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How to save a Low Traffic Neighbourhood: Overcoming hecklers, “dodgy” data, and political intrigue as councillors prevent early scrapping of active streets trial

At a meeting disrupted by anti-LTN activists, councillors voted in favour of retaining the Exeter trial, after cycling and walking campaigners criticised a “flawed” and “biased” report suggesting the scheme could be abandoned

An attempt to put a premature halt to a controversial low traffic neighbourhood trial in Exeter – a consistent target and source of vandalism, protests, and intimidation of local politicians since it was first introduced last August – has been rejected by councillors, after active travel campaigners branded a report submitted to the local authority, which advised that the scheme could be abandoned early if its targets weren’t met within weeks, “flawed” and “biased”.

An interim report on the Heavitree and Whipton Active Streets Trial, which those in favour of the scheme say was “sprung” on the committee charged with implementing it “at the last minute”, claimed that while motor traffic has been significantly reduced within Exeter’s newly installed low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), and cycling numbers boosted, traffic and journey times on boundary roads have soared.

The report also concluded that, unless it began to deliver better results by the end of February, the trial could be abandoned early, with the power to suspend the scheme transferred from the city and county councillors to an unelected official.

Despite the report’s conclusions, in a four hour-long meeting on Tuesday, punctuated by the disruptive presence of anti-LTN activists, Exeter’s Highways and Traffic Orders Committee voted to keep the trial in place, a decision one councillor said was necessary in order to obtain “really robust and accurate data at the end of it so we can make this significant decision for our city”.

A “divisive issue” – to put it mildly

The Heavitree and Whipton Active Streets scheme in Exeter, introduced at the beginning of August as part of an 18-month trial by Devon County Council, features modal filters using bollards or planters in a bid to prevent through traffic and increase safety, encourage walking and cycling, and reduce pollution on residential roads, while bus gates were installed to allow access to local residents, buses, and emergency vehicles.

Exeter LTN bollards (picture credit Devon County Council)

> MP calls out "criminal behaviour" after local councillors receive faeces in their mailbox for implementing LTNs

However, the scheme has proved highly contentious, prompting a wave of protests and vandalism in recent months. A week after the trial began in the summer, masked youths ripped out the bollards at the entrance to the LTNs before fleeing on bikes, prompting the police to warn that removing such barriers constitutes a criminal offence and that they are monitoring anti-LTN groups on social media.

And in October, protesters sent death threats and filled the letterbox of the local MP’s house with faeces, leading to one man being cautioned by police, while a councillor’s bike tyres were also slashed.

The rising tensions led MP Sir Ben Bradshaw to appeal to the “overzealous” protestors to “calm down” and put an end to this “abusive and alarming criminal behaviour”.

> Christmas is ruined… by a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (allegedly)

“It’s been quite a divisive issue, as it has been in other places,” local resident Edward Pickering, the editor of cycling magazine Rouleur and member of the Exeter Cycling Campaign, tells road.cc.

“Exeter has terrible congestion, it has the second biggest work catchment area in the country, making the city a traffic jam. It’s unsustainable and with traffic rising year on year, apart from the pandemic, it’s only going to get worse.”

He continued: “Exeter is saturated with car traffic. Something needs to change. So much pollution is caused, so much time is wasted, so much mental health is damaged, so much money is spent while the place is a traffic jam. People have been against the scheme, but also a lot of people are enjoying the quieter streets and healthier travel options.”

“Biased, minimal, outdated, insufficient, and badly presented”

However, despite the scheme’s noble ambitions, the tensions surrounding it reached fever pitch this week, following the submission of an interim report which appeared to put the immediate future of the trial – just five months into its planned 18-month stint – in jeopardy.

The report, submitted by the Conservative-controlled Devon City Council to Exeter’s Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, comprised of members of both the county council and the Labour-controlled Exeter City Council, called into question the success of the scheme so far, noting its apparent “significant” negative effects on motor traffic and journey times on boundary roads, and suggested that it could be scrapped early.

The report’s conclusions were immediately criticised by Exeter’s pro-LTN campaign groups, such as the Exeter Cycling Campaign and the Heavitree and Whipton Liveable Neighbourhood Group, who labelled its findings “biased, minimal, outdated, insufficient, and badly presented”.

> Petition with “factual errors” to scrap low-traffic neighbourhood launched by a “keen cyclist” after just two months of trial

According to the Exeter Cycling Campaign, the report’s attempt to assess the trial’s impact on traffic in the area was solely based on a comparison between two road traffic counts – a mid-September day in 2022 and a single day in late September 2023, less than two months into the trial and when, the campaigners noted, major roadworks were taking place in at least two different sites in the surrounding area, a rail strike was being held, and university students had arrived back in town.

