Radical new plans to reduce traffic and limit our dependence on cars have sparked bitter conflict. As legal challenges escalate, will Britain’s great traffic experiment be shut down before we have time to see the benefits?
by Niamh McIntyre
On an overcast Saturday afternoon in December, a convoy of 30 cars, led by a red Chevrolet pickup truck, set off from the car park of an east-London Asda with hazard lights flashing. The motorists, who formed a “festive motorcade”, wore Santa hats as they made their way slowly through the borough of Hackney before coming to a halt outside the town hall a couple of hours later.
They had gathered to register their outrage at being the victims, as they saw it, of a grand experiment that has been taking place on England’s roads since the start of the pandemic. As the national lockdown eased last summer, swathes of Hackney, stretching from Hoxton’s dense council estates at the borough’s western border with Islington to the edge of the River Lea marshland near Stratford in the east, had been closed to through traffic.
Locals found their usual routes were shut off with little warning. Danielle Ventura Presas, one of the protesters, told me that she now struggled to get her disabled cousin to day care while also dropping off her two children at school on time. As we rolled through Clapton, another campaigner got out of her car and slowed the convoy to a walking pace, leading chants of “reopen our side roads!” on a megaphone.
The road closures formed part of a wider scheme to tackle London’s growing congestion problems. Between 2009 and 2019, miles driven on its residential streets increased by 70%, in part due to the rise of Uber, online delivery services and GPS technology. Air pollution, meanwhile, plays a role in the premature deaths of nearly 10,000 Londoners each year. When the pandemic arrived, this trend was briefly interrupted: the roads fell quiet, and the novelty of car-free streets encouraged more people to go out on their bikes. In May 2020, the government tried to capitalise on the bike boom by announcing the biggest ever investment in “active travel” – walking, cycling or scooting. The short-term aim of the fund was to make it easier for people to get around without using public transport. The broader vision – reducing reliance on the private car – was more radical.
In London, the Streetspace plan unveiled by mayor Sadiq Khan and Transport for London (TfL), demanded “an urgent and swift response” to the crisis. The strategy funnelled money from the government’s new active-travel fund to London’s boroughs for low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and other projects to encourage walking and cycling, such as temporary cycle lanes and timed road closures outside schools. By the end of last year, there were about 100 in London, where they have been most widely adopted, but they are now being rolled out in Manchester, Birmingham and other cities.
LTNs block motor traffic from sidestreets with physical barriers such as planters or bollards, or with number plate recognition cameras at their boundaries which local authorities use to issue fines to drivers entering the zone. Residents inside LTNs can still drive to their home, but they may have to take a longer way round. The theory is that by reducing the amount of road space for cars, people will find other ways to make short journeys. (In London, almost half of car journeys are less than 2 miles.) That means more walking and cycling, which ultimately means less pollution, less congestion, quieter, safer streets and healthier citizens.
Critics of LTNs say closing sidestreets increases congestion elsewhere, but early monitoring of new LTNs in Hackney and Lambeth found that traffic on main roads hardly increased at all. Data from established LTNs in Walthamstow showed the opposite, although transport academic Rachel Aldred suggests that it is hard to draw conclusions about the specific impacts of these schemes as traffic in the area was rising more generally at the time.
Enthusiasm for LTNs brought about a rare consensus between the Conservative government and the Labour mayor of London, as well as Greens and pro-cycling groups. But an opposition also sprang up, bringing together an equally unlikely alliance of anti-gentrification activists, professional drivers, Labour and Conservative backbenchers, local councils, motoring lobbyists and a raft of new grassroots campaigners who shared their outrage on neighbourhood Facebook groups. On social media, each side conjured up its own vision of life in low-traffic neighbourhoods: one a utopia of families cycling happily together on quiet streets, with children wobbling out in front; the other a nightmare of permanently congested roads, with emergency vehicles snared in the gridlock.
The protesters in the Hackney motorcade stressed that they had only brought their cars in order to respect social distancing and allow disabled people to participate. But the exuberant procession of cars, with their horns honking and engines revving, seemed to suggest something bolder: motorists reasserting their right to take up space on urban streets.
Several cars in the motorcade had cabbage leaves lodged under windscreen wipers or taped to their doors, a reference to one of the most bitter exchanges in the conflict. Over the summer, Hackney’s cabinet member for transport, the Liverpudlian Jon Burke, had become a hate figure for opponents of LTNs after he responded to tweets which called for him to “go home” by tweeting: “If it wasn’t for immigrants, ‘born n bred’ Londoners would still be eating cabbage with every meal.”
For anti-LTN campaigners, who sometimes caricature cycling advocates as a privileged elite, this was incendiary provocation. “What he’s having a go at is the white working class,” said Niall Crowley, one of the organisers of the protest. “That’s really incensed people.” In September, Burke received a handwritten death threat, and at the start of this year, he announced he would resign as a Hackney councillor in order to stand in his home city’s mayoral race. A newsletter issued by the Hackney protesters proclaimed his departure their victory.
