WHAT IS LTN? – LOW TRAFFIC NEIGHBOURHOOD
A Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) is a set of streets, loosely considered side roads, which have ‘modal filters’ (road blocks) to prevent through travel for motor vehicles, whilst still allowing motor vehicle access from one end of the street to the premises on those roads.
LTN Boundary/distributor Roads - The roads around the edges of an LTN area, which are in general, main roads.
HISTORY OF LTN NATIONALLY
The idea of restricting access through certain roads has been around for decades. But before 2020 this idea tended to crop up in a much lower key way - mainly in selected locations where specific local traffic issues had caused long and sustained local resident uproar.
In the last decade the advent of Sat Navs and apps like Google Maps which direct car drivers around traffic hotspots has led to an increase in driving along side streets. Supporters of LTNs often have a strong belief that spreading traffic across lots of streets has encouraged increased car usage.
In 2015 Waltham Forest in London introduced a highly-publicised LTN scheme which has come to be seen as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for further schemes across London, and nationally.
Several events, including the change of prime minister in 2019 and the temporary traffic reductions during the COVID19 lockdowns, have subsequently influenced government policy towards the wider scale introduction of LTNs in major cities.
As part of the emergency powers granted during the pandemic the government made funds available to local councils under the heading of ‘Active travel’ measures. Broadly speaking these comprised:
Pop-up cycle lanes
These ‘Active travel’ funds were made available during May 2020 in conjunction with the Department for Transport ‘Gear Change’ initiative.
The first measures were to be installed within approx. 16 weeks, to coincide with the anticipated end of COVID emergency measures (around September 2020). Public consultation on the changes was to follow.
CONSULTATION – WHAT CONSULTATION?
Normally this scale of alteration is initially subject to extensive public consultation and then, assuming there is a favourable response, the alterations are implemented.
However the Council was told that funding for a subsequent phase would be blocked if they failed to complete installation in time –i.e. if they allowed time for adequate consultation.
Birmingham City Council (“BCC”) selected ‘temporary’ planters with locking central poles in the middle of the road (theoretically to allow access for emergency services vehicles) as their road blocks, to give the impression of an adjustable trial.
The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, with the backing of the pro-cycling PM, has subsequently insisted that Phase 2 (Tranche 2) of the project must have prior proper public consultation, but he has also said that Councils should resist public pressure to make changes or roll back LTNs and cycle lanes etc. put in place under the initial phase.
So to say that the existing blocks are “temporary” seems misleading, to say the least.
Additionally, BCC claims there is no money to alter the arrangements anyway. So there’s a major risk that we’re looking at a botched ‘permanent’ solution for the LTNs that BCC has already put in place.
It’s clear that it will take a huge amount of pressure from local residents/ voters to persuade BCC to remove or make big changes to the LTNs.
The difficulty in getting BCC to rethink the first wave of LTNs should also act as a red flag warning against them setting up any more of these ‘temporary’ LTN experiments.
There has been notable opposition to LTNs in London boroughs – particularly
Redbridge – where, after local protests, the LTNs were quickly removed in October 2020
Lambeth – which has modified/removed popup cycle lanes, and has ongoing court cases over the LTNs
Ealing – where for 7 of the 9 LTN areas there was significant polled opposition (above 80% against), and the Council has now formally agreed to remove those 7 LTNs. It has also made a commitment to consult much more widely for any future active travel measures.
Significant opposition has also been raised in other areas of London.
HISTORY OF KINGS HEATH/MOSELEY LTNS
Labour controlled Birmingham City Council (BCC) - through various councillors - was already in consultation with small groups of pro-cycle / pro-roadblock campaigners behind the scenes, prior to, and during the first lockdown in spring 2020. Although there is no evidence of personal material or financial gain by the Councillors concerned this does raise a suspicion that, from the beginning there was at best a pro-LTN bias and favouritism. The alliance with these groups led a Councillor for the Kings Heath/Brandwood ward and a BCC cabinet member, to seize on the Government’s ‘Active travel’ funding and to:
‘volunteer’ the Kings Heath Moseley area, and Bournville as well as Lozells, as pilots for the rest of Birmingham
influence what was actually installed in those areas.
The outcome in Kings Heath and Moseley was what BCC is now calling phase 1 (or Tranche 1) of the local LTNs. During September and October 2020 we saw the establishment of:
An LTN area bounded by Kings Heath High Street, Vicarage Road, Avenue Road and Camp Hill rail line (with blocks on Silver Street, Highbury Road, Grange Road and Station Road)
A second LTN area between Vicarage Road and Howard Road (with blocks on All Saints, Hazelhurst, and Colmore roads)
Blocks on School Road, Cambridge Road, and Poplar Road.
