Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Bath
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
London campaign group 'fact checks' Bath and North East Somerset Council's claims
Bath and North East Somerset Council has unveiled proposals to introduce what are known as "liveable neighbourhoods" to this area. Liveable neighbourhoods are part of the council’s plan to tackle the climate and ecological emergency and improve health and wellbeing.
The idea is to reduce the flow of traffic through neighbourhoods by bringing in vehicle restrictions, traffic calming, one-way streets and residential parking schemes. Streets that are partially or wholly reclaimed from the traffic may be turned into pleasant spaces with planting and benches, electric vehicle charging points and safe routes for cycling and walking. These areas where traffic has been significantly reduced are commonly called "low traffic neighbourhoods" or LTNs.
At face value, the principle of low traffic neighbourhoods seems very commendable. However, critics respond that low traffic neighbourhoods divert traffic from minor roads to main roads, meaning that main road communities suffer from increased traffic congestion and pollution on their already busy stretch. Their area effectively becomes a less pleasant place to live in, so that other people's neighbourhoods can be made nicer. Protestors also claim that the resulting traffic congestion increases air pollution through engine idling, as well as discouraging walking and cycling in areas affected by the displaced traffic. Another common claim is that the resulting traffic jams hold up emergency vehicles.
In London, a large percentage of people from low income and ethnic groups live by main roads. It is thus argued that the drawbacks fall disproportionately on the poor and on people of ethnicity, while traffic is unfairly diverted from areas of high car-ownership to areas of low car-ownership. For these reasons, protests against low traffic neighbourhoods often contain themes of inequality and injustice.
On social media, there has been some criticism of Bath and North East Somerset Council's presentation of its case for low traffic neighbourhoods. Yet, there is no local online article showing both sides of the debate - hence this critical article has been written.
The council cherry-picking evidence
In its consultation document on liveable neighbourhoods, the council highlights the example of a low traffic neighbourhood at the village of Walthamstow in London - using it to argue a case for the success of such projects. Attractive green settings and peaceful streets in Walthamstow are presented on pages 3 and 6.
However, other examples of low traffic neighbourhoods in London are more controversial:
Wandsworth - here a low traffic neighbourhood scheme was scrapped in September 2020, prompting a celebration from many residents. The authority admitted that the scheme had caused confusion and long traffic queues.
Southwark - here the ambulance service acknowledged that low traffic neighbourhood measures risk delaying crews giving life-saving treatments to critically ill patients.
Lewisham - the Liberal Democrats conducted a survey of residents and found that there was a feeling that the scheme did more harm than good, "ironically increasing pollution generally and displacing polluting traffic into the less affluent areas of the borough". Some residents said that they were so badly affected by the changes that they were considering moving their family and/or business out of the borough.
The council uses the example of a low traffic neighbourhood at the village of Walthamstow in London to promote the idea of unrolling such projects in Bath.
But critics point to the congestion caused in their communities by diverting traffic from minor roads and streets to busy through routes. Below is a scene from Lewisham in London, courtesy of the campaign group One Lewisham.
Bath and North East Somerset's claims about Walthamstow
Since the council builds some of its case around the Walthamstow low traffic neighbourhood, it would be useful to question the strength of its arguments. Two of the council's claims made in its consultation document were forwarded to the London campaign group One Lewisham for a response. The council's claims and the responses from the campaign group are as follows.
Claim that traffic diverted from low traffic neighbourhoods is not likely to increase congestion or pollution in surrounding streets:
"Evidence shows that displaced traffic from liveable neighbourhoods is not likely to increase congestion or pollution in surrounding streets. Some traffic displacement is to be expected, but examples from Waltham Forest show a reduction in peak-time traffic on main roads as drivers adapt, change to different modes of transport, or avoid the area altogether.
"In Walthamstow Village, boundary roads experienced a slight increase in traffic over the day (between 4% and 28%), but this was not proportionate to the decrease in traffic on residential roads. Reports also showed that the number of vehicle movements significantly decreased on 11 out of 14 roads, with the average road in the village seeing a 44.1% reduction in vehicles and on some roads up to 90% reduction."
Not true. The above figures come from Waltham Forest Council's flawed analysis. Traffic counters had been placed in a number of small streets within Walthamstow. These had the effect of capturing the same vehicles two or three times as motorists drove through the village. The result was a rather overinflated figure as to how far traffic was reduced when the low traffic measures were introduced.
The Lewisham campaigners undertook their own analysis of the data using a method called screenlining which looks at the entry and exit point of each vehicle. They found that the real reduction of traffic inside Walthamstow was about 40% with an increase in traffic on the boundary roads of around 11%. This amounted to a total traffic reduction of around 2.5%. Some minor roads in the area which formed alternative routes saw traffic increase by 40%.
Today it cannot be known for certain how much traffic is displaced onto main roads around Walthamstow, as a lot of traffic data is modelled rather than measured. But traffic across the whole borough has gone up since the low traffic neighbourhood was introduced in 2015.
Claim that the low traffic neighbourhood in Walthamstow greatly reduced levels of pollution:
"Liveable neighbourhoods in Waltham Forest found that levels of exposure to NO2 significantly decreased between 2007 and 2017. The number of homes exposed to more than the legal limit of 40μg/m3 was reduced from 61,316 to 6,377."
Partly true. Homes would have seen exposure decrease over the ten year period from 2007 to 2017 but not just because of low traffic neighbourhoods. Over that period we had big changes in emissions standards via Euro 5 and 6, plus a huge £400m scrappage scheme in 2009 which took significant numbers of polluting cars off the roads. The whole of London and the country saw similar improvements.
The Walthamstow low traffic neighbourhood only existed for 18 months of the period 2007 to 2017 and comprises only a tiny area of the whole borough. Yet there were borough-wide reductions in air pollution, disproving any claim that low traffic measures were solely responsible.
Chart by One Lewisham showing that levels of NO2 decreased across the whole of the UK
In addition, the study of pollution in Walthamstow had some significant issues. For example, eleven of the 26 diffusion tubes measuring pollution were not included in the data. The paper gives various reasons for their exclusion, but somebody noticed that these were all high reading sites - all above 27 and some as high as 57 (40 is illegally high).
Consultation is not enough
The underlying principles of responding to climate change, wanting people to reside in liveable neighbourhoods and encouraging active transport such as walking and cycling are commendable. Bath and North East Somerset Council has also been right to launch a public consultation where the public can comment on these plans. But consultation has to come with sound claims and balanced presentations of the facts. The council appears to have failed in this regard - and a deadline of tomorrow (18th October) for residents to comment leaves no time to rectify what may have become a rather skewed process.