Streets for people

People Friendly Streets have arrived in Islington

David Harrison from Islington Living Streets explains the research showing how low-traffic neighbourhoods are likely to benefit all residents

A scheme has already been installed in St Peter's Ward and residents are already enjoying life-changing benefits, and now they are coming to Canonbury. We can expect similar improvements that were seen in the Walthamstow Village Low Traffic Neighbourhood in 2015. There people are walking and cycling more, children play out, air pollution has improved and life expectancy increased.

But bold traffic plans are often introduced amid concern and opposition. A particular concern is that People Friendly Streets may divert traffic onto main roads leading to increased congestion and air pollution.

Traffic evaporation

Opponents of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods always argue that there will be huge traffic problems, but they almost always fail to materialise, and big reductions in overall traffic levels across an area can happen as a result of people making a wide range of responses to the new traffic configurations.

The most comprehensive study of the phenomenon of disappearing or “evaporating” traffic was carried out by Sally Cairns, Carmen Hass-Klau, and Phil Goodwin in 1998 and followed up in 2002. This shows that traffic does not behave like water moving through pipes, finding an easier path as another narrows. Instead it is a force of human choice, and people make all sorts of different decisions when driving conditions change. They change their mode of travel, chose alternative destinations, or the frequency of their journey, took up car sharing or didn’t make the journey at all. In half of the case studies examined by Cairns etc, there was a 11% reduction in the number of vehicles across the whole area where roadspace for traffic was reduced, including the main roads.

This research shows that low-traffic neighbourhoods do not simply shift traffic from one place to another, but lead to an overall reduction in the numbers of motor vehicles on roads. In Waltham Forest this meant there were considerable reductions on streets within the neighbourhood – some streets have seen 90%+ reductions in motor traffic and 56% on average. On the surrounding roads there have been increases, but they have not taken all the displaced traffic. More here.

More people walk in low-traffic neighbourhoods

What’s really encouraging, is that one of the most significant behaviour changes following implementation of low-traffic neighbourhoods has been a shift to more walking and cycling.

Just one year after the implementation of schemes in Outer London, including Waltham Forest, residents were walking 32 minutes and cycling on average 9 minutes more per week. This ongoing London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University of Westminster study is available below and here. And as time goes on, as active travel becomes embedded in lifestyles, more will follow leading to long-term change over an entire area. It is impossible to overstate the importance of active travel at a time of obesity and climate change crises.

Shrewd city planning

Low-traffic neighbourhoods are not, therefore, about rewarding one group of people while punishing another: they are part and parcel of shrewd city planning, making long-term decisions about how people travel.

And the potential for change is massive: currently around 1.6 million, or 22%, of all car trips made by London residents every day are under 2km and could therefore be walked (2.7 million more could be cycled).

Any measures for converting these car journeys to active modes should be of paramount importance for London boroughs – not just to reduce traffic volumes but to improve the health of communities through activity and lower air pollution.

Impact on main roads

So what about the main roads? Even with traffic evaporation, main roads will shoulder some extra traffic. But evidence suggests the impact of this isn’t as big as some fear. Waltham Forest’s research shows that bus journey times (on main roads) have not significantly increased following the introduction of LTNs.

Low Traffic Neighboorhoods mean that there will be fewer people entering main roads from side roads and causing congestion.

King’s College London research, based on modelling work where traffic volume is used as one of the inputs to determine air quality, suggests that there has not been a decrease in air quality on main roads following introduction of LTNs. That report is here, page 8-9.

Main roads were also designed to take the majority of traffic, so can absorb increases in traffic better than their residential counterparts. These streets have wider carriageways, with buildings set further back. They also have better crossing facilities and safer junctions.

A small increase in traffic on a main road is also less noticeable than the transformation brought about by a dramatic reduction on a residential street: of a child riding a bike to school, of walking to the local shops, or hearing birdsong again. And given the majority of people in London live on residential streets, these sorts of improvements could be life-changing for millions.

For an illustration of how non-local traffic can degrade the environment and safety of residential roads, watch this video Stoke Newington, London.

Counts on main roads in Waltham Forest also showed that traffic was more spread out across the day following introduction of the low-traffic neighbourhoods. In fact, maximum peak hour flows were lower on the main roads. More here. In other words, the traffic Armageddon that some expected never arrived.

All that said, any increase in traffic is hard to accept if you live on a main road or send a child to school there. As a result, main roads also demand urgent attention.

Action for main roads

One solution, being adopted in many cities across Europe and in Britain (for example in Glasgow), is to reconfigure main roads as urban “boulevards”. London also has the benefit of the Healthy Streets Approach to help deliver this sort of change. Urban boulevards could feature, for example:

  • wider, better pavements;

  • lane reductions;

  • removal of parking;

  • bus lanes;

  • cycle tracks;

  • speed restrictions;

  • more crossings;

  • more seating, trees, and planters; and

  • closed side streets and banned right turns to increase capacity and reduce congestion and air pollution.

As much as can be done immediately should be, but money is very short and costlier interventions will take time. However, these should be a priority when money comes available

Wider road traffic reduction policies are also necessary and increasingly possible, including:

  • workplace parking levies;

  • parking restrictions; and

  • a 24/7, London-wide, distance-based road user charging scheme, now on the cards for the longer term.

These wider policies, plus redesigns of main roads and low-traffic residential schemes should all be addressed in unison, even if they are delivered over different timescales.

Doing nothing is no longer an option

The alternative — of proponents of different approaches falling into opposing camps – will only result in inaction, or watered-down schemes and lengthy delays. And there isn’t time for this.

This is particularly true Post Covid 19. There is no alternative to creating conditions which promote and enable people to walk. As people remain reluctant to use public transport and its capacity is reduced, the future cannot be a huge increase in car use.

London’s population is set to grow from around 8.6 million today to 10 million in 10 or so years. There simply isn’t space for all these people to fit in cars on roads. Climate change, air pollution and the health impacts of inactivity are also at crisis point, requiring immediate and drastic action. As the research listed here demonstrates, low-traffic neighbourhoods are one of the easiest, quickest and cheapest ways to take on this challenge.

For more information, and a detailed description of the research, see this brilliant article by Emma Griffin, Vice Chair of London Living Streets