“So, trying to show trends and long-term behavioural habits changing was not even taken into account,” Pickering says.

“It was just two snapshots, one of which was slightly worse than the other, but even not by much. Considering the mitigating factors, you could even argue the LTN was showing positive effects.”

The report’s use of a green, amber, and red colour scheme to depict the scheme’s successes and drawbacks was also scrutinised. For instance, the reporting of “no adverse incidents” by the emergency services since the trial commenced – a subject which has proved the source of online misinformation – was marked in amber, instead of green, despite its clearly positive connotations. 

Meanwhile a seven per cent increase in the number of people walking and wheeling was also designated amber, prompting the Exeter Cycling Campaign to accuse the county council of “distorting” the report’s findings and presenting them in a “biased” manner.

Exeter LTN trial report

An example of the report’s controversial green, amber, and red metric

Campaigners also noted that some of the trial’s key targets – such as encouraging active travel as a choice for the area’s schoolchildren – were ignored by the report, while other metrics not flagged at the trial’s inception, such as its impact on bus journey times, were featured.

Finally, the report’s suggestion that the power for deciding the scheme’s fate should be transferred from the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee to the unelected director of climate change, environment, and transport was branded “undemocratic” by both local campaigners and members of the committee itself.

“There was a lot of conversation and a lot of anger, especially from the Labour councillors, about the report’s suggestion. They couldn’t believe it, it just didn’t make sense,” says Pickering.

After the report’s publication, Lorna Devenish, a spokesperson for the Heavitree and Whipton Liveable Neighbourhood Group, told Radio Exe last week: “All the evidence shows that it takes a few months for schemes like this to bed in and for people to get used to them. We are calling on the county highways and traffic orders committee to reject this report and only agree to review the trial once they have more up-to-date figures.”

road.cc contacted Devon County Council and Labour councillor Danny Barnes, the chair of the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, last week to discuss the report and subsequent criticism, but is so far yet to receive a response.

Fear and loathing in a traffic committee meeting

Alarmed by the report’s negative findings being “sprung” on an unsuspecting committee “at the last minute”, and faced with the prospect of the trial being scrapped before it had time to “bed in”, Exeter’s active travel activists warned last week that any decision to prematurely halt the scheme could leave Devon County Council open to a legal challenge, a measure undertaken by cycling and walking campaigners in similar circumstances elsewhere in the UK.

Last year, for example, Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole Council was forced to concede it acted unlawfully over its decision to reopen the narrow Keyhole Bridge to motor traffic just months after banning cars on the road as part of an ill-fated active travel scheme.

> Victory for cyclists and walkers in legal challenge to council decision to reopen narrow bridge to motor traffic

Children cycling on Active Travel Street (Exeter Cycling Campaign)

(Exeter Cycling Campaign)

Pickering also says the city’s pro-LTN campaigners “spent the last week knocking on doors, talking to people, emailing, and finding out that actually there are a lot of people who are quite enjoying this move towards safer, quieter, more healthy, more efficient streets.”

That persistence paid off at Tuesday’s unusually long and fraught meeting of the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, where the report, Pickering says, was “ripped to shreds” by the majority of the committee’s members, who ultimately voted nine to two in favour of retaining the trial, at least until “more robust” data can be assessed.

“We all voted for this because it was a trial and we want to get really robust and accurate data at the end of it so we can make this significant decision for our city,” Labour county councillor Tracy Adams said after the meeting.

> Proof anti-LTN group falsely claimed cyclists drove to safety protest for "photo op" leads local paper staffer to apologise

Pickering, one of those who spoke in favour of the pro-LTN side in front of the committee, notes that despite the four hour-long meeting’s positive ending, it was far from a straightforward affair, punctuated by a vociferous and disruptive anti-trial element.

“A lot of anti-LTN people turned up to the meeting, and there were reports of booing and heckling from the next room, where a video screen was set up. And I was in the council meeting – I can safely say the atmosphere was tense and my own talk was interrupted by noise from the audience,” the Rouleur editor says.

Heavitree & Whipton Streets for People, Exeter

“Local residents, who welcome the safer and quieter streets as a result of the Active Streets trial, tell me that they often feel intimidated to speak out in support of the scheme,” adds Heavitree councillor Catherine Rees.

“They talk of better-connected neighbourhoods and reduced isolation. Parents are also reporting that they now feel more confident allowing their children to walk and cycle to school. All of this will undoubtedly be having a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health.”

