Low traffic neighbourhoods

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The Scottish Government’s Covid-19 guidance for travelling safely encourages people to:

  • stay local
  • walk, wheel or cycle
  • plan ahead if they must use public transport
  • avoid busy times if they must drive.

To help facilitate more trips on foot or by bike, particularly shorter trips that pre-Covid-19 would have been made by car or public transport, several local authorities, including the City of Edinburgh Council, are working to create temporary “low traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs).  Recent media reports, e.g. BBC News and The Guardian, indicate that such proposals have generated strong reactions, particularly from people opposed to the idea. 

This post aims to answer some of the questions raised about such schemes using research findings from studies into existing LTNs.  This research has focused on the impact of LTNs installed in London over the last five years. Given how recently many of these LTNs have been created, assessments of their impact are only just becoming available and this is still a developing research topic.  While LTNs share key characteristics regardless of their location in the UK, it is worth bearing in mind that the results of any LTN implemented in Scotland may differ from those in London. Individual LTN outcomes may be influenced by scheme design and other unique local factors.

What is a low traffic neighbourhood (LTN)?

There is no formal definition of what constitutes an LTN.  In recent research on the topic, Prof. Rachel Aldred (Professor of Transport, University of Westminster) offered the following definition:

It’s a neighbourhood in which most or all through motor traffic has been removed from local residential streets (‘filtered’). This can be done in a range of ways: by planters, bollards, or other street furniture that physically block the road (emergency services can have key access to lockable bollards), by camera-enforced ‘gates’ (without physical restrictions, often so buses may get through, but fines may be imposed for illegitimate use), or opposed short sections of one-way street with cycle contraflows, intended to have a similar effect (less popular now, but some older schemes exist)… They have multiple aims – most obviously, to make filtered residential streets truly quiet while still allowing residents, visitors, and deliveries to access all properties by motor vehicle.

While the term LTN may be relatively recent, the concept is not.  The idea of “environmental areas”, residential streets free from though traffic where pedestrians and cyclists take precedence over motor vehicles was outlined in the Buchanan Report (Traffic in Towns) published by the Ministry of Transport in 1963.  The concept can be seen in residential areas in many of the UK’s new towns, built between the 1960s to 1980s, and some housing estates from the same period.  Such designs are also widely used across Europe.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods reduce car use by residents?

There is some evidence that LTNs can reduce car use by those living within scheme boundaries.

Recent research into the impact of LTNs in three Outer London boroughs concluded that:

…there was a consistent trend towards reduced car use among LTN residents…Despite small sample sizes, and uncertainty about the magnitude of the change, the overall trend is unlikely to be due to chance.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods reduce general traffic levels?

There is evidence that LTNs can reduce general traffic levels.

Research into 70 schemes where road space was reallocated from general traffic to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport concluded that:

The findings suggest that predictions of traffic problems are often unnecessarily alarmist, and that, given appropriate local circumstances, significant reductions in overall traffic levels can occur, with people making a far wider range of behavioural responses than has traditionally been assumed.

This phenomenon is known as traffic evaporation, and has been documented by the European Commission as a result of road space reallocation schemes across Europe.  It occurs when drivers respond to road network changes, with some deciding not to make a trip, or to make it by a different mode of transport, rather than simply driving a different route.

There is limited evidence on the impact of LTNs on traffic volumes in the UK.  The most robust evidence is from the Walthamstow Village LTN, where analysis of the figures concludes that:

overall volume of traffic in the Village area has been cut by about half.

While traffic on some streets outside the LTN increased by between 3% and 28%, this was more than offset by the reduction in traffic within the LTN area.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods increase walking and cycling?

There is some evidence that LTNs can increase levels of walking and cycling.

The research into LTNs in three outer London boroughs concludes that:

The estimated increases in active travel are substantial in the LTN areas, albeit with wide confidence intervals… the results seem most consistent with some of the increase in active travel reflecting mode shift away from car use, and some reflecting additional, brand-new walking and cycling trips or a mode shift away from public transport.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods increase or decrease local air pollution?

There is evidence that LTNs can help reduce local air pollution.

Research published by Kings College London in 2018 for the London Borough of Waltham Forest into the likely health impacts of improvements in air quality associated with its fairly extensive LTN and other active travel projects concluded that:

The population in Waltham Forest will gain around 41,000 life years, and increase life expectancy by around 1.5 months, if air pollution concentrations improve as projected to 2020, compared with remaining at 2013 concentrations.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods make car and bus journeys longer?

The creation of an LTN will result in some journeys made by car/van taking slightly longer, as drivers can no longer “rat-run” through the LTN area and those who drive within the LTN may need to take a longer route to avoid the barriers created to stop through traffic. 

Research which reported on bus journey times following the implementation of the Walthamstow Village LTN concluded that:

bus journey times have increased slightly on the routes analysed. However, most of the fluctuations in journey time were less than one minute.

Given that travel time is a key determinant of how people choose to travel, extending the time it takes to make short trips by car is likely to make walking or cycling a more attractive option for such journeys, which is a policy aim of all LTNs. 

Do low traffic neighbourhoods particularly affect low income households?

There is no evidence that LTNs particularly affect those living in low-income households (defined as households with an income below 60% of median household income – in 2018/19 that was £16,016 after taxation and other deductions but before housing costs). 

