Recommendations for future low traffic neighbourhoods

Link to main active travel strategy page

Low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are a powerful public health tool to encourage and enable modal shift away from driving, with schemes in other boroughs showing significant increases in walking and cycling. Although the physical interventions are quick to install and low cost, the major part of the intervention is in changing people’s mindset from driving by default to walking or cycling for most short journeys. This changes the nature of people’s environment, from being car-dominated to being enjoyed by people. This behaviour change intervention directly tackles car dominance.

Recent evidence on LTNs is summarised in the November 2020 report by Possible: https://healthystreetsharrow.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/76dc2-ltnsforall.pdf. A study on the Streetspace LTNs implemented in London in 2020 found that they reduced injuries by half (https://doi.org/10.32866/001c.25633).

Harrow’s 2018-2021 Local Implementation Plan has a target that 34% of adults will be doing 20 minutes of active travel a day by 2021, rising to 70% by 2041 (page 114). The LIP states “Between 2014/15 and 2016/17, 25% of residents were recorded as doing at least 20 mins active travel a day. This will be an extremely difficult target for Harrow to achieve.” LTNs are one of the most effective ways of increasing walking, by making it less convenient to drive short distances.

Low traffic neighbourhoods take time to bed in – motorists need to become accustomed to the new routes, and people need to change their travel behaviour. Hence there can be resistance to change, and strong political support is required to ensure the scheme survives the first few months. Whilst numerous surveys have shown that the majority of residents are broadly in favour of improving road safety, health and the environment, a vocal minority may distort the narrative in the media, in unsolicited feedback to the council and on social media.

Harrow’s Streetspace low traffic neighbourhoods 

The Streetspace programme was carried out under government guidance for rapid street changes to manage a public health emergency. After the pandemic such rapid changes are no longer necessary, so future schemes should use a proper consultation and engagement approach.

Harrow council had no prior strategy on deciding where to build low traffic neighbourhoods or how to prioritise them. Most of the proposals seemed to come ‘out of the blue’ when the Streetspace funding applications were put in. There was prior work that had been carried out in the Headstone South area, consisting of a survey, workshop and traffic counts, but residents were not informed of the results of this study and it was not explained how these findings fed into the design of the LTN.

When the schemes were designed, the position of the council, local councillors and local institutions (such as schools) did not always line up. Without a consistent message from the council, it was unclear how residents were expected to understand what was going on, or why. There was a delay of several months from the funding award being confirmed to the start of the trials, which could have been used for consultation and online engagement events. This would have enabled moderates to hear the pro-LTN narrative. 

The start of the trials was not managed well. The trials were originally intended to start in the summer, when traffic levels were lower, rather than just after schools reopened in autumn. There was insufficient information made available when the closures were actually put in place – signage was too small and was not put in place before the closures.

Government guidance requires consultation prior to modification or removal of active travel schemes, which did not take place. The LTN trials were changed and partially terminated prematurely without consultation. There was insufficient time for people to get used to the road layout and change their travel behaviour.

Initially part of the LTNs were removed because of roadworks on Station Road at the end of November 2020, but this should have been a carefully managed temporary diversion, with the LTN restored immediately afterwards. In late December a decision was made to change from a physical blockade to a virtual blockade with emergency access, but without continuous camera enforcement. Hence the schemes were effectively terminated at that point, with no safety benefit (as people were driving through illegally and dangerously) but ongoing annoyance from closure of the West Harrow zebra crossing and diversions for law-abiding motorists. Thus the aim of a LTN trial of providing a consistent low-traffic road layout was not fulfilled.

The consultation in March 2021 was for a camera controlled scheme with numberplate recognition and unrestricted access for local residents. This is different to the scheme used in the brief trials, and residents were asked to either ‘Agree with amending the LTN’ or ‘Disagree’. The consultation was treated as a referendum, which is against government guidance. The majority of respondents disagreed, but this may have been for any number of reasons. Some residents may have been annoyed by the whole process that they would say ‘no’ to anything, others may have wanted the original scheme reinstated. There was no attempt during the LTN trial to obtain an unbiased, objective estimate of population views via scientific polling, as per recommendations.

Future low traffic neighbourhoods in Harrow

If Harrow is to reduce car use, increase active travel and improve people’s health in the future, it is essential to create a comprehensive network of routes that are safe for cycling and attractive for walking. This will require successful LTNs throughout most of the borough. Future schemes need to be better planned and better communicated in order to achieve public acceptance and ensure that they can become permanent. 

Statutory guidance on the engagement and consultation process should be followed: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reallocating-road-space-in-response-to-covid-19-statutory-guidance-for-local-authorities/traffic-management-act-2004-network-management-in-response-to-covid-19

We therefore recommend a strategic approach with top-level support for a long term LTN programme. Harrow council should consider the following: 

1. Plan strategically

Harrow council needs to allocate core funding and employ a dedicated consultation and engagement team. Core funding could be provided from council tax, parking or traffic camera revenue, or the LIP. The council needs to plan strategically where the LTNs will be created in the borough and prioritise them in an objective way, based on e.g. deprivation, road safety and local councillor support.