“The battle will continue”

Nevertheless, despite the tensions currently dividing Exeter, Pickering argues that the active trial scheme, should it be allowed to flourish, has the potential to benefit even those who vociferously condemn it on Facebook groups or from the gallery of a local committee meeting.

“It’s not political correctness or woke to point out that everyone driving a car is not efficient,” he says. “If safe infrastructure is put in place, more people will cycle and walk, fewer people will drive, and the roads will be freed up. And the people who have to drive – carers, workmen, deliverers, anyone part of the disabled community – will have the roads freed up.

“So, as well as these being pro-cycling and pro-walking measures, they’re also pro-car. Because they actually turn cars back into what they should be, which is engines of liberation.”

> Rishi Sunak accused of seeking to exploit division over LTNs as he orders review of schemes

He continued: “The trial is being presented as a radical intervention, but it is not. It is a small first step. Cars have been prioritised for decades, while this is one step in a better direction. With every attempt to promote active travel, there is noisy opposition. But LTNs have been a success story around the country in reducing overall traffic.

“The council vote was important, because if it had failed, maybe the next scheme wouldn’t be as ambitious, or a council in another city would think ‘oh, it’s not worth the bother’. It’s a big deal because it’s being allowed to continue.

“The battle will continue, though. We’ll be back to issues like traffic on boundary roads and all the rest of it by midday today.

“We’ve been working our arses off this week, but we’re very aware that the hard work starts now, to make sure that the quiet people in favour of the scheme are heard, and that we persuade any waverers. So we’re going to continue knocking on doors, speaking to people, and holding community rides and walks. We’ve got a year before the trial gets officially accepted or turned down, so there’s a lot to do.”

Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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41 comments

Avatar
TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
0 likes

Reality check ... 75% of Cyclists are motorists ... possibly higher judging by the packed car parks at cycle events I attend ...  stop pretending to be eco positive while you , and your wife , drive ... and have your own cars ...  I'm not a hypocrite ... so stop pretending your not ...

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chrisonabike replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
2 likes

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_is_the_enemy_of_good

But since almost everyone in the UK is amongst the world's richest and most polluting we should permit Cassandras to berate us - they might be right:

https://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2020/09/living-without-engines-and...

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Wingguy replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
6 likes

TROOPER74 wrote:

Reality check ... 75% of Cyclists are motorists ... possibly higher judging by the packed car parks at cycle events I attend ...  stop pretending to be eco positive while you , and your wife , drive ... and have your own cars ...  I'm not a hypocrite ... so stop pretending your not ...

Just for clarification, are you saying that owning a car but using a bike/feet/public transport for all local journeys is the same thing as owning a car and driving absolutely everywhere in it, including the ultra-congested school run?

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CyclePsycho replied to Wingguy | 6 months ago
0 likes

Wingguy wrote:

TROOPER74 wrote:

Reality check ... 75% of Cyclists are motorists ... possibly higher judging by the packed car parks at cycle events I attend ...  stop pretending to be eco positive while you , and your wife , drive ... and have your own cars ...  I'm not a hypocrite ... so stop pretending your not ...

Just for clarification, are you saying that owning a car but using a bike/feet/public transport for all local journeys is the same thing as owning a car and driving absolutely everywhere in it, including the ultra-congested school run?

 

Careful now, that almost sounds nuanced. 

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Rendel Harris replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
4 likes

TROOPER74 wrote:

 ...  stop pretending to be eco positive while you , and your wife , drive ... and have your own cars ...

I don't, she doesn't, neither of us do.

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Hirsute replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
8 likes

Using a bike for commuting, shopping, getting around is eco positive.
Would you rather I used a car for every single trip and only cycle for leisure?
All of the measures are about 100 people using their bike 5% of the time not 5 people using a bike 100% of the time.

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Simon E replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
8 likes

What has your bullshit post got to do with the article?

And my wife doesn't drive. She knows first-hand how dreadful public transport is for getting to other parts of town and how shitty some drivers behaviour can be towards her when cycling.

You sound like just another anti-LTN gammon, foaming at the mouth simply because people want safer streets and better options for non-drivers (and also drivers who want to use their car less or maybe even give it up completely).

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don simon fbpe replied to TROOPER74 | 5 months ago
0 likes

Lolz.

