Of late there’s been a sustained campaign by less than a handful of individuals to discredit Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) on the basis of traffic data and statistics. Here’s why they are still a vital part of changes to our roads systems, despite The Times’ headlines…
The big news recently was that the DfT have revised their statistics on minor road traffic volumes by region and by year. The technical report from the DfT ends up revising downward the estimates for traffic volumes on minor roads from 2009 on – so that was previously shown as a large increase for minor road traffic miles driven per year now isn’t a large increase. Anti-LTN campaigners have seized on this news as evidence that LTNs aren’t needed. Here’s why they’re wrong.
The DfT previously estimated that 6.6 billion miles were driven on London’s roads in 2009, rising to 10.4 billion in 2019 (a 58% increase). The revised figures claim to instead show a standstill of 8 billion miles driven across the same period. This has been claimed by those against LTNs to show LTNs are an unnecessary approach – as traffic on minor roads has flatlined and not gone up at all.
Putting aside all of the other benefits LTNs have been shown to bring by academic studies (community interactions, walking, & cycling up; crime, car ownership & use, pollution, road danger etc. down and most obviously, overall motor traffic volumes sharply down across the area) and indeed that LTNs were never predicated solely on ‘rising traffic volumes on minor roads’, not only is the data questionable, but the anti-LTN analysis of it is too.
On data, as ex-Hackney Councillor, portfolio holder and transport expert Jon Burke points out, the flatline minor road data stands in stark contrast with DfT overall data that shows sharply increasing growth in motor traffic in the same period across all roads (motor traffic miles driven was at 307.3 billion miles in 2009, bottomed out at 303.2 in 2010 and rose to 338.6 billion by 2019 – a rise of 12%) and indeed in stark contrast to data showing that satnav app users spend more time on “local roads”.
On top of that, the DfT’s own slides shows that the picture doesn’t hold for all of London – what actually happened is that traffic volumes across all roads in inner London dropped sharply while in outer London rose. Between 2009 and 2019, inner London had several policy reasons to see declining motor traffic – specifically restrictions to traffic, charges and parking changes. Whereas in outer London – where many LTNs ended up being delivered after 2019 – traffic rose steeply on major and minor roads.
On top of questions regarding key differences between inner and outer London, and the anomoly of rising road traffic generally, several commentators have pointed out that there are other issues with this analysis. Jack Maziels, a transport/city planner, on twitter points out that what is now classified as a “minor road” can include already filtered roads, roads filtered between the two years being focused on and indeed LTN ‘boundary’ roads that are actually clearly main roads.
Looking at his home borough of Haringey, Maziels points out only eight locations appear in both 2009 and 2019 counts for minor roads – of which one, Alexandra Park Road, is a B road with several double decker bus routes that leads directly to a town centre with underground station (Bounds Green), and one is Wightman Road – again a B road and which carries circa 14,000 motor vehicles daily on it. Both roads have strong arguments as to why they should be filtered (with a bus gate on the former potentially). But they aren’t what most people would currently call ‘minor’ roads.
Of the remaining six count points that are directly comparable across from 2009 to 2019 in Haringey, Maziels points out four of the remaining roads are already-filtered. In other words, what constitutes a ‘minor’ road from the DfT seems dubious and there’s clear signs that its revised data may still face real issues being used below national level, if at all, in this manner.
Maziels closes by looking at TfL analysis of collision data on minor roads. ‘Stats19’ data from emergency services is very robust data and shows collisions with those walking & cycling on minor roads went up 38% across a similar period, while main road collisions went up only 21%. His theory is that collision rate changes would correlate to rises in motor traffic volumes.
Comparing 2009 to 2019 data also turns out to miss the story by several years. Historic data shows motor traffic miles driven slowly rising as far back as the 1990s across the country and in London, then circa 2007 there was a small dip, and from 2009 driving started going up again, accelerating steeply from 2013. The revised data simply shifts the dip up to 2013.
Traffic on minor roads and indeed all roads was indeed declining between 2009 and 2013, but it has been increasing since then, possibly due to the increased use of navigation apps. This shows that the idea that traffic levels have simply been static throughout this period is completely wrong. We have seen growth in the past nine years – just a few years later than the original unrevised data.
For the whole of GB, road miles driven hit a low of 105.5 billion in 2011, then rose each year to 117.9 billion in 2019. That’s an admittedly lower 12% rise, but still a rise year after year. Similarly London dropped to a low of 7.7 billion road miles on minor roads in 2013, then rose to a high of 8.3 bn in 2016 before dropping to 8 in 2019.