Blocks to effectively pedestrianise York Road
BCC set the consultation on this arrangement to end on 22nd April 2021. This gave an unplanned advantage to the pro-LTN lobby of traffic reduction due to the national lockdown in late October 2020, and the subsequent third national lockdown in January 2021. As a result traffic remained relatively light when the formal consultation period ended except for the brief break in lockdown for Christmas 2020.
It was then - and subsequently in spring 2021 - when the full, true impact of the LTN was felt.
Despite the generally lighter national traffic levels due to the autumn 2020 lockdown, the displaced traffic from the blocked-off roads was already causing congestion, and it became clear from November 2020 onwards that a lot of local residents weren’t happy. This was demonstrated by the large numbers signing a petition against the LTNs and sharing their bad experiences online. But there was little or nothing in the way of meaningful engagement from the Council.
As just one example, Councillors failed for months on end to engage at all with the Vicarage Road residents group about their concerns about LTN, despite them making it very clear at a Zoom meeting in December 2020 how worried and concerned they were about the impact of the LTNs. This experience was shared right across our area, with many people sharing accounts of waiting for ages to hear back from BCC and then being disappointed by bland ‘copied and pasted’ responses.
Following the Easter break 2021, children returned to school, and parents to work. Traffic levels increased hugely in the Kings Heath area, and this showed the true impact of the LTN. Forcing all traffic down a restricted number of roads produced the gridlock, almost perpetual jams and consequent pollution that local residents had predicted and warned BCC about.
Around this time local MP Steve McCabe ran a survey and got the view of approximately 2,000 constituents on the LTN scheme. The results of this showed a 4 to 1 outcome against the LTN in Kings Heath. This, coupled with significant adverse media coverage, in the local and then national media, forced BCC Leader Ian Ward to set up a ‘Project Board’ to specifically address this issue.
Following requests to BCC by members of this group, the terms of reference for the Project Board and its ‘action plan tracker’ have now been made public.
But there has still been little evidence of local Councillors making any significant efforts to get around the area and listen to the views of a wide range of people with concerns about the LTNs. So it’s not clear how local experiences and concerns are being heard and properly taken into account by the Project Board.
BCC did finally agree to meet Vicarage Road residents again. However, following an initial meeting in early June, despite repeated requests for information and further contact, only two meetings have been held, one to establish terms of reference/conduct, and the next,(delayed by two months to September 2021) to update BCC on the continued issues in each road. Now it seems that BCC have no longer got the resources for further meetings due to imminent start of Tranche 2 consultation. The big concern is that, after this, it will all be too late for Tranche 1.
We are now faced with an effectively non-existent ‘consultation process’ on Tranche 1 (what’s already in place) plus what appears to be a very flawed process on Tranche 2 (what’s about to be dropped on the East side of Kings Heath + other areas in Birmingham).
The bottom line is that the issues of Tranche 1 have so far not been recognised, let alone tackled.
WHAT WAS KH LTN SUPPOSED TO ACHIEVE – SUCCESS CRITERIA
Normally any project has clear success criteria.
The Kings Heath and Moseley LTN project does not seem to have any benchmarks for success in place. BCC have consistently stone-walled on what the success criteria are, despite numerous requests from concerned residents.
It is also worth noting that, in order to evaluate a project’s success or otherwise, it is common practice to measure the ‘before’ and ‘after’ situations. (What was the traffic flow before the LTN? What is it now?) Since, apparently there was no ‘before’ measurement of anything prior to the LTN install, there is no yardstick to assess the situation now.
Nonetheless BCC still claimed the LTN as a ‘Great Success’ even though there was nothing to measure this against.
However, to go back to a BCC briefing on Kings Heath/Moseley LTN in September 2020, the following aims could be assumed from what was said.
What the Council promised
Accidents, noise and pollution will be dramatically reduced
There would be less traffic so journey times (by car or bus) should improve
There would be more pleasant residential and school environments
Cycling would be safer & more pleasant
LTN Boundary roads would also benefit from a number of measures to reduce traffic
Emergency services would still be able to access LTN areas by unlocking blocking posts where necessary
Things would be better for local businesses and trade as people will walk / cycle to local shops
THE REALITY OF WHAT THE LTNS HAVE DELIVERED
Accidents, noise and pollution will be dramatically reduced?
