Why reducing traffic is critical – but few local politicians have the courage to take it on

Many London boroughs have seen bitter disputes over the use of street space in recent years, with the introduction of Low Traffic `Neighbourhoods and schemes to improve safety for walking and cycling with wider footpaths, separated cycle lanes, modal filters and traffic calming. Some complaints were legitimate as schemes failed to cater for disabled residents, as shown by Transport for All’s report ‘Pave the Way‘, and improvements have been made to fix design flaws and improve public consultation. But much of the pushback came from drivers frustrated that it was not as easy to travel by car in their local area.

The purpose of these schemes is to reduce traffic. Between 2009-2019, vehicle traffic in London increased by 3.9 billion vehicle-miles and traffic on high streets and residential areas was causing air pollution, increasing the risk of serious injury or death from vehicle collisions, and worsening public health by discouraging walking or cycling. Car traffic can be reduced by making it safer, more convenient and pleasant for people to walk and cycle. Across Bromley many people will tell you that they have no choice but to drive because the roads are too dangerous or that there aren’t protected lanes for cycling. This prevents people from choosing cheaper travel options that are also better for their health and wellbeing. Schemes to improve walking and cycling are also good for the local economy: the Pedestrian Pound report commissioned by Living Streets found that high streets with schemes to improve the pedestrian environment had 32% higher footfall and 17% higher retail turnover between 2007-2018, against the national trend of declining footfall (down 22% over the same period).

Debates over LTNs and schemes that reallocate road space showed how many residents, councillors or community leaders assume that the amount of vehicle traffic is fixed. Why is this assumption such a problem? It implies that any changes to the street become a simple matter of where traffic is displaced to, instead of how the changes reduce traffic by enabling safe walking or cycling. It is normal for any scheme reducing road space for vehicles to create short-term congestion as many drivers discover they can’t take their usual route anymore. But if they have the option to safely walk, cycle or take public transport instead, congestion will rarely last and traffic levels will fall. The evidence backs this up – LTNs caused an average decline of 8.6% in vehicle traffic across all roads, with a 45% decline on roads within the LTN and a 4.5% increase on roads outside the LTN.

When the Albemarle Road cycle lane was installed in Beckenham last November there was an uproar from local residents about the immediate impacts on traffic. The cycle lane has obvious shortcomings, with inadequate provision for cyclists at the major intersections at each end (Beckenham High Street & Shortlands Road). But no one was questioning why so much vehicle traffic was allowed to rat-run through Albemarle/Westgate/Foxgrove Roads and The Avenue in the first place, and how many of these trips didn’t need to be made in a car?

Why would anyone assume that car traffic cannot, or will not, reduce? It’s hard to argue that reduction is impossible: national statistics show that 57% of car trips are less than five miles, a distance that can be covered on a bicycle if the streets are safe for cycling. 24% of car trips are less than two miles, which is walkable, if streets are safe for walking. If you have shopping or heavy items to carry, you can use shopping trolleys or bike panniers. For disabled or over-65 groups, walking and cycling is possible with inclusive design, mobility aids, modified bicycles or trikes. Of course some will still need to travel by car – but this is a small proportion of the population and it can be accommodated by careful street design and appropriate provision of blue badge or disabled parking.

There are good reasons why local politicians are wary of backing an agenda for traffic reduction. Drivers are known for protesting vocally against any scheme that makes it even a little less convenient to travel by car. Looking after drivers and ensuring that their ‘right’ to have priority on roads and streets is protected has been a feasible political strategy, albeit lacking in vision. It takes hard work to convince people to change their travel behaviour, even if the positive health impacts, stress reduction and lower financial costs are clear. Just as people can become dependent on their smartphones and react irrationally when they cannot use them – attachment to our cars plays out in an unnervingly similar way.

However, tides are shifting: UK Parliament and councils across the country have declared a climate emergency, David Attenborough has warned of the grave risks of continuing to consume fossil fuels at the same rate, and parents are aware of the harmful impacts of air pollution and raising concerns over dangerous roads around schools. The Bromley Living Streets School Survey of 5,500 parents from 89 schools across Bromley shows how widespread these issues are, and the level of parents’ discontent over the lack of action on road safety, walking and cycling. Today in Bromley, someone getting on their bicycle is almost three times as likely to suffer a serious or fatal injury than they would in Lewisham (8.1 serious and fatal casualties vs 2.8 serious and fatal casualties per 1,000 daily cycling stages). Holding on to the supposedly-safe strategy of prioritising cars, and ignoring the interests of those who walk or cycle, will backfire one day soon. Climate change and concerns over air pollution and road safety are only becoming more prominent in the media and public debate.

A different future is possible, where Beckenham is a safer and healthier place for families, children and older people to live. This won’t come about until we see stronger political leadership. You can encourage this by writing to your local ward councillor or opposition candidates standing against them in the May 2022 local election.


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