The internet is a strange place sometimes. All over social media you see this inane “like and share if you agree!” type posts all glorifying some fictional utopian past that we have all eschewed in favour of stabbing each other and banning Christmas. Local nostalgia groups are by far the worst offenders where this is concerned. Dozens of photographs from the 1950s showing a soot-stained, poverty-stricken landscape but apparently this is when life was real, a viewpoint usually shared by people who were born after 1960 and didn’t actually experience any of it. Once in a while an even more inane “remember when we left our doors unlocked, we played football in the streets, and we were happier!” post will appear.
What is interesting, then, is the apparent unwillingness to consider why this “utopia” of the past seems to appealing: it’s the lack of mass car ownership. There is, therefore, something of an irony in people claiming they miss the days they played in the street and simultaneously objecting to removing through traffic from residential areas.
Now for the record, I am NOT advocating we abolish cars. I believe it is a fundamental element of a free nation that people have the option to choose how they travel, but I expect with any options of these kind there is an element of responsibility. When individual people fail to act responsibly then it unfortunately becomes a matter of intervention from a higher level, in this case the state.
How quickly did we get where we are now? In 1950, when petrol rationing ended there were 4 million cars on the road. Sixty years later that figure was 34 million, and in 2020 it was estimated to be 39 million. According to the DVLA, 49.5 million of us have a driving licence. That means almost three quarters of the UK population has the potential to drive. Great, you may think, that’s a positive – people have the freedom to choose how they travel. Well, yes, but with freedom comes responsibility and we’ve got a very poor track record in this regard.
In 2019, which may be the last year we can reliably use as 2020 is a write-off in terms of reliable figures thanks to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic with no clear endgame in sight, there were 1,870 people killed, and 27,820 people seriously injured in road related incidents. This was an increase from 2018, which saw 1,782 killed. 2017 and 2016 saw 1,793 and 1,792 killed. This means that 2019 marked a notable rise in deaths.
The graph below, from Wikipedia but sourced via Reported Road Casualties GB, may help show where we were at with things prior to 2016.
That huge drop after 2002 is a result of the then “New” Labour government making a commitment to reduce road fatalities. They meant business too, local authorities were obliged to provide road safety schemes, develop safer routes to schools programmes, review speed limits, and generally do as much as they could to get that number down from the stubborn later 90s level of approximately 3,500. For reference, in 1997 the number of cars on the road was somewhere closer to 25 million than today’s 39 so that 3,500 was still an unacceptably high number. Sure, it was far fewer than the appalling year that was 1966 – a year so bad that within 12 months we had a mandatory motorway speed limit and breathalyser checks to clamp down on drink-driving, such was the outcry. As in 1997, there was a backlash by pro-motoring groups that felt restrictions were oppressive and that death is merely an occupational hazard of driving. They were ignored in 1966, by both Tom Fraser and latterly by Barbara Castle, and in 1997 by John Prescott. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that both major leaps in road safety in the UK have taken place under Labour governments.
In 2010, Labour were out and as part of the wider ‘austerity’ process introduced by the Coalition, the road safety budgets dried up. Partly this was justified by an uptick in deaths in 2010, arguing that clearly all these previous policies had failed – they had not, they had merely exhausted the available options – and the ‘controversial’ speed camera partnerships were also affected as they relied on road safety grant funding after a backlash over hypothecated funding being accused of being a means to revenue raise, despite the fact fines were only able to fund Speed Awareness Courses and further speed enforcement (the clue was in the word ‘hypothecated’) – myths peddled by certain groups that this funding was secretly being used to plug financial holes in council budgets spread into public consciousness and the system had to be changed regardless.
Since 2010 the fatality rate has hovered stubbornly around the same level. This is hand-waved as ‘we’ve done as much as we can’. This is not the case, and it is one of the reasons there is a commitment to “Vision Zero” in many foreign countries. In the UK, whilst individual engineers may subscribe to Vision Zero, it is not mandated.
So, now that we’ve addressed the history, where do Low Traffic Neighbourhoods come in?