LTNs remove through traffic from residential areas, as noted above this may lead to a slight increase in journey times for some trips made by car.  Transport Scotland statistics, set out in the chart below, clearly show that the incidence and frequency of driving is closely linked to a household’s net annual income (data collected as part of the Scottish Household Survey).  The higher a household’s income, the more likely it is that adult members of that household will have a full driving licence and drive more frequently:

The majority of people living in households with a net income of less than £15,000 never drive, with many not even have the option of doing so.  Given this, people living in low-income households are less likely to experience longer car journey times due to the creation of an LTN than those in higher income households.

It is worth noting that reducing motorised vehicle traffic disproportionately benefits those living in deprived communities.  Research indicates that those living in deprived communities are both more likely to experience higher levels of local air pollution from vehicles and are more susceptible to the effects of that pollution.  In addition, research highlights that people living in the most deprived communities, particularly children, are up to five times more likely to be killed in traffic collisions than those living in the least deprived areas, with similar patterns also observed for injuries.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods particularly affect older people?

There is no evidence that LTNs particularly affect older people. 

LTNs remove through traffic from residential areas, as noted above this may lead to a slight increase in journey times for some trips made by car.  Transport Scotland figures charted below show that regular driving becomes more common with age, peaking with the 40-49 years age group and then decreasing with age.

Given this, both older and young people are less likely to experience longer car journey times due to the creation of an LTN than middle aged people.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods particularly affect those who cannot walk or cycle?

LTNs do not require anyone to walk or cycle who cannot, or does not want, to do so.

While one of the aims of an LTN is to make walking and cycling more attractive, there is no requirement for anyone to walk or cycle.  All properties remain accessible by motorised vehicles.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods increase emergency service response times?

There is no evidence that LTNs increase emergency service response times. 

Data from the London Fire Brigade for Waltham Forest, where a number of LTNs have been implemented since 2015, show that response times across the borough have decreased since their implementation.   While this reduction cannot be linked to the creation of LTNs, it is clear that their introduction has not led to an overall increase in response times.

Emergency services are normally consulted by local authorities during the development of temporary LTN proposals and must be consulted during the development of permanent schemes.

Do low traffic neighbourhoods prevent access by tradespeople, bin lorries or other service vehicles?

No.  All properties within an LTN remain accessible by such services and vehicles.

Are low traffic neighbourhoods part of a “war on the motorist”?

The argument that LTNs are part of a “war on the motorist” being waged by local government has featured in some recent newspaper articles and comment pieces, e.g. in the Mail Online and The Telegraph, and is a common refrain on social media.

According to the research highlighted in this blog, LTNs have no impact on the great majority of trips made by car, although the creation of an LTN may slightly increase some car journey times for those travelling within, and possibly on roads immediately outside, the scheme area.

Data on vehicle ownership, vehicle use, the cost of travel, motoring investment and taxation, explored below, does not support the argument that any level of government is pursuing a policy programme that discourages car ownership, driving or unfairly penalises drivers.

Number of vehicles: Transport Scotland statistics, set out in the chart below, show that the number of vehicles registered in Scotland has grown by roughly 50%, an additional one million vehicles, since 1997.

Distance driven: Over the same period, as shown in the chart below, Transport Scotland statistics indicate that the total distance driven on Scotland’s roads has increased by one quarter, adding roughly 9.5 billion vehicle kilometres to the distance driven annually.  The increase in distance travelled is not distributed evenly across the different classes of road. Department for Transport statistics show that in England (equivalent Scottish figures are not available) the increase in traffic in urban areas since the year 1994 has been almost entirely on minor roads (+36.4%), while traffic levels on major urban roads remained static (+0.6%).  Much of the increase on minor urban roads has occurred within the last 10 years and, in addition to there being more vehicles, is likely to be caused by the growing use of satellite navigation apps that route drivers through residential areas and the increase in online shopping deliveries.  

Cost of travel by mode: Department for Transport Statistics, set out in the chart below, show that on average it cost less to purchase a vehicle in 2018 than it did in 1997.  The cost of running a vehicle, which includes spare parts and accessories, fuel & lubricants, maintenance and repairs and other services, has increased at roughly the same rate as rail fares since 1997, with bus/coach/taxi fares increasing by an additional 15% over that period.  Taking the two motoring elements together, the cost of owning and using a car has fallen relative to travelling by public transport.  Given that cost is a major factor in travel choices, this is likely to have made motoring a more attractive option over that period.

Motoring investment and taxation: The Scottish Government is committed to the delivery of a multi-billion pound road building programme, e.g. the dualling of the A9 and A96 trunk roads over the next 10 years is estimated to cost £6bn.  This outstrips planned investment in walking, cycling, local bus services and the development of new rail lines and stations over the same period.

Motorists contribute to the exchequer through the payment of vehicle excise duty, fuel duty and VAT. However, research has found, e.g. IPPR and the European Commission, that income from motoring taxes does not cover the full costs of motoring when factors such as roads policing, air pollution, accidents, congestion and climate change are considered.

Why has there been no, or very limited, consultation on temporary low traffic neighbourhood proposals?

These are temporary measures introduced at speed during the coronavirus pandemic to help facilitate social distancing on streets and, by making walking and cycling safer a more attractive option for trips previously made by bus or rail, on public transport.  Temporary LTNs are authorised using existing procedures, which do not require public consultation.  These procedures have been used by local authorities since 1984 to facilitate temporary road closures and restrictions.  There is an 18-month time limit on such temporary measures.  They cannot automatically be made permanent.  Any permanent scheme would have to go through standard statutory consultation procedures.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning

Blog image: Sustrans