Street shift: How do we cut car use in London?


London has lower car ownership rates than most other cities in the UK yet cars still dominate our neighbourhoods, squeezing out walkers, cyclists and other forms of transport. Traffic figures in the capital are startling. While total vehicle miles travelled have slowly decreasedDepartment for Transport data shows traffic on London’s local roads almost doubled between 2009 and 2019, from 5.4 to 9.3 billion miles, as people use their cars more for shorter journeys. There are a few factors behind this: the capital’s population has grown, and satnavs redirecting drivers onto local streets.

There is strong agreement across City Hall and London boroughs, as well as among environment, transport, and health experts that reducing car use is key to tackling air quality and cutting carbon emissions. Air pollution is responsible for between 3,600 to 4,100 deaths every year in the city and can cause severe health impacts the longer that you are exposed to it. Private vehicles are also responsible for nearly 11 per cent of the city’s total carbon emissions – so reducing car use is crucial to tackling the climate emergency.

Each Mayor of London has taken steps to tackle these issues, through measures such as introducing the Congestion Charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, and more recently reallocating road space for cycle lanes and pedestrians, and during the pandemic to allow for social distancing. Several London boroughs have also undertaken action like this too, such as the well-known Waltham Forest Mini Holland.

The active travel fund and the school streets programme during the first lockdown gave many boroughs the opportunity to go even further by introducing so-called ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTNs) – traffic calming measures to support walking and cycling. These generally consist of barriers or camera systems that close some residential streets to car through traffic.

But Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have proved extremely controversial. Some residents have supported the initiative, arguing that the introduction of LTNs has provided more of an incentive for people to walk and that safer streets helped reticent cyclists to trial using a bike to get around. Others have taken the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods as an opportunity to become stewards of their local areas by introducing and maintaining parklets, letting their children play in streets that were previously used mostly by cars and even holding impromptu street parties to boost spirits during the pandemic. Some have argued that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are an attack against their personal freedom to drive through their local streets, others say they displace traffic onto other roads that are already heavily congested. Other bemoan the lack of community engagement. Some groups have gone as far as to bring court cases against their borough, and some boroughs, such as Ealing, are removing most of their LTNs.

Overall LTNs have been a bruising political experience for many local authorities, and one that could discourage action on air pollution and decarbonisation of transport for years to come. So, it’s essential that we learn from this experience and find new ways to make local streets greener and healthier that get broad support from residents

Our new research project will bring London’s boroughs, campaigners for and against, residents, experts, and other stakeholders together to explore what we can learn from the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that have already been rolled out. Our aim is to look at how to build a coalition of support among all London’s communities for measures to reduce car dominance and promote walking and cycling.

Denean Rowe is Senior Development Officer at Centre for London

Feature Image Source: Matt Seymour on Unsplash

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