The evidence is in: low-traffic neighbourhoods are popular

Are measures to make streets safe for walking and cycling unpopular? Are they vote-losers? Have we failed to take communities with us – and will we, as local politicians, pay the price?

As a former Labour leader of Ealing council in west London, I was at the heart of this debate. The low-traffic neighbourhood schemes we installed in my borough, using cameras to stop rat-running in more than a hundred streets, caused a row noisy even by the standards of cycling scheme rows. Demonstrators marched to the council offices with “Julian Bell – end this hell” placards. The “Bell” and the “end” were placed together to make a further well-loved phrase.

The infrastructure was vandalised. I was accused of not consulting or listening to people’s views – though the schemes, as trials, were themselves consultations. The schemes were often labelled “unpopular” and “controversial” in the local press.

Now, we’ve had the biggest imaginable consultation on these LTNs: we’ve had an election. At the London mayoral election last month, the cycle schemes were by far the biggest issue in the five main wards of Ealing they covered – Acton Central, Ealing Common, Elthorne, Northfield and Walpole. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats blitzed the area, telling people that a vote for them would stop the LTNs. The Tory candidate, Shaun Bailey, paid a special visit to campaign against them.

A vandalised LTN in Ealing

But it turns out they’re not “unpopular” at all. Not even really all that “controversial”, and certainly not the vote magnet our opponents hoped. In Ealing as a whole, the Tory vote did go up compared with the previous election, by 0.64 percentage points. But in the five Ealing LTN wards as a whole, the Tories went down. The Lib Dems fell, too.

Labour, whose mayor and council implemented the schemes, comfortably won all five of the wards – including one, Ealing Common, that the Tories took last time. The Tory vote in that ward dropped by more than 5 percentage points.

Labour’s vote did fall across the five wards, but by less than the Ealing average. Only in Elthorne and Acton Central did the Conservatives do better, and Labour worse, than their borough averages. In both wards, however, and across the five LTN wards as a whole, more than 50% of the electorate voted for parties, Labour and the Greens, which supported the LTNs.

This analysis relates only to first-preference votes. When second preferences are included, the support for LTNs grows even further.

Similar, but even more marked, Tory underperformance occurred in many other parts of London where the Conservatives campaigned against contested cycling and walking schemes. In the borough of Hounslow, for instance, local Tories fought hard against the new CS9 segregated track on Chiswick High Road, and Bailey made a Facebook video attacking the scheme. Again, it was the main issue in the campaign locally.

At the election, the Tory vote in the three Chiswick wards along CS9 fell by between 10 and 12 percentage points on 2016, in a borough where the party’s overall vote went up by 1.2 points. The Lib Dems rose, but only fractionally. Labour fell by more than 4 points in Hounslow as a whole – but in the CS9 wards, its vote went up by 4.4 points.

It was Kensington, scene of the biggest cycling scheme row, that recorded the biggest Tory collapse. In the borough as a whole, the Tory mayoral vote fell by 11 points. In the four wards covering Kensington High Street – where the Conservative council ripped out a cycle track on dubious grounds after only a few weeks – the Tory vote dropped by an average of nearly 17 points. Labour, meanwhile, was up 6.7 points in the High Street Kensington wards, against a 2.2 point rise in the borough as a whole.

In contested cycle scheme wards of Manchester, Oxford, West Sussex, and Cambridgeshire, similar patterns of Tory underperformance were seen. Clearly, bike schemes were not the only factor in any of these results. There were also a few exceptions to the rule – a pro-LTN councillor lost in Newcastle, for instance.

But what does seem quite clear is that in a bad year for Labour, cycle schemes saved or won votes for us, not lost them. And that if there was any “controversy”, it worked largely in our favour.

Opponents of the LTNs might say it is the vote for Ealing as a whole we should look at, given the supposed traffic problems they cause for the wider area. In fact, evidence from other schemes shows that traffic displacement is temporary – because as cycling and walking become safer and more pleasant, people switch from cars to cycling and walking.

But even if we do look at my borough as a whole, a rise of less than one point in the anti-LTN vote is not, in my view, reason to back away. If we can now only do things that cause no opposition at all, and lose no votes whatsoever, then we can never do anything worthwhile again. I am reminded of the furious early pushback at policies which no one now dreams of reversing – the NHS, drink-drive limits, or indeed the first-generation LTN schemes which have existed in their hundreds across London for years. We should all be grateful that the authors of those policies rode out the initial storms.

Lyndon Johnson’s dictum of politics says that you must be able to count. But the problem, I think, is that enormous numbers of people – journalists, councillors, MPs – don’t look at the numbers. They listen only to the noise. They seem to believe that on LTNs, the social media clamour, the demos and the shouting of a passionate minority (many of whom live nowhere near the schemes they attack) represent the view of the people we serve.

This misconception has already been been proved wrong by repeated opinion polling – and now, conclusively, by a democratic election. It’s not surprising. Why would you want streets that were peaceful, quiet and safe to once again become traffic jams for motorists, and rat-runs for speeding cars?

But I’m worried that some may still be taking the wrong message. Not least my own council, which has taken out one of our LTNs since the election. The council seems set to remove the others too. There will be some sort of consultation, but it’ll probably be dominated by the usual loud voices. We’ve already had the best consultation we’re going to get: a secret ballot with a high turnout where everybody got one vote. [See footnote]

We on the council still have time to change our minds, champion LTNs and unequivocally commit to promoting active travel. We still have time to avoid handing these seats to the Greens at the borough election next year. We still have time to prove we mean it on net zero, on reducing pollution, on tackling child obesity – and on listening to all our residents, not just the ones who shout loudest.

Reimposing road danger, noise and pollution on people who voted for the opposite? That would be an Ealing tragedy, not an Ealing comedy.

  • This footnote was added on 3 June 2021 to give Ealing council’s response on the status of its nine low-traffic neighbourhoods: The West Ealing South scheme (LTN 21), it said, was ended early because roadworks in neighbouring Hounslow would have made it unworkable for residents; there are no plans to remove the remaining eight before the end of the trial period. At that point “we will be offering a consultation on each LTN, keeping schemes that work and are supported, and removing those that do not”. It was further amended on 8 July 2021 to add attribution to a caption assertion that oil had been poured on the road to create danger for cyclists.

  • Julian Bell is councillor for Greenford Broadway ward, and was leader of Ealing council for 11 years.

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