After the UK’s first lockdown ended in July, the traffic soon returned and talk of the government’s promised “cycling revolution” faded, while some objectors continued to vandalise its remnants. In Hackney, the new street signs were spray painted, and someone cut the cables on an expensive new traffic enforcement camera. In Ealing, bollards were removed one night and the holes they left behind filled in with concrete. Meanwhile, opponents of the mayor’s walking and cycling plans have pursued numerous legal challenges to the new policies.
Burke told me LTNs were just one part of a complete reimagining of the borough’s public spaces for a low-carbon future. “We’re introducing huge amounts of cycle storage, the largest electric vehicle charging programme in the country, and we’re massively improving the quality of our public realm with the largest tree planting programme in Europe. I get emails from people saying ‘you’re the most hated man in Hackney’,” he said. “And I want to have a dialogue with those people, but I’m not going to tell them there’s a solution to the problems we face that allows them to continue driving to the same extent they were previously.”
The next few months will be decisive, as councils push for temporary schemes to become permanent, and objectors fight for the right to drive wherever they need to go. London’s great traffic experiment hangs in the balance.
For many Conservative voters and MPs, the party’s apparent shift from championing the car to promoting bikes is cause for alarm. In May 2020, Boris Johnson, himself a committed cyclist, announced a new “golden age” for cycling, as part of the Conservatives’ broader “green industrial revolution” strategy. This stated aim to reduce transport emissions – which was somewhat undermined earlier this month when Johnson announced his intention to cut taxes on domestic flights – has created an internal schism in a party that has traditionally represented the motorist’s interests. “Motorists did not vote for the Green party in the general election. But that is what we’ve got,” Howard Cox, the founder of the pro-driving campaign FairFuelUK, told me by email.
As polling shows, people tend to like green policies in theory but less so when they are the ones being inconvenienced by them. Last year, a YouGov study found that the average British person was “an environmentally concerned recycler, who takes their own bag to the supermarket but also likes their meat, and balks at the thought of paying more tax to fund policies for tackling climate change”.
After Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea council removed a major cycle lane just seven weeks into its trial period, the Daily Mail reported that the prime minister’s transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, called the council to let it know Johnson had gone “ballistic” at its decision. Gilligan, who worked with Johnson at the Spectator and later served as cycling commissioner during Johnson’s second term as mayor of London, has been instrumental in pushing the Tories to invest record sums in walking and cycling, according to several interviewees working in the transport sector.
During his stint at City Hall, Gilligan gained a reputation for his “hard-nosed” operating style. “When we agreed, it was great, it was going to move forward very fast, there would be no obstacles in his path,” said Simon Munk, an infrastructure campaigner at the London Cycling Campaign. “But when you disagree with him and you become one of those obstacles, it’s quite a full-on experience.” Gilligan has shown the same single-mindedness at No 10. In May, when the Department for Transport invited all councils to bid for a fund to create temporary walking and cycling schemes, one of the conditions of the first wave of funding was that schemes had to be in place within 12 weeks.
“The problem we’ve ended up with is because boroughs have been encouraged by the government to introduce them at such speed,” said Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member of the London assembly and a longstanding member of its transport committee. “People feel it’s being done to them rather than feeling like they’ve been brought along.”
A government spokesperson said: “We want to ensure people have more opportunities to choose cycling and walking for their day-to-day journeys, as part of our wider plans to boost active travel – benefitting both the nation’s health and the environment. That’s why we have committed a significant £175m to create safe spaces for cycling and walking as surveys and independent polls show strong public support for high-quality schemes.”
Among the many dissenters to the introduction of LTNs across the country are 14 Tory MPs, who signed a letter in November to the transport secretary Grant Shapps, calling on the government to “stop the uncalled-for war on the motorist” and withdraw “the blockades and dedicated cycle lanes eating into our town and city roads”. The spectre of the “war on the motorist”, in which the longsuffering driver is constantly thwarted in his efforts to get around, while being made to pay more and more for the privilege of doing so, has been with us since at least the 60s, despite having little basis in fact.
In 2011, the coalition government declared an end to the conflict, promising to quell “Whitehall’s addiction to micromanagement”. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t the end of the story. Earlier this year, a Telegraph editorial called on Conservatives to once again take a stand against Sadiq’s Khan’s war on cars.
The MPs’ letter was organised by the campaign group FairFuelUK, which works with mostly Conservative politicians in an all-party parliamentary group, arranging meetings with motoring campaigners and planning political actions. “Backbench Tories have told me they’re uncomfortable with the government’s focus on the privileged cycling few,” said Cox. “The prime minister and his Lycra-clad advisers are out of touch with economic reality and majority opinion.”
Niall Crowley, the Hackney roads protester who will stand as a candidate in council byelections in Hoxton East and Shoreditch, agrees. Frustrations about low-traffic neighbourhoods, he told me, are really about the fact that people resent top-down decision-making and feel excluded from local democratic processes. “Everything I read, it’s ‘we’re doing this and you have to get used to it’. If you’re going to treat residents as a problem to be managed or nudged, then what kind of democracy is that?”
