNs

Perhaps Conservative councils are less likely to use LTNs as car ownership and car use is usually higher in outer London where there are more Tory councils.

In Hackney in inner London, for example, 70 per cent of households don't own a car and so you can see why they might be more popular there.

Julian Bell, the Labour leader of Ealing Council, believes the LTNs are just part of a wider picture in tackling climate change, pollution and obesity. He thinks active travel addresses all three.

He told me the council would not be dropping the plans: "We need six months to assess the scheme and give people time to find new routes and switch to cycling and walking. We ask people to be patient and to be open minded."

Labour councillors on Ealing Council are under no illusions that they will have to weather a storm of criticism but they think their pledges to tackle climate change and pollution mean they have no alternative than stand by the LTNs.

Image source, Reuters
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Councils say they are committed to tackling climate change

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."

And don't forget, all of this is being played out against the backdrop of a mayoral election next year.

Roger Evans, a former deputy mayor for London and now a speechwriter, believes changes to road space always brings protests.

He tweeted me: "It is a relatively new government policy. But the battle for road space in London is long established and positions on both sides have been entrenched since the GLC (Greater London Council) days.

"Car use is higher in Conservative outer London so councils there will respond to residents. But schemes can be unpopular in inner London areas too. The West London Tram proposal cost a lot of votes for Labour in Ealing in 2006."

Image source, Reuters
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LTNs are designed to make driving more inconvenient

Politics aside, the huge challenge for policy makers is that everyone generally seems to want lower traffic and less pollution. The problem arises when restrictions apply to them.

And that is the nub of the wider picture when tackling issues like climate change.

How can you get people to make sacrifices and make their lives seemingly worse and filled with more inconvenience?

Certainly a lack of explanation, engagement and consultation as well as steam rolling through schemes hasn't helped with LTNs. And that urgency came straight from deadlines imposed by central government.