A simple strategy to reduce traffic and pollution in many of the United Kingdom’s most congested neighbourhoods has become a divisive force in the country, producing measurable local results but drawing vitriolic criticism from some news outlets.
It all started with bollards and planters, positioned across busy city streets with the aim of creating cul-de-sacs for cars—to get people walking, cycling, or on public transit instead. The aim of these “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, was to reduce emissions and make roads safer. “But they have been very divisive in London and controversial,” reports BBC transport correspondent Tom Edwards.
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So much so that a 2022 study by Centre for London suggested rebranding the idea to make it more palatable and comprehensible to locals, with better public consultation to help avoid teething troubles in future.
Even so, LTNs have been effective, the same study found, producing a clear pattern of people cycling more and driving less. Inside 10 LTN boundaries studied, cycle use rose by 31 to 172%, while car traffic fell by between 22 and 76%,” wrote the Guardian. “There was also strong evidence they reduced road casualties.”
Dispelling rumours to the contrary, the authors found “no evidence that LTNs slowed down emergency vehicle response times, nor that the schemes disproportionately benefited wealthier areas.” Rather, “LTNs were more likely to include more deprived areas than wealthier areas.”
Researchers also noted that LTNs “are not as divisive as people often say,” with 47% of Londoners signalling support, 16% actively opposing, and 37% either lacking a strong opinion or insufficiently informed.
And yet they face a wave of criticism from conservative media outlets, a “relatively new phenomenon” that emerged after dozens of LTNs were installed across the UK beginning in 2020, writes Carbon Brief Deputy Editor Simon Evans in an analysis piece for the Guardian. “For anyone who has spent time observing the climate skeptic playbook, the tactics on display seem eerily familiar.”
Pure denial is one maneuver: “In the same way that climate skeptics often reject the idea that rapid global heating is a problem that needs addressing, many anti-LTN attacks ignore the damages caused by rising road traffic.”
Out of 177 articles published by the UK’s main newspapers about LTNs earlier this year, 122 were unfavourable, Evans says. Leading the pushback has been The Daily Mail, at 75 articles or op-eds, followed by the Telegraph at 32 pieces and The Times at 22.
Their vehement opposition took shape in tales of chemotherapy patients forced by LTN-induced traffic to endure treatment alone and eyewitness accounts of ambulances being delayed by new bike lanes, assertions debunked after deeper study.
And as it turns out, one of the Daily Mail’s expert sources on ambulance delay was the Taxpayer Alliance, a group identified by DeSmog Blog as “part of the network of right-wing lobby groups” alongside the UK’s premier climate denial think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
More Than Just Traffic Controls
But the resistance is not limited to conservatives. Guardian reader and science communicator Joanna Bagniewska, self-described as an “ecologist and keen cyclist who has never owned a car”, wrote in a letter to the publication: “I live in Marston, a part of Oxford hit by all the inconveniences of LTNs and none of the benefits.”
Citing “unbelievably congested” streets as part of the fallout from the introduction of LTNs in neighbouring Cowley, Bagniewska describes recent cuts to public transit. “Two bus services from Marston to the city centre have been reduced to just one, at half the frequency,” she wrote. “After all, what’s the point in having a more frequent service if the vehicles stand in traffic anyway? And since buses became unreliable, fewer people use them, leading to further cuts.”
“Not providing a better public transport system alongside the introduction of LTNs feels like punishing people who don’t want to use cars,” she added.
Her complaints echo the recommendations in the Centre for London report. “LTNs can’t tackle the city’s dependence on private cars alone,” it warned, adding that complementary measures like protected bike lanes, distance-based road usage charging, and better public transit options coupled with car scrappage schemes and mobility credits must be introduced in tandem.
Getting the Details Right
Other news outlets are also shouldering some blame for simplifying a complex story.
For instance, the Evening Standard reported that a study of traffic data from 46 of the 96 LTNs introduced in London in 2021 revealed an “overwhelming success in reducing traffic” within their boundaries.
Co-authored by Westminster University’s Active Travel Academy (ATA) and the climate charity, Possible, the study found that: “Across London, there was a 46.9% average reduction in traffic on streets within LTN zones,” while boundary road traffic increased “less than one percent” on average.
Lead author Dr. Asa Thomas confirmed the phenomenon of “traffic evaporation” within LTN zones. “Two-thirds of these now have vehicle flows below 1,000 vehicles a day, a rough threshold for a quiet pedestrian friendly street, compared to only two-fifths before,” he wrote. “What’s more, there is little indication of systematic displacement of this traffic to boundary roads.”
That measured final comment traced back to an important caveat expressed up front by Thomas and his team, but left out by the Standard’s report: Namely, that they had useable data from less than half of the LTNs launched in London.
And the Guardian slagged the Times for reporting on genuine problems with automatic traffic counts (ATCs), which are used by most councils to collect data on their LTNs. The Guardian said the Times tried to “undermine the credibility of data collection methods,” the Times replied, “by highlighting flaws that scientists are well aware of and already take into account.”
But the data collection query the Times raises—that the ATC method used by most councils can fail to detect very slow-moving traffic—is detailed enough to merit more than a drive-by, especially given that the ATA itself flags it as a potential problem.