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Shades | 6 months ago
3 likes

They're rolling out some LTNs in Bath; cue similar protests.  Forget the LTN word (I wish the term hadn't been invented), it's just shutting off dreadful (dangerous) rat-runs that should have been dealt with years ago; they sorted this sort of thing out in London, where my brother lived, in the late 90s.  If you boil this down, the protesters are people where, if they're travelling away from their house, the only option is the car; if the volume of cars increase, then just spread the cars around more (ie rat-runs).  They just won't get LTNs and the need for local people to find an alternative to the car for short journeys; people opposing LTNs will live miles away and use them as cut-throughs.  It's the (supposedly) plausible (opposing) reasons they wheel out (eg traffic around schools, queues causing pollution, emergency vehicle access etc) which translate as "I want to drive my car anywhere, anytime and anyhow I like".  Councils should show some leadership and backbone, and not back down.

I was speaking to a friend on my road who has a Tern cargo bike for the school run; she said that they'd reverted to the car for the school run as they nearly got T-boned by a rat-running car and her daughter won't go on the back anymore.  Sad.

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Secret_squirrel | 6 months ago
1 like

Im not understand the political nuances here.

Is it proLTN Labour City Council vs Anti-LTN Cons Country Council?

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kamoshika replied to Secret_squirrel | 6 months ago
1 like

Yep, that pretty much it. Exeter's not unitary so we have city councillors and county councillors representing wards within the city (which in some cases are the same people). Highways are the responsibility of the county council, but the HATOC committee includes city councillors as well as county. Exeter city council is majority labour, and county councillors representing wards in the city are mostly labour too I think, but the county council overall is Tory controlled

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barbarus replied to Secret_squirrel | 6 months ago
4 likes

Not exactly. The local councillors both City and Council are in favour and Labour/ Green.

The scheme was introduced by the Conservative majority county council who still back it. The anti LTN crowd are vocal and a mix of locals and not local.

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David9694 replied to Secret_squirrel | 6 months ago
0 likes

"Conservative-controlled Devon City Council to Exeter’s Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, comprised of members of both the county council and the Labour-controlled Exeter City Council"

No, no, no Ryan.
If you replaced in the floor plan below "Bike room" with "local government knowledge"  have a fair representation of thre insides of my head.  On second thoughts, subdivide the big space into "bikes" and "local government".

There is Devon County Council, which is the highways authority. Then there is the district council, which may have some delegated highways powers under a local agreement or may sponsor LTNs via the county council. Exeter City is Labour/ Labour and Co-operative controlled.

The Committee referred to is the Exeter Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, which is a joint committee hosted by DCC with members from ECC.

https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=168&MId=4758

I can't see any evidence of the report being " sprung", but it would, it if had've been passed, delegated authority to the officers to be able to determine the future of the LTN scheme in March.   

It does sound like someone at Devon CC wants "out" from this scheme. We've had decades of "don't do that, a driver might get mad" and that can no longer be a reason to end it and allow cars to continue to overrun this residential area. 

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kamoshika | 6 months ago
7 likes

I don't live in the area covered by these LTNs, but I am in Exeter and cycle through regularly. It's heartening to see the support for this and that the proposal to end the trial early was voted down. The anti-LTN compaigners have been very vocal in the local press and online, and I think it's important to recognise that those of us in favour do need to make more noise about our support. It is difficult to do though when there is so much vitriol and abuse being thrown around.

I had a lovely moment the other week - I was riding through one of the barriers chatting to my son in the front of my cargo bike about how much nicer it was to ride there since they brought the LTN in. A man out walking his dog came over and asked what I thought of it. I was expecting him to be anti, but glad of a potential opportunity to put my side across. As it turned out he was all in favour and we had a nice chat about how much better it was for walking and cycling now. At some point a woman joined us, I suspect hoping for a chance to join in a rant about the LTN (although she should have got a clue from the cargo bike). As soon as she realised we were both in favour she harumphed at us and walked off.

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TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
2 likes

I'm always amazed at how many of these LTN zealots don't actually live in one .....

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Rendel Harris replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
7 likes

TROOPER74 wrote:

I'm always amazed at how many of these LTN zealots don't actually live in one .....

Why? I don't live in one but I pass through two on my commute and they have improved safety for cyclists in previously congested and dangerous areas, not to mention air quality, without increasing traffic on the boundary roads (which I would object to as I have to ride on them as well) so I'm all in favour.

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Doctor Fegg replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
7 likes

In Oxfordshire, the anti-LTN crowd almost all live in cul-de-sacs or similar (JS, RP, LW - local cyclists will know who I mean). Funnily enough they never advocate their own streets being opened up to through traffic.

