When LTNs go wrong: a recipe for disharmony

In the eight years I’ve enjoyed living here, I feel like this is our community’s darkest hour. I am of course referring to the half implemented omni-shambles of the Lewisham Lee Green ‘Lower Traffic Neighbourhood’ (LTN). You only need to scan through local social media channels to get a sense of the frustration, exasperation and division this community is now suffering from.

How has it come to this? How are we in a situation where once cordial relationships between seemingly like-minded neighbours have been reduced to furtive glances, where one part of the community gets all the benefits at the expense of another, all thanks to the positioning of a few dozen plant pots?

Well, as the weeks have passed since the LTN’s (partial) inception, the politically muddy waters have started to clear. Concerned residents that were initially taken aback by the LTN’s COVID-19 inspired arrival are now mobilising, doing their own quality research and seeking change that benefits the many, not the few.

This group is OneLewisham.

So let’s start with how we got here. How is a traffic scheme which does more harm than good now in our midst? For this, I will use the analogy of baking – an ‘LTN pie’ – if you will,
and here I set out the key ingredients.

Councillors that ‘know what’s best for you’ – they are a well-intentioned bunch, our councillors, I have no doubt. But, are they representing the people to the council – as they should – or are they merely representing the council to the people? There is a litany of
evidence to suggest that rather than listen to the concerns of residents over this scheme, they are in fact part of its propaganda machine. Blind eyes have been turned to desperate residents facing displaced traffic, while photos ‘proving’ success or at least no sign of a negative impact are posted on social media. The councillors are not employed by LTNs, are they?

Rush it through – The plan for the LTN has been on the radar for some time, long before COVID-19 rocked up. Bizarrely, however, the challenges posed by COVID-19 brought about a not insubstantial pot of government funding to pay for emergency measures promoting active travel and social distancing. Suddenly, there was the opportunity! No need for proper consultation or modelling, or anything which might slow down or prevent the LTN’s arrival. There was ‘use it or lose it’ funding now – and Lewisham council sure used it. The LTN doesn’t promote social distancing, does it?

Selective hearing – The councillors didn’t just wake up one morning with an LTN eureka moment. The arrival of the LTN reflects ongoing lobbying of a very small number of individuals whose opinions are seemingly worth far more than anyone else’s. There is evidence to suggest that Lewisham Cycling, and more specifically several core members, have had a huge role in not only desiring an LTN, but also in dictating its form. As a result, any other valid concerns around local traffic – such as rat-running and speeding, are presented with the LTN as a solution, when in fact there are all sorts of other measures that could be employed without walling-in several thousand households to outside traffic. Cyclists are not all transport planners, are they?

Policy based evidence, not evidence based policy – the most obvious issue around LTNs is that, by preventing through traffic, it simply displaces it elsewhere, adding to existing congestion and pollution etc. Fortunately, for the proponents of the LTN, there is a theory called ‘traffic evaporation’. The idea is that after a period of initial disruption, traffic simply ‘evaporates’. This removes any concerns that environmentalists and those purporting to be concerned by social justice may have otherwise had. But it’s not that simple. It’s not a silver bullet.

According to the research which originally proved the phenomenon in 1998, mileage may vary: “every scheme to reallocate roadspace is different, and so the effects of any plan will be highly dependent on individual circumstances“. It doesn’t always happen. And when it does, evaporation is far from absolute – to quote the co-author “In most cases the traffic went down on the treated road and up on the alternative routes. The reductions were bigger than the increases, ie traffic evaporation was not complete.” – in the case studies, on average 86% of traffic was diverted on surrounding roads. In our area, those are residential roads.

And, in the long term, researchers found that without improvements to alternatives, traffic could return to previous or even higher levels. As the co-author of the study recently noted, “The evidence supports those critics who complain that traffic on their road has increased, even if the total has gone down. This does often happen and requires further action. It proves that small local schemes need to be supported by a wider policy framework“.

And we know that Waltham Forest was held up as an example, with Lewisham Cycling kindly taking our councillors on a tour. I’m sure on the tour they told our councillors that Waltham Forest council’s own research, as well as a peer reviewed study, found that there was no evidence either way of car usage changing. There was a marked improvement in active travel, but according to council research, residents valued the LTN (modal filters) the least out of the many measures implement there. And whilst “Mini Holland” reports showed traffic in a small area reducing, surrounding roads saw increased traffic, and the whole area has seen an increase in traffic compared to surrounding areas.

So there are the ingredients of the LTN. Love it or hate it, it’s certainly proven extremely divisive across our lovely community.

So what about OneLewisham? What are we all about? To some of the more cynical and closed-minded LTN proponents out there, we are essentially in league with the devil, wanting a return to get back in our gas guzzlers and cut through this way and that at our leisure. We’ve been accused of being part of the car lobby, funded by Shell or Land Rover, of being secret taxi drivers, or being people who drive their kids 500 metres to school every day. We’re told we just don’t want change, and we liked the status quo. But none of this is true. For starters, the group was founded by Jane, who doesn’t have access to a car!

The thing that binds us together is our collective position that this scheme – as it stands – is deeply flawed. This is not simply based on scenes of congestion around its perimeter, but by weeks of discussion, fact-checking and literature review. That doesn’t mean we want to keep things the way they were – we just don’t want a scheme which makes things worse.

We care about pollution. We care about tackling speeding. We care about community cohesion. We care about social justice. But, in its current form, this scheme is unlikely to deliver on any of these valid principles.

Yes, our ranks include drivers of cars (homes inside the LTN have amongst the highest rates of car ownership in Lewisham, according to the last census data, funnily enough), but also keen cyclists, concerned business owners and regular users of public transport. Some of us are inside the LTN, others are outside.

Our politics are diverse but we are united in our concerns. We believe our elected representatives must be held to account and more equitable solutions must be sought over what we currently have.

In the coming weeks, OneLewisham will be setting its own position on better solutions to dealing with traffic in our part of South East London. We are not road planners or traffic experts, but we will do our best to explain our vision, that there is a better way. We are a welcoming group and would love to hear any of ideas that you may have on how this scheme might be improved for the many, and not the few. Please check out our Facebook page or our Twitter.

Ollie, member of OneLewisham

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