Low traffic neighbourhoods could help us kick some bad habits - Adrian Davis

Scotland is a world leader across many fields of endeavour. Not least is its commitment to address climate change. Under the Climate Change Act (2019), the Scottish Government has a plan with commitments for actions across all policy sectors, and which now includes reducing car kilometres travelled by 20% by 2030. As the plan says, ‘a truly world-leading aspiration.’

Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health, Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University.
Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health, Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University.

The tricky bit is implementation. Despite the fact that many car trips from small towns to the larger cities in which we live and work are less than five kilometres and many do not require the carriage of large/heavy items, infants or the infirm etc., many people have the habit of car use. It is so normal that each day we do not stop to consider whether using the car is the best choice for the journey which might be nothing more than a 10 minute walk, (weather being supportive). As a public health researcher focused on road transport for more than three decades I have tried to provide evidence about streets where people actively chose not to drive for short journeys.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) might be described as the latest incarnation of approaches to give back to streets their non-traffic functions e.g. for childrens’ play and the interactions which strengthens the connections and trust with neighbours. At heart LTNs seek to reduce motorised traffic through local neighbourhoods and increase the attractiveness of walking, cycling, as well as social connectivity.

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News articles on LTNs tend to portray a struggle in which middle-class green-leaning activists corral support for schemes for safer and peaceful streets set against businesses, delivery drivers, and residents of poorer communities where, the claim goes, motor traffic gets displaced to. The case for and against LTNs each have their merits. What LTNs do achieve is giving those reluctant to walk much or cycle the confidence to do so especially as most LTNs have 20mph speed limits and some road space reallocation. Funded by Transport Scotland’s Spaces for People programme in response to Covid-19, LTNs have been implemented in Dennistoun, Glasgow, and East Craigs, Edinburgh.

However, the bigger challenge to reduce car traffic nationally goes well beyond the neighbourhood level. It requires government funding for town and city-wide interventions across the nation which change the balance to encourage people to think which form of transport they might use for particular trips. We have the evidence of effectiveness for such interventions. Take the Sustainable Travel Towns programme (2004-09) funded by the London Government, at £10M for the whole programme. This put in place a range of initiatives aiming to encourage more use of non-car options in three English towns and it worked.

The strategies adopted included travel awareness campaigns; public transport promotion; cycling and walking infrastructure; school and workplace travel planning; one-to-one travel planning support for households, and strong brand identity. The key to the recipe being that the towns used multiple interventions, not just one or two. In these towns car mileage per person reduced by up to 10% and the number of car driver trips per resident fell by 7-10%. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. LTNs and School Street Closure (streets closed hour before and after school) can now be added to the interventions menu.

If Scotland is serious about demonstrating world leadership on climate change, a major contribution could simply arise from cutting out many local car trips. This itself will involve major investment programmes across many towns and cities to communities both well-heeled and deprived, and which make people feel safe from motorised traffic. LTNs are one piece and not the whole solution to a just transformation that will help us change some bad habits.

Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health, Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University.

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