There are clear and pressing reasons why Newcastle City Council is trialling a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) scheme in East Jesmond.
As is common elsewhere in England, there are too many cars on the streets of Jesmond. At the end of September 2022, there were 40.8 million licensed motor vehicles in the UK, a 3.1% increase compared to the end of September 2020. In Newcastle there were 85,900 cars registered in 2009; by the end of 2022, that had risen to 99,400 cars, a congestion-increasing uplift of 15.7%.
The huge number of people driving is what causes congestion, not LTNs.
Except they’re not always driving, of course. The average car or van in England is parked going nowhere for a whopping 96% of the time, states the RAC Foundation’s 2021 Standing Still report.
And these parked cars narrow residential roads, making it difficult for fire engines to get through to emergencies.
While many Jesmond residents own electric cars (which take up just as much finite road space as standard cars), most of the cars seen on the suburb’s streets are powered by internal combustion engines. These engines have been getting cleaner over the years but are not so clean that anybody of right mind would willingly sit in a closed garage sucking in their exhaust fumes.
One of the aims of LTN schemes is to make the air we breathe cleaner. Nobody wants to inhale foul air (road transport pollution is mainly invisible, so you don’t know you’re inhaling toxins), and reducing the number of miles driven is one way to clean a city’s air.
Critics claim that LTNs increase pollution because it forces people to drive further. Academics have found the opposite, with one study showing that LTNs reduce air pollution.
A study by researchers at Imperial College London looked at three LTNs in London, comparing pollution at monitoring stations inside the LTN zones, on streets surrounding the zones, and at control sites further away.
Because the overall number of motor journeys were reduced, researchers found that nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell 5.7% within the LTNs and by just under 9% on their boundaries compared to the control sites.
Like other local authorities, Newcastle City Council is legally obligated to monitor, assess and act to improve local air quality.
The LTN trial in Jesmond
During the trial of East Jesmond’s LTNs, air quality will be measured at Cradlewell and this data will be part of the evidence councillors will use to decide whether the trials should be made permanent.
Traffic monitoring is also part of the trial with AI-enhanced measuring devices installed on residential roads throughout the area and on boundary roads. This data will demonstrate whether or not overall traffic has been reduced.
Several residential roads in Jesmond have been closed to motorists for many years. Holly Avenue, for instance, had its bollards installed in August 1971. When the council proposed blocking this and other roads to motorists — but leaving them open to pedestrians and cyclists — there were many wild claims that Jesmond would wither and die because people in cars wouldn’t be able to directly access Osborne Road. Reader, Jesmond did not wither and die.
Space for cars
Cars are lovely (I drive one; electric, it just so happens), but there’s a fundamental problem with mass car ownership: there’s not enough space to put them all. Gridlock is the outcome of planning solely for cars. Cities worldwide are waking up to the fact that unrestrained car use is bad for people and the local economy. Unrestrained car use also leads to ugly cities. Cities that plan for people, not motor cars, are, by design, more attractive places to live and linger.
With less motor traffic, “leafy Jesmond” will become an even more attractive place to call one’s home or to visit.
And the planet needs less motor traffic. The government’s independent advisory group, the Climate Change Committee, recommends a reduction in miles travelled by car and a massive increase in walking and cycling.
“Car travel dominates surface transport emissions,” said a Climate Change Committee report published in 2020.
“There are opportunities to reduce demand for car travel, through both societal and technological changes and by enabling journeys to be shifted onto lower-carbon modes of transport,” continued the report.
And arguing for less motor traffic is also an imperative from the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is the United Nations’ climate-science-focused organisation. Our planet is expected to hit the critical threshold of 1.5°C warming due to human-caused climate change within the next 20 years, and curtailing motor traffic is one of the ways to reduce this risk, say the UN’s experts.
“Climate change is not a problem of the future, it’s here and now,” stated Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford, one of the IPCC experts.