Either way, of course, having 40% of motor traffic in London on minor roads, 8 billion vehicle miles of it annually on London roads isn’t OK – it hasn’t been OK for a long time! The results, as the studies show, of all that motor traffic – rising levels of it in London and nationally, on minor and major roads, and in London a majority of it journeys relatively easily done by other modes according to TfL – is congestion, lowering bus speeds, pollution, inactivity, road danger, community severance, a collapse in child roaming distance etc.
If those against LTNs saying they are not needed because there has been no growth in traffic (false), surely they must now accept that the actual upwards general trend in traffic and indeed the sheer amount of motor traffic on minor roads justifies LTNs? We still need to tackle unnecessary motor vehicle use in a climate crisis which, as the DfT, the Mayor and basically everyone agrees, means we need to cut motor vehicle miles driven, and fast. Of course that means LTNs – but also lots of other measures too. Bit of an own goal there by anti-LTN folks.
Further analysis of the revised DfT data has more recently been done by journalist Andrew Ellson in The Times. This also has been comprehensively debunked by Burke and others. Firstly, Ellson has been volubly negative about LTNs, (for transparency, LCC is of course vigorously pro-LTNs, but we declare our views, unlike some journalists). The piece’s only direct quotes are firstly a direct attack on Burke and secondly from a notorious anti-LTN tweeter who appears to have been in part responsible for the DfT revising their figures.
Not only does Burke point out that his rollout of LTNs was not prompted by the DfT’s original figures, but he also demolishes key points in the piece. The headline of the piece is “Councils that closed rat runs now have even more cars on the roads”. Burke points out this is factually incorrect saying “DfT data shows that no London Borough has more cars on its roads than before the pandemic.”
Burke also points out that Ellson’s analysis that “vehicle miles in the ten inner London boroughs that introduced LTNs or equivalent schemes in 2020 rose an average of 41 million miles or 11.4 percent last year as traffic bounced back… The two inner London boroughs that did not implement LTNs in 2020 saw an average rebound of only 29 million miles or 8.9 percent” is bunk, basically.
Ellson himself writes that “the figures do not prove a link between LTNs and more miles being driven” buried in the article. But it’s really worth underlining that if anything, according to Burke’s analysis, the figures show the link is the opposite to the one Ellson suggests.
Burke points out:
Perhaps worst of all, Ellson pits ten inner London boroughs who delivered LTNs against two central London boroughs (Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster) that didn’t. Not only did these two boroughs deliver pedestrianisation schemes (a huge chunk of Soho in the case of the latter), but also these two boroughs saw “the largest population declines” during the pandemic.
More, Burke points out a clear strong inverse relationship between the drop in pandemic driving, and post-pandemic bounceback which “suggests the biggest determinant in post-pandemic driving increases is the magnitude of traffic reduction during the pandemic, which is also a proxy for homeworking.” In other words, residents of central London are far more likely to be able to work from home and that, more than LTN delivery or not is more likely to explain the stats.
Burke has written to The Times noting that the piece “falsely” makes claims on Burke’s stated motivations for introducing LTNs but highlights the piece fails to deliver “the full facts on the impacts of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods”.
A yet-to-be fully published Imperial College study of three Islington LTNs was revealed after this article was posted. The study shows that air quality across the areas delivered by the LTNs and including the ‘boundary’ main roads bordering the schemes impoved. The study showed that air pollution levels dropped nearly 6% inside the LTNs but nearly 9% in boundary areas compared to control sites. These results were statistically significant – although similar trends in results for motor traffic volumes from the study weren’t.
This is highly notable as it adds another set of results comparing both streets and areas inside LTNs and adjacent to them on motor traffic volumes and pollution levels. These results keep coming up, albeit not gathered together thus far, to demonstrate that the most common single claim of those opposed to LTNs – that they ‘displace’ motor traffic from inside the LTN to boundary roads, increasing congestion there and increasing pollution levels (which is then suffered by residents and those walking and working on those main roads) – simply is not true.
Recent road traffic volume statistics are being held up as reasons why we shouldn’t use LTNs as part of the toolkit to make our roads and streets safer to walk and cycle on, better for communities and children, greener and cleaner. But the analyses of these statistics are wrong and primarily motivated to stop rollout of more schemes rather than deliver better outcomes for London, England, and the planet.
Published by Simon Munk, LCC Campaigns Manager: October 28th, 2022
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