Noise and pollution may have reduced within the roads with modal filters (roadblocks), but it is a different matter on the boundary roads. In April/May 2021 there was gridlock on some roads, particularly around Vicarage Road. Others, such as Broad Lane, Institute Road - and many more - have seen generally increased levels of traffic, even continuing through the quieter summer period. And there has been a sustained increase in congestion on Howard Road and Vicarage Road West of the Red Lion pub. At peak travel times gridlock is common here. The traffic tailbacks on High Street are also worse. And, obviously, standing traffic produces more pollution.
Less traffic so journey times should improve where car/bus has to be used?
Not so. For journeys crossing through Kings Heath the higher volume of traffic on a restricted number of roads increases journey times.
For local residents journey times are invariably longer as routes out of Kings Heath avoiding road blocks have to be taken.
For public transport, buses are frequently snarled up in the longer traffic queues on the High Street and at Red Lion junction, so journey times for public transport users are also longer. As a result of the clean air zone in the centre of town, West Mids Travel have diverted their older, more polluting buses, to routes not touching the City Centre, such as 11, 76, 27 which run through Kings Heath. These vehicles don’t switch off automatically when idling in tailbacks adding to pollution.
More pleasant residential and school environments?
For those on boundary roads - definitely not, for reasons above. Even within LTN areas support for LTN within the LTN areas is far from unanimous.
As for schools, three of these – Camp Hill, Colmore, Queensbridge - are next to some of the worst affected roads. Children are walking to school along those congested, polluted roads. And emissions caused by standing traffic on the Howard Road/ Vicarage Road junction are pumped straight into the playground of Colmore Primary School.
Better for cycling?
Again, not so. The cyclists living within an LTN area very quickly reach an LTN boundary, at which point they are exposed to the traffic mayhem described above. In addition cyclists are now unacceptably being exposed to the hostility of a minority of car drivers who are aware of the pro-LTN leanings of some of the more zealous pro-cycle lobby and take this out on all cyclists.
And it’s worth asking - one year on from the installation of the ‘Active Travel’ measures - are we witnessing a dramatic modal shift from cars to cycles?
The answer seems to be “No”. One would expect that, if this modal shift to have an impact, the strongest effect would be during the morning rush-hour. However a recent cycle count on the Bristol Road showcase cycle lane between 8.15 and 9.15 on a warm, sunny September weekday morning totalled 47 bikes. In an entire hour!
LTN Boundary roads also benefit from a number of measures to reduce traffic?
There is precious little evidence of this at all. Any traffic reduction that has happened has been via traffic displacement As an example adjustments were made to the traffic light sequencing to relieve traffic jams on Vicarage Road (Red Lion – High St). The effect has simply been to increase traffic for other residents. Tenbury Road, Grove Road, Howard Road, and Wheelers Lane have all experienced a marked increase in traffic as a consequence.
Emergency services can still access LTN areas by unlocking bollards where necessary?
Yes, but only when they have the keys. There have been many instances where this has not been the case and time has been wasted while fire officers, for example, cut down LTN posts.
This aside, the delays getting through the traffic on boundary roads, navigating the LTN itself and/or unlocking LTN blocking posts will cause a deterioration in emergency service response time for incidents.
Better for local businesses and trade as people will walk / cycle to local shops?
There are many local businesses that have not welcomed the road closures or found them helpful. It’s useful to focus on York Road as an example as it enriches our community with its great mix of independent outlets. We don’t know the full picture for the hospitality venues, but the blocking of York Road has been a disaster for many of the shops on that road, with reports from business owners about real concerns for their future viability. We’ve already seen evidence of reduced opening hours and redundancies in an attempt to stay afloat.
Former Kings Heath shoppers have voted with their feet (and cars) and gone elsewhere.
Waltham Forest has been seen as a blueprint for LTNs. This is a ‘one-size fits all’ approach that lacks any attention to detail regarding each local area. Important aspects such as local geography, existing road infrastructure and public transport facilities are all too often ignored.
The negative impacts of LTN fall mostly on the poorer members of society, as they are predominantly the people who have to travel to work to provide physical services to the rest of us and who live and travel on the boundary roads – on which congestion and pollution are now significantly worse.
The LTN has created what may well be long-lasting rifts in our communities. The divide, hostility and mutual mistrust between cyclists and motorists has become more marked since LTNs came in. There is a similar rift between those living on LTN roads and those living on the boundary roads. And, for understandable reasons, BCC in general and certain councillors in particular have lost any respect in which their constituents may have once held them.