“This is not about remote science; it is about where we live and work,” said Dr. Debra Roberts, an IPCC co-chair, adding, “we can choose the way we move in cities.”
The choice of how we move in cities
Indeed, we can. And Newcastle City Council’s LTN trial in East Jesmond will help increase those choices, enabling many more journeys without always having to use a car.
While many people may drive from Jesmond to travel long distances (I do, for sure), a great many journeys are probably exceedingly short.
In 2019, 7% of UK car journeys were less than one mile, while a further 17% were between one and two miles. Added together, that’s almost a quarter of all UK car journeys being short enough to walk in minutes. Hopping into cars for such incredibly short distances doesn’t just increase air pollution, it also causes congestion and increases road danger. By not walking or cycling instead, habitual car use also leads to poorer health. (Want stronger bones into old age? Walk.)
The complaint that LTNs “trap people in their homes” doesn’t hold water. Every house within East Jesmond’s LTN trial remains accessible by car, but with many cut-throughs removed, it now requires slightly longer routing.
The LTN trial has not caused gridlock. Jesmond is astride a major route into the city, and the Coast Road was busy at peak times before the LTN trial started last month. Backed up motor traffic on the A1058 has long been a problem. The building of the Cradlewell Bypass didn’t improve matters; it likely made it worse, with queuing traffic a feature on that flyover since it was opened in 1996.
“The traffic at present using Osborne Road is … almost at saturation point,” complained a Mitchell Avenue GP writing in 1970. (There were 15.5 million motor vehicles in use back then, almost two thirds less than today.)
The bollards on Mitchell Avenue were installed the following year and therefore didn’t cause the congestion. But they did mean residents on the street had to drive a little further to access Jesmond Road.
There is no modern day clamour to remove the bollards on Mitchell Avenue, just as there is no clamour to open Holly Avenue to motorists. Why? Because back in the day, residents quickly got used to the new road layouts and adapted their personal mindmaps. The same will soon be true of journeys within East Jesmond’s LTN, and by the end of the trial most of the furore will have died away.
Newcastle University researcher Sally Watson has found that a vote was held to assess the popularity of the Holly Avenue bollards in 1971. 97% of that street’s then residents voted to keep the road closed to motorists.
It’s highly likely that if residents had been asked the question before the bollards went in, the result would have been different. People generally don’t like change and tend to oppose what they consider impositions on their supposed “freedom of movement.”
But not everybody drives (that includes all young children, for a start), and we motorists rarely consider that our choice of transport imposes restraints on those not dotting around in cars. (For instance, the pedestrian phase of the traffic lights opposite Acorn Road takes way too long to kick in.)
Calming and crime?
LTNs can calm residential streets. Calmer, quieter streets are certainly better for children. Their parents can still drive in and out of streets calmed with LTN measures, but there’s less rat running from non-residents.
What about any claim that LTNs are more dangerous for lone women walking at night? The opposite is the actuality found academics in 2021. Using police data, researchers examined the impact on street crime of introducing LTNs in Waltham Forest, London. Overall, the introduction of a LTN was associated with a 10% decrease in total street crime and an even greater reduction was observed for sexual offences.
In short, those areas lucky enough to be calmed with LTNs are safer, cleaner, more attractive places to live, and I predict that many of the complaints will soon be from people who also want to benefit from living in a more pleasant neighbourhood, demanding “Where’s our LTN?”
We should all welcome measures that aim to reduce motor traffic. Such an outcome would be better for those people who must use their cars, such as people with disabilities or their carers.
LTNs are neither sexist, ageist, ableist nor anti-motorist. They are simple and effective interventions that have been successfully used in Jesmond in the past. Those folks on a private Facebook group calling for the East Jesmond LTN trial to be scrapped and for its supporters to be hounded claim to be in the majority but this is unlikely. Acceptance of the LTN will increase as residents slowly discover that limiting motorist access to a few roads results in lovelier neighbourhoods.