The council should have an ongoing programme of creating several low traffic neighbourhoods each year, using different sources of funding as available (e.g. S106, LIP, air quality fund, public health funds etc.). Engaging early and having a convincing proposal will make it more likely that Harrow will be successful in future funding awards.

2. Assemble a coalition of partners

Assemble a coalition of organisations whose remit includes improving people’s health, safety or welfare. This coalition should include the public health department, general practices, pharmacies, schools and community centres. They should be actively involved from an early stage, and should provide a consistent message promoting the scheme.

3. Engage early with residents and use ‘soft measures’ to gain public support

The engagement process with residents should start early, but without mention of closing specific roads at this stage. We recommend that the overall scheme should be promoted as a ‘Healthy Neighbourhood’, as the term ‘low-traffic neighbourhood’ implicitly excludes boundary roads. A ‘healthy neighbourhood’ scheme can include LTNs as well as measures to improve boundary roads, such as 20mph speed limits and zebra crossings.

The theme should be active travel and improving health, and ‘soft’ measures to facilitate these (bike parking, bike hire, specialist bikes, individualised travel planning) should be available. Community events, Dr Bike, walkathons, play streets, car-free days etc. can help to bring the community round to the idea of improving health through active travel. The scheme should be communicated as a cohesive set of improvements, including a grid of high quality walking and cycling routes (to be created by removing through traffic or installing segregated cycle lanes), new pedestrian crossings and better junctions. Some components of the scheme may not currently have funding but this does not matter, and it will be easier to gain funding for schemes which have already been planned and communicated.   

Marketing expertise should be sought to make this messaging as successful as possible. Local GPs and schools should champion the schemes. The key is to get as many of the population on board in a positive way from the outset.

4. Gather data beforehand

A survey of travel habits, people’s experiences of the streets and desire for reducing traffic (with street-by-street results) should be carried out before any specific road closures are announced, so that the findings are unbiased. Questions could include:

  • Do you feel safe when walking around your local area?
  • Do you find it safe enough to cycle around your local area?
  • Would you like measures to reduce the volume and speed of traffic on your road?
  • What prevents you from walking or cycling more in your local area?

There should be a special effort to include children, disabled people, ethnic minorities and other hard-to-reach groups.

5. Design the traffic circulation plan

The coalition of partners should be involved in designing the traffic circulation plan, and it should be discussed with the emergency services to avoid the need for changes during the trial.

Physical closures should be used wherever possible (where the detour for motorists is not too great) as they provide certainty of a low traffic environment and maximal protection for people walking or cycling, and also enable public realm improvements such as ‘pocket parks’. 

However, if there is a possibility that emergency services may require access through a filter, it may be better to introduce a camera-controlled filter first, and then change it to a physical filter if emergency access is not needed. The situation with the Streetspace schemes, which were hastily opened to all illegal motor traffic with no cameras, must not be repeated.

6. Time the trial appropriately

The low traffic neighbourhood trial should commence at a time when traffic is lowest and people are most likely to walk or cycle for leisure, e.g. in the easter or summer school holidays. As per government guidance, the duration of the trial should be for the entire duration of the emergency traffic order, i.e. usually 18 months, to allow the changes to bed in and for people to change their travel behaviour.

7. Engage with local residents in designing specific measures

Data from the survey should be communicated back to residents in the explanation for the design of the proposed trial road closures. If there are different options available, residents living in the relevant area should be consulted on the options. The consultation should not be taken as a yes/no vote, but as a way of finding out if there are any specific issues. It is important that the consultation is accessible to all groups of residents, using different languages. There should be repeated announcements of the forthcoming changes via different media (e.g. on the main council website, in newsletters, and by communication to local community groups), with public information sessions for questions to be answered.

It should be noted that opposition to the scheme is likely to be triggered at this stage, and early unsolicited feedback is likely to be negative regardless of the quality of the scheme. This is because people will understand that their driving journeys will change before they understand how they will benefit from a better street environment.

8. Gauge public support using surveys during the trial

To find out what residents actually think during the trial, it is necessary to carry out a representative survey. Surveys can also be used to gather information on physical activity (e.g. frequency of walking and cycling) and track these over time. Ideally the survey should also include people living away from the low traffic neighbourhood, to provide a comparison group for the change in physical activity.

9. Base the end of trial decision on objective data, not a referendum

The decision as to whether to make the scheme permanent should be based primarily on objective data such as changes in walking and cycling, traffic volumes, traffic speeds, crime, pollution and road casualties. A formal consultation will also be needed to identify any specific issues, but should not be treated as a referendum, and the questions should relate to the policy aims (e.g. has the scheme made it safer to walk or cycle?) rather than simply asking if people like the scheme. Simple comparisons of numbers of responses for and against will be biased as different groups may be more or less likely to respond, and the guidance states that consultations must not be interpreted in this way.