Low-traffic neighbourhoods boost cycling, reduce car use and make roads safer, but councils could do more to make the schemes more palatable and comprehensible to local people, the most thorough study yet of the concept has concluded.
The report by the Centre for London thinktank about the interventions, which use planters or other filters to stop through-traffic by motor vehicles on smaller residential streets, also found no evidence they disproportionately benefited richer people.
But the study, which combined traffic data with direct evidence from officials involved in LTNs, said the fact many were implemented on a trial basis during lockdown meant there was sometimes a lack of consultation, as well as teething troubles that could have been avoided.
It recommends that councils try to reach out better to communities ahead of future projects and seek to depoliticise the issue, with one idea being to use a different term from LTN, one not associated with the wave of schemes introduced in 2020, such as “healthy neighbourhoods” or “quiet neighbourhoods”.
The report only covers London, but has lessons for other areas given that the capital has seen the bulk of recent LTNs implemented, as well as much of the political controversy about their impact.
Data collated from 10 schemes in the report found that inside their boundaries, cycle use rose by between 31% and 172%, while car traffic fell by between 22% and 76%. There was also strong evidence they reduced road casualties.
One frequent criticism of LTNs is that they simply push car use to the periphery, to busier main roads. The study found some evidence of rising cycling numbers outside the LTNs, while car use also mainly fell slightly, although one area saw a 7% increase.
But overall, the authors said, the evidence on possible traffic displacement was mixed. They said the best thing would be to continue with LTNs but to also introduce complementary measures such as road pricing and protected cycle lanes.
They also said they had found no evidence that LTNs slowed down emergency vehicle response times, or that the schemes disproportionately benefited wealthier areas, saying people living inside LTN boundaries tended to have a similar demographic profile to those on boundary roads.
While the basic idea of filtering residential streets to limit rat-running traffic has existed in various forms for decades, the rush of Covid-era LTNs caused the issue to become highly politicised, notably in London, with protest groups springing up.
Among a series of recommendations, the report said councils should try to make schemes as comprehensive as possible so as to limit traffic displacement, and try to make them appealing by adding elements such as benches and wider pavements.
To keep locals onside, it added, local authorities could allow a grace period before fining people for breaching LTN rules, and reach out to more groups, but also be “discerning” about whether people who claimed to represent significant numbers of opponents genuinely did.
The report made plain the wider need for action, noting that while overall car ownership in London had declined in recent years, a combination of satnav apps, Uber-type cabs and more home deliveries meant the number of miles driven on the capital’s minor roads had almost doubled in the decade from 2009.
Nicolas Bosetti from Centre for London, the report’s lead author, said the evidence showed LTNs could be effective, “but it doesn’t mean they should be done on the cheap”.
He said: “They should also be complemented by additional measures that discourage driving private cars and provide practical alternatives for both short and long journeys. That means funding for better-looking streets, protected cycle lanes and complementary measures such as car scrappage schemes and mobility credits, as well as improved public transport.”