Shut up and drive. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)


July 20, 2023   6 mins

In 1934, the developer of a new private housing estate in Oxford built two large brick walls across public roads to keep out the working-class residents of nearby local authority housing. Nine foot high and topped with iron spikes, the Cutteslowe Walls, as they became known, were an obscenity that stood for more than 20 years, despite repeated attempts to knock them down. They even survived being ploughed into by a tank on military manoeuvres during the war. It wasn’t until the late Fifties that officialdom finally found a way to have the Walls removed.

Walls have been going up again in Oxford over the past few years. But this time, they aren’t made of brick. The barriers consist of wooden planters festooned with daffodils or removable bollards. They might seem innocuous compared with brick walls. And their purpose, too, seems so benign. These road blocks are intended to create Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or LTNs, which, according to the established propaganda, are officially good for us: they cut traffic speeds, carbon emissions and noise pollution. They are supposed to encourage children to ditch their PS5s and play outside. In particular, they are designed to make us drive less. And they are not confined to Oxford; they’re springing up across the country.

Unlike the Cutteslowe Walls, these fenced-off micro communities retain one point of entry and exit for drivers — every address within an LTN remains accessible — but the routes are purposefully more circuitous, sometimes tortuously so, to encourage a “think twice” approach to hopping in the car when it would be quicker to walk or cycle. The ideal LTN is a compact square-kilometre in size, meaning the average able-bodied resident should be able to walk from one side to the other in under 15 minutes. They are a nice idea — but one that lately has hit the cold, hard bollard of reality.

Blocking roads to reduce traffic is not a new idea. But using roadblocks to reconfigure swathes of existing cities is a relatively recent innovation. The poster boy of this cyclo-urbanism is the Danish architect Jan Gehl, who, over the past 40 years, has successfully managed to entirely remove cars from parts of Copenhagen. Aspects of his plan have been cribbed by UK cycling activists with a knowledge of civic planning, and placed into campaigning proposals for corners of cities that they particularly value, such as the streets they lived on.

When Covid-19 prompted a mass avoidance of public transport and a sense of crisis about the future of the city, LTNs were offered up by activists to councillors as both an opportunity to turn Britain into a nation of cyclists, and to prevent mass gridlock as we took to our cars. Since March 2020, an area the size of Tyneside has effectively banned motorists without much oversight by professional urban planners.

And yet LTNs seem to remain popular. A recent poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that 58% of Londoners supported the introduction of LTNs, with only 17% opposed. Of course there will be a vocal minority unhappy at the disruption, angered by the increase of traffic on congested arterial routes or the closure of their favourite rat run. These are presumably the same people who made off with the bollards in Oxford soon after they were first installed — or knocked them down, set them alight or took chainsaws to them. In February, almost three years after Oxford’s first trial LTN, some 2,000 protesters were still sufficiently disgruntled to attend a rally in the city centre that ended with violent clashes and five arrests.

There is a sense that politicians are increasingly waging a “war on cars”. Measures include road filtering, to give priority to low-carbon methods of transport, and placing extra charges on polluting vehicles, in a push towards net zero. The shift is prompting anguished debate and splits within parties. Earlier this month, Labour lost one of its safest council seats in the country to a former party member-turned-independent who stood opposed to the imposition of LTNs across Newham, in East London. Last autumn, former Labour politician Lutfur Rahman was returned as mayor of Tower Hamlets, also in East London, deposing the party’s chosen incumbent, on a pro-motorist platform; one of his first acts was to axe a newly installed LTN and demand a review of the others across his borough. More recently, the prospective Labour MP for Uxbridge has been openly campaigning against Sadiq Khan’s Ulez scheme.

In Oxford City, large swathes of Labour’s local party have defected to an independent group fighting the LTNs and the traffic schemes that will supersede them; in March, its official candidate in the Littlemore ward came within an inch of being beaten by such an independent.

The truth is that the bollards in Oxford’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have upset more locals than the Cutteslowe Walls ever did. Even the Liberal Democrats, part of the rainbow coalition of progressive parties which run the Oxford’s council, are rejecting the idea they once championed. Andrew Gant, Lib Dem cabinet member for highway management, was keen to make it clear to me that the LTNs weren’t his idea. Describing Oxford’s wider traffic management system, he insists: “The LTNs are not one of the core schemes.” Three years after traffic filtering was trialled, the bollards and planters are to be replaced by other forms of traffic calming, such as bus gates monitored by traffic cameras and a workplace car parking levy.