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Steve K replied to Doctor Fegg | 6 months ago
3 likes

Doctor Fegg wrote:

In Oxfordshire, the anti-LTN crowd almost all live in cul-de-sacs or similar (JS, RP, LW - local cyclists will know who I mean). Funnily enough they never advocate their own streets being opened up to through traffic.

I think pro-LTN campaigners should put forward proposals to open up the cul de sacs so they would become through roads and challenge the anti-LTNers not to support them.

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chrisonabike replied to Doctor Fegg | 6 months ago
1 like

As a cycling zealot I store my several bikes in my flat* rather than e.g. leaving them on the pavement. Let's see some of these driving zealots prove their zeal in like manner!

* True, my main motivation is not really leaving space for others or admiring them daily but being able to - because they haven't been stolen or vandalised. I could actually use that space for other purposes...

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mark1a replied to chrisonabike | 6 months ago
7 likes

chrisonabike wrote:

As a cycling zealot I store my several bikes in my flat* rather than e.g. leaving them on the pavement. Let's see some of these driving zealots prove their zeal in like manner! * True, my main motivation is not really leaving space for others or admiring them daily but being able to - because they haven't been stolen or vandalised. I could actually use that space for other purposes...

This?

 

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chrisonabike replied to mark1a | 6 months ago
4 likes

Well I know I can't compete with you - your house is just an annex at the back of your bike store!

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brooksby replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
7 likes

I think it is often the case that the pro LTN people live in one and the anti LTN people live and work and at either side of it and want to rat-run through… 

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RDaneel replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
2 likes

TROOPER74 wrote:

I'm always amazed at how many of these LTN zealots don't actually live in one .....

I'm always amazed you know all these LTN "zealots" personally to know such a thing.....

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Wingguy replied to TROOPER74 | 6 months ago
3 likes

TROOPER74 wrote:

I'm always amazed at how many of these LTN zealots don't actually live in one .....

Not an LTN but a cul de sac, so like a natural LTN. Before that I lived on an A-road. Guess which one I prefer.

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Dnnnnnn | 6 months ago
2 likes

It surely isn't hard to collect a decent quantity of good data on before and after conditions around LTNs. I'd have thought that would lead to a more informed debate (haha!).

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chrisonabike replied to Dnnnnnn | 6 months ago
2 likes

It would be great if we did this systematically.

Won't change debates because a) it's political in all ways in the UK - even if a minor issue. b) in the UK we don't even have agreement on what "improvements" look like. Measuring eg. fewer motor vehicles or lower speeds can be seen as success by one side and total failure by another.

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Dnnnnnn replied to chrisonabike | 6 months ago
2 likes

Oh, entirely agree that people will interpret the same thing differently - but at least we might be a bit closer to having a shared reality to disagree about.

The plethora of media, particularly social, is creating alternate realities and really damaging society IMO. When - against my better judgement - I read comments about how "Khan has DESTROYED London", I always want to reply, "That's awful - how many dead?".

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chrisonabike replied to Dnnnnnn | 6 months ago
2 likes

I'd love more informed debate (I've plenty to learn also) but unfortunately it's not just interpretation. There is a zero-sum game element here and some of the goals are apparently incompatible. "No reduction in the ease / speed / cost of driving" or "selling more cars and having more driving because growth" is not compatible with "safer streets, nicer places" or "more active travel" as I understand it.

If private transport is favoured over public transport the former will mostly be used. If driving a short journey is as easy as cycling or walking it, people will drive.

Ultimately it comes down to a *choice* about what we want in the future. That means accepting a balance of pros and cons. For example - some number of pedestrians and cyclists dying in crashes (and indeed from particulate pollution) is currently tacitly accepted because our driving "freedoms" are seen as more important overall.

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brooksby replied to Dnnnnnn | 6 months ago
2 likes

Dnnnnnn wrote:

"Khan has DESTROYED London", I always want to reply, "That's awful - how many dead?".

I'd suggest that we all blame James Kirk for showing him mercy, anyway  3

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Tom_77 replied to Dnnnnnn | 6 months ago
5 likes

Dnnnnnn wrote:

It surely isn't hard to collect a decent quantity of good data on before and after conditions around LTNs. I'd have thought that would lead to a more informed debate (haha!).

I think it can be difficult to isolate the effects of an LTN, given that many other things can influence traffic data - the weather, roadworks, train strikes, etc. But if the trial runs for the full 18 months it ought to be possible to work it out.

Not sure if it will lead to an informed debate. Locally we've had 20mph limits on a small number of roads, some drivers are claiming lengthy delays that defy basic maths.

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