The best way to reduce road danger is to remove motorised traffic. This is not an ideological statement, this is not political, this is a simple fact based on the physical properties of a motorised vehicle travelling at 30 mph versus the physical properties of a human being walking at 3 mph. We know the chance of death rises drastically if you are hit by a vehicle travelling faster than 30 mph. We know that excessive speed can be attributed to at least a third of fatal road collisions – that is to say not travelling at a speed suitable to allow a reaction to a developing situation.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods seek to do this. The majority of serious injuries occur on urban roads, whereas the majority of fatalities occur on rural ones. In 2019 there were 27,280 serious injuries – this is the equivalent of hospitalising everyone in Kendal. If the railway network achieved this result people would demand it was shut down and never re-opened.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, despite misleading headlines from opponents, do not ban the ownership of motorised vehicles, nor do they prevent residents from accessing their street in one. Yes, some may restrict parking in places, but this is not the overriding objective. The benefits may not be quantifiable in monetary terms, which is why many opponents can use their own emotive arguments against. We need to accentuate the positives and use our own emotive arguments for, because apparently the quantified and known safety arguments just don’t matter any more.
Yes, the measures that are used are wide and varying. Yes, “point closures” are a key element, but a Low Traffic Neighbourhood can also be achieved by clever use of one-way streets, bus priority gates, or modifying junction priority. This will mean that some journeys are ‘forced’ back onto major roads, and yes – people live on major roads too – but we need to remember some more important statistics in urban areas. The average vehicle trip is 8.5 miles. This suggests that a proportion of trips in urban areas can indeed be achieved without using a car, but because it is perceived to be more convenient to drive many people choose this option first and disregard the tangible dis-benefits such as sitting in congestion, struggling to find a parking place, and the effects on air quality and noise levels in the urban environment. The solution to major roads is to move away from their focus on “movement” towards “place”. If a town has huge volumes of traffic passing through it that originate from further afield with no intention of stopping there, then it needs a by-pass and traffic restraint measures putting on the superseded routes. Anything else is tinkering around the edges and pointless, because induced demand will fill the released road space for cars, not people.
One of the biggest problems we face in terms of high traffic levels dominating urban life and negatively affecting quality of life is the school run, ironically this is often done by car because of the belief that allowing children to walk near traffic is too dangerous! Yes, there are a lot of linked trips where parents drop children off and then proceed to work. Much of the traffic people are scared of being “forced” onto major roads is already there – it has originated in the areas that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are intended to help. A regular canard used is that major roads need to be widened to enable side roads to be closed, this is not the case. Far from traffic being forced onto major roads, if a residential area has low volumes of traffic, many residents may decide walking or cycling is now much more pleasant and simply do not make the trip by car. This is exactly the aim of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – to improve choice for residents.
The next counter argument brought up is often “emergency services won’t get through!” and a common reference is the Grenfell Tower disaster where reports stated some fire engines couldn’t get near. But the obstruction in that case was parked vehicles, not a Low Traffic Neighbourhood. The general view of the blue light services is they are in favour of such interventions, especially those that use lockable bollards that they can just unlock and pass through without the problems of being stuck in traffic. Regardless, any 999 call that reports persons in immediate danger will see the emergency services get through no matter what obstacle you put in their way. Delivery vehicles, couriers, takeaways, and so on, they too can still access your house. They may have to travel a different route, but no street is ‘severed’ by a Low Traffic Neighbourhood.
One particular distasteful argument used against these schemes is what I, and others, call ‘concern trolling’, where people pretend to be bothered about a marginalised group to justify the status quo. In the case of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, this is people arguing that a scheme prevents disabled drivers parking outside of their house. Again, this is demonstrably false. No Low Traffic Neighbourhood has removed disabled parking provision – and if this is such a concern then as part of the Traffic Regulation Order process it is possible to formalise disabled parking places. When this is mentioned, the opposition to schemes usually quietens down as these measures would affect them by removing uncontrolled kerbside space, whilst benefiting the disabled drivers they claim to be protecting the interests of.
The real cause of the opposition is this is a change to the status quo, and change is scary. We have allowed ownership of cars to determine how we design towns, how we commute, how we interact socially. With climate change, road deaths, air quality, the effects of noise levels and commuting on mental health, and so many social problems that will still be there even after the Coronavirus pandemic is nothing but a miserable memory, we need to act and we need to do something beyond tinkering around the edges.
The Low Traffic Neighbourhood is gaining momentum, and this is a genuinely good thing. Imagine the nostalgia posts on Facebook of the 2060s if we fail to act on very real problems now.