The Conservative Party, more than any other, is seeking to distance itself from the LTN experiment. Last week, transport secretary Mark Harper demanded that councils across the country rethink “unpopular” LTNs. But they need to backpedal harder if they don’t want to be associated with the policy. In Oxfordshire, it was a Tory-led council that green-lit local LTNs. It was Boris Johnson who, as prime minister during the first lockdown in 2020, set up a ÂŁ225 million Emergency Active Travel Fund (EATF) to promote new transport routes for walking and cycling.

In and of itself, EATF would have been relatively innocuous, were it not for the fact that David Cameron’s government had already granted new powers to local authorities under the 2015 Infrastructure Act. The worst kind of Coalition compromise, it sloughed off oversight for road maintenance to local authorities in an attempt to “get things done”, and encouraged experimental traffic orders that implemented new road schemes without public consultation. As if emerging from a stupor, Rishi Sunak’s administration has now removed funding for LTNs, while in Oxford, the party is now campaigning against the very thing it introduced.

 

The supposedly progressive idea of roping-off residential streets for the all-round benefit of local residents doesn’t work. If you want to know why LTNs have gone from being a panacea for the UK’s urban traffic problems to being sidelined three years later, look no further than Oxford. Here, LTNs were bad politics from the beginning, a case of localism run riot, and what happens when you give the cleverest people in the room carte blanche to bulldoze through a single solution to a single policy. In lockdown, the Conservative-run county council, followed by the Lib-Lab-Green coalition that later replaced it, gave unprecedented priority to activist groups with a narrow agenda regarding transport policy. These groups included Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, whose campaign manager once glued her chest to a busy road in the name of Extinction Rebellion.

In addition, no matter how nice they may be once you’re inside, LTNs weren’t really planned at all. This pioneering piece of urbanism was mainly a series of poorly conceived roadblocks determined by the suggestions of cycling activists on Zoom meetings. Little professional understanding of traffic flows were ever applied. Indeed, possible traffic jams were considered a plus as they would provide further disincentives to car travel.

Given that LTNs were conceived to operate at a street level, it is not surprising that they have gone so badly wrong at a wider urban scale. The arterial road system in Oxford, particularly the ring road, is not up to dealing with the amount of new traffic that has been forced into it by the roadblocks; traffic times have lengthened hugely. Anti-car advocates insist that such measures work in cities like Utrecht in the Netherlands or Ghent in Belgium, conveniently ignoring the fact that both places also have three-lane ring roads and three tram lines. If we are to have Ghent-style LTNs, let’s have the rest of Ghent’s infrastructure, too.

At a political level, there is some irony in the fact that europhile supporters of LTNs have not heeded the lesson of the gilets jaunes protests in France — namely, that blue-collar workers will not be made sacrificial lambs to environmental policies. Idrees Mohammed, managing director of Oxford Lettings, a property management agency, told me that electricians now charge 60% more for a call-out into the Cowley LTN because it takes so long to get to it. Amir Steve Ali, who works in a takeaway in East Oxford, recently delivered a petition against LTNs to Downing Street with more than 30,000 signatures. “You’re trying to keep some of the roads clean-air, pollution-free — but you’ve just chucked your rubbish next door, where others are now facing gridlock,” he says. “Where’s the justice in this?”

The LTNs were primarily designed to inhibit one form of transport use, rather than, say, make improvements to cycling provision. For a university city once synonymous with the bike, Oxford has pretty poor cycle lanes out to the suburbs, incapable of handling any increased demand.

There is something more fundamental at play than the local situation in Oxford, however. In recent years, there has been a slow retreat from shared urban experiences. Lockdown delivered a shattering blow to the idea of the city as a shared space. LTNs were supposed to encourage “15-minute cities”, where everything you need, from school to supermarket to GP surgery, is just a 15-minute walk from your front door. This concept was not an attempt to “lock” people into their homes, as some of the wilder claims would have it. But LTNs did emerge from the same failure to preserve our collective ownership of streets, which includes the rights to traverse them in the predominant transport system of the age, the car.

Could LTNs have been introduced in a way that would have benefitted Oxford as a whole, rather than just the advocates who live within them? Or is chopping a city up into neat but almost impenetrable quads, in a bid to please academically minded activists, always a bad idea? How different is it, fundamentally, from building walls to keep people out? Those waging war on the car must endeavour to answer these questions, or else risk throttling the very places they cherish.


Tim Abrahams is a Contributing Editor at Architectural Record.

timabrahams