We consider the pros and cons of LTNs – and how play streets might help pave the way.
We got a bit excited when the government announced £2bn for active travel measures, including Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) “where residential side streets are closed to through traffic to stop rat-running”. In some ways, LTNs are a more permanent version of our play street model, where residents can still drive in and out, but streets are made safer and more liveable, including for children.
Resident-led, temporary play streets bring huge immediate benefits for street communities. But we have always seen this model as a step towards making streets safer for children to play out more permanently. LTNs certainly could help tick that box.
But – as with play streets – the process is crucial
We have watched with concern (and not a huge amount of surprise) the culture war that has been unleashed in some places where LTNs are being introduced. Whilst some areas have been able to respond effectively, in some parts of London the backlash has been so significant that the LTN barriers have been removed.
Change is always difficult
We know from long, hard experience that not everyone agrees with the idea that residential streets are not just for cars. But the speed of the LTN introduction and perceived lack of consultation* with communities in the rush to make changes quickly post-lockdown hasn’t helped. The great risk is that doing things too fast can damage the community cohesion that is such an important part of creating more liveable neighbourhoods and enabling children to play out. When people feel “done to” or under threat, they are more likely to polarise into different camps and deepen divisions, making compromise or consensus much more difficult to achieve.
And not everyone opposing LTNs is simply pro-car – far from it. Some prominent clean-air, safer street campaigners are raising concerns about inequality and the potential displacement of traffic and air pollution onto residential main roads (see this letter from Councillor Flick Rae and arguments made by leading air quality campaigner Rosamund Kissi-Debrah who lives on the edge of one of the LTNs and labels it “environmental racism”).
The counter-argument is that by encouraging people to switch from driving to walking and cycling for shorter journeys, LTNs will benefit everyone in the medium to long-term, including those living on nearby main roads. But, unfortunately, traffic evaporation doesn’t happen overnight, and it is important to acknowledge the (hopefully) short-term impact on certain communities, listen and seek compromises.
Inequality and spatial injustice are inherent in the way our towns and cities are built
LTNs aren’t causing those problems, but they might be inadvertently exacerbating them. Proper, open conversations about LTNs could be a really good way of highlighting and addressing those issues that tend to affect poorer people. The urban planning team in Oakland (US) seem to have been on a difficult but very important journey with this, when implementing their own slow streets programme.
So, whilst we do think LTNs are promising and a potentially exciting next step for children’s right to play out, we hope that lessons can be learned about how they are implemented.
Some learning from play streets….
There are no easy answers to shifting our entrenched car culture, but we’ve learnt a few crucial lessons in the past 12 years about how to challenge the status quo on residential streets in a way that – on the whole – brings neighbours together and leads to lasting change.
1. Include everyone
Play streets work better, last longer and make more change happen when they involve the whole street community right from the start. It’s not always easy to step outside your comfort zone but many play street organisers will attest to the huge rewards of talking to ALL your neighbours, not just those you relate to most easily.
Not everyone will want to be actively involved in organising a play street, or even to come out of their home onto the street, but it’s still important and possible to make everyone feel welcome and included – regardless of age, background or whether they have children – and this in itself will help to build a sense of belonging.
2. Build consensus
Play streets usually just happen for a few hours a month but even this relatively small change can be controversial; our possible concerns page is one of the most viewed on our website.
But the vast majority go ahead with great success because they are led by residents who take time to talk to their neighbours, giving everyone a chance to raise questions, listening to and trying to allay any concerns well before any formal application is made to the council.
As the influential environmentalist, activist and writer George Monbiot said in our recent webinar:
“For participation to be real and effective it’s got to begin long before there’s any formal governmental process like a planning decision to be made…if you land a planning decision on a place where there’s no effective community, all you’re going to see is people get really polarised and divided and start ripping each other’s throats out because there isn’t already a sense of people working together to solve our common problems… that’s what community is all about, and that needs to be deeply embedded in a community long before any external source of stress is added…”
3. Start small
It’s often tempting to go straight for the big change but we’ve learnt that small is beautiful. Starting with just one play street session to test the water before making it a regular event; just closing a small section of the street to cars; doing it for a shorter time – all these ‘compromises’ can actually be the first gentle step that’s needed to get more people on board, build confidence and achieve the longer-term goal of a safer, friendlier street.
4. Show the change!
Urban transport journalist Laura Laker suggests in this article on where to start if you want an LTN where you live, that “school streets or play streets can start to build consensus for further changes”.
Play streets are incredibly simple, but instantly transform the street from a space dominated by cars to one filled with life and activity. We’ve heard countless reports over the years of grumpy neighbours changing their minds once they’ve experienced the joy of a play street in real life.
This experience can really help people to visualise and understand the benefits of streets being less traffic-dominated in the longer-term. Starting with a play street could be a great way to help people see the positives of reduced traffic on their street and perhaps to realise the benefits outweigh the relatively small inconvenience for drivers.
Based on our experience with play streets, we feel that for LTNs to work well and be equitable it is vital that
- LTNs are co-created with residents and businesses, and particular care is taken to seek under-represented voices (including children and parents) and build consensus.
- Time is taken to introduce the idea, communicate the benefits, listen to concerns and build support.
- Temporary, community-building measures such as play streets or street parties are used to trial and help people to visualise changes.
- Priority is given to less affluent areas, with less access to green space and more exposure to damaging air pollution.
- More research is done on the impact for nearby roads and compromises sought.
- Other means of reducing overall traffic congestion are introduced alongside.
What’s next for LTNs?
We are hopeful that some of the existing LTNs will be successful and all will provide ample learning for the rest of us around the UK.
For councils and residents watching on, what different approaches could be implemented in the meantime to help smooth the way?
- Extend your play streets schemes to allow groups of neighbours to propose physical changes to their street that would support children to play out anytime e.g. parklets, speed reduction measures, or trial point closures?
- Start with one big day of play streets on a neighbourhood scale, as we’ve seen with car free days around the world? This could be done collaboratively between councils and residents, provide testing grounds for new LTNs, building public support as well as gathering data and negotiating the network difficulties thrown up in diverting traffic.
- If your council area doesn’t have a play streets policy yet, initiate one! We have loads of free information for councils and you can contact me, our Play Streets Development Officer, on email@example.com.
- School play streets are another brilliant tool for starting this conversation in your area.
We’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this and if you have a project in mind, get in touch and we’ll do what we can to support you.
*LTNs have mostly been implemented using an experimental traffic order, which means that the consultation takes place as the trial is ‘live’, so that people can experience the change before they give their views on it. The final decision on whether to make it permanent or not comes later, once people’s views have been gathered on the trial. This process is often very poorly understood by the public so needs careful attention to communication beforehand.