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How road closures became a key election battleground across the UK

Traffic reduction measures introduced during COVID have been a massive success. Is it really just ‘men over 50’ who want them gone?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
2 May 2022, 6.00am

An artist's impression of a car-free street in London, surrounded by genuine election leaflets from the 2022 local polls

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Greater London Authority (composite image by James Battershill)

Do we want life to go back to the way it was before the pandemic? Or do we want something different?

That’s the basic question being asked in local elections across the UK next week. The mosaic of municipal politics means the argument has different details in different places, but one particular feature seems to have gained prominence across many of Britain’s cities: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or, as they’re called here in Scotland, Spaces for People.

In some cases, these schemes date back nearly a decade. In others, they took root during the pandemic, when roads were quieter and pavements needed widening to allow social distancing.

Wooden flower planters now block off sections of residential streets to encourage slower driving. Road edges are cordoned off for pedestrians or cyclists. Filters allow cyclists and pedestrians through a gap, but not motorists. These measures have been introduced in cities across the UK, and, in fact, around the world, from Berlin to New York.

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The response has been fairly predictable. So much so, in fact, that it was predicted back in 2008 by the academic Phil Goodwin.

When Goodwin studied data on how public attitudes to the implementation of congestion charging in cities from London to Seoul changed over time, he found a consistent pattern – people tended to support the idea in principle, panic about the changes as the details came out, and then, once they were implemented, discover that things had actually got better.

You see the same clear pattern with the implementation of LTNs, says Leo Murray from the climate change campaign group Possible, which has been monitoring their introduction.

London’s Waltham Forest, for example, started introducing a set of measures known as ‘Mini-Holland’ in 2013. At the time, it was hugely contentious, with protests against road closures. “The guy who pushed it through got multiple death threats,” says Murray. “The large majority of residents were against.”

Since it’s bedded in, all of the howling and raging about everything that would go wrong has disappeared. A survey in 2020 showed that only 1.7% of residents now want the measures reversed.

Similar stories are playing out everywhere these projects have been implemented, says Murray. Despite shopkeepers often leading opposition, “there’s no evidence to support [negative] impact on local businesses,” he explains. It turns out that retailers tend to overestimate the portion of their customers arriving by car by 100%. In fact, pedestrianisation and cycle lanes usually increase footfall.

“When you’ve delivered this stuff, no one ever wants to go back,” he says.

The problem is that during and immediately after implementation, when support is at its lowest, there are often small groups of vocal opponents: “Usually men over 50.”

In London, in next week’s local elections, they’ve organised themselves into the ‘One’ group with local branches called things like “One Chiswick,” “One Ealing” and “One Lambeth”. And in most cases, they have had vocal support from local Conservative parties. “The unfair LTN must go,” howls the front of a Tory leaflet in Lambeth.

In Birmingham, the Conservatives are encouraging people to “join the fight to scrap the Kings Heath LTN”. In Oxford, the Tories are making opposition to a new LTN an important feature of their campaign.

Here in Edinburgh, Tories and Lib Dems have led opposition to road-closure proposals. “We absolutely recognise the need to improve active travel while reducing unnecessary car journeys and air pollution,” slither the Edinburgh Lib Dems, who also successfully led the campaign to stop congestion charging in the city in 2005 – but once again they are opposing actual practical measures to do those things, in the hope of a cheap vote.

The SNP, on the other hand – who lead the council administration here at the moment – have faced down howls of a ‘war on motorists’ and promised a congestion charge. So have their possible coalition partners the Greens.

Levels of traffic have increased almost every year since the Second World War. The arrival of GPS systems like Google Maps has allowed drivers to avoid congested main streets by navigating around residential areas never designed for through-traffic, expanding the problem. Between 2010 and 2019, the amount of traffic on minor roads in London almost doubled.

The vast majority of people agree that something should be done. A poll in November 2020 found that around 85% agreed that the government should act to increase road safety, improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion. Some 65% supported reallocating road space to cycling and walking in their area.

Cars are dangerous

Up to 36,000 people a year die because of air pollution in the UK. From asthma attacks to heart attacks, some of the most common causes of death are directly connected to car fumes, just as they are to cigarette smoke. Long-term exposure to filthy urban air damages lungs, and makes people more susceptible to COVID and other respiratory illnesses.

The other end of a car is pretty dangerous, too. On average, five people in the UK are killed every day in traffic accidents – that’s twice the number who died in Grenfell Tower every month. And that’s all before we talk about climate change, or the nasty habit our oil addiction has of propping up warmongering dictatorships, or the public health benefits of walking and cycling instead, or the things we could be doing with all that road space.

By the time of the pandemic, there were around 25,000 ‘modal filters’ (to use their official name) already on streets in the UK, which allow bikes and pedestrians to pass, but not cars. Murray’s organisation surveyed hundreds of people living near these filters in various cities, and found that 85% wanted to keep them, with only 8% wanting them removed.

According to one recent paper in the British Medical Journal, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods lead, on average, to “an 18% reduction in street crime after three years, and a 75% reduction in the risk of being injured in a road traffic collision [and] substantial population health benefits”.

Of course, traffic calming measures must come alongside serious investment in alternative ways to travel. Here in Scotland, under the SNP/Green partnership arrangement, bus travel is now free for everyone under 22 or over 60 and some disabled people. The latest national planning framework embeds the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods, whereby people should be able to meet most of their needs within a 20-minute walk. For longer journeys, Scottish trains have just been renationalised.

But we should be clear. In these local elections, politicians who oppose LTNs are either cowards flinching at the first fear of change, or opportunists who don’t care that they ride alongside those modern horsemen Pollution, Crime, Injury, and Death himself.

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