In September, a group of black cab drivers and their supporters gathered outside City Hall in London to accuse mayor Sadiq Khan of “destroying London”. A campaigner gave a speech on the concourse outside the mayor’s office, grimly predicting that the black cab’s days were numbered if road closures were not reversed. “This is the endgame,” he told the crowd.
During the summer, TfL had barred taxis and other private vehicles from Bishopsgate, an ancient road that takes its name from the defensive wall built by the Romans around the city. The road runs past Liverpool Street station and into the financial district; cars, cabs, buses and cyclists compete for space. Cab drivers were also angry about TfL’s decision to exclude them from some central London bus lanes, which they can ordinarily use to drive around the city more quickly. They also protested about about losing access to other main roads under restrictions that allow only buses, cyclists and emergency vehicles to pass through.
Although taxi drivers have been the vanguard of the resistance to Khan’s active travel plans, Steve McNamara, the chair of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, said cabbies were not always opposed to new cycle lanes. “It’s much less stressful for them if they’re driving their cab and the cyclist is in a nice segregated lane next to them,” he said. “But what we don’t support are these ones that are banged in with very little planning, that look like they’ve been designed on the back of a fag packet.”
In interviews, McNamara repeatedly returns to a theme that cyclists are a privileged minority making life more difficult for working-class drivers in the suburbs. “If you can afford to live centrally, and you’ve got a well-paid job in the city or central London, it’s great for you to be able to ride to work,” McNamara said. “But equally if you live in the suburbs, as most Londoners do, and you have to get the bus to work, or you’re driving a lorry, it’s not so good.”
Some of London’s suburban boroughs, which are less well served by public transport and have higher rates of car ownership, have embraced new cycling and walking schemes, and received £30m from City Hall to become flagship “mini-Hollands”. But others remain resistant: in Barnet, councillor Roberto Weeden-Sanz said the Conservative group would take a stand against the “war on drivers” by refusing to implement LTNs. Barnet has a proud history of opposing traffic reforms: in 2003, the council’s environment committee chair Brian Coleman ordered the removal of 1,000 speed humps in the borough. A triumphant Telegraph column compared Coleman to Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery.
There is no evidence that LTNs disproportionately benefit the better-off. A new study has shown that, contrary to one of the most common objections, road closures have not shifted traffic from wealthier areas into more deprived ones. Polling in London has repeatedly shown that more people support LTNs than oppose them. Burke, the former Hackney councillor whose comment about cabbage enraged his opponents, believes that car reduction advocates shouldn’t be afraid of arguments over class. “What I’m not willing to do, as someone who comes from a working-class background, is cede an inch of ground to people who have tried to make this a class issue,” he told me. “Seventy percent of the households in Hackney don’t own cars, so why should cars own 100% of the roads? LTNs are an exercise in redistribution.”
But statistics have not dispelled a popular narrative that car reduction measures are unwanted policies imposed by the “metropolitan elite” on the poor. McNamara is eager to frame car reduction measures as a class war. “And let’s be honest – the working classes are losing badly,” he said.
McNamara is playing on familiar stereotypes. In the 2010s, the folk figure of the hipster had three essential characteristics: a beard, a love of artisan coffee and a fixed-gear bike. The urban cyclist does not cause gentrification, but he becomes a powerful symbol of it. He is able to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing urban environment in a way that established working-class communities are not. He is also visible in a way that the structural causes of the housing crisis are not. As such he – and his bike – have become a focus for anger about inequality and displacement.
In his study of cycling culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, the geographer John Stehlin did not find a causal link between bike lanes and gentrification. But he argued that initiatives to make streets more livable, while often motivated by progressive ideals, also became useful marketing tools for developers of high-end housing.
However, Mohammad Rakib, a community activist in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which borders Hackney to the south and has the highest poverty rates in London, believes LTNs play a more active role in attracting middle-class newcomers to deprived areas and squeezing out the long-term working-class residents. “These policies are more about social cleansing than they are about reducing pollution,” Rakib told me.
Rakib sometimes makes memes depicting cyclists as “urban colonialists”, combining cycling helmets with the imagery of empire. His point that the users of bike lanes do not reflect the diversity of areas like Tower Hamlets, however, is undeniably true. In 2019, according to TfL research, 85% of cyclists on TfL’s cycle routes were white.
“These areas and communities have waited generations for this level of investment,” he said. “Now that money has been made available, it is not being spent as the community have been asking for it to be spent. LTNs suit a certain class of people who are by no stretch the majority within these areas.”
Cycling hasn’t always been seen as the preserve of the metropolitan elite. In the mid-20th century, the bicycle was a primary mode of transport for the working class, while the motorcar remained unaffordable to most. In his celebratory 1949 work Leisure (Homage to Jacques-Louis David), the French artist Fernand Léger depicted a gang of workers taking a trip out of the city on their bikes – a vision of the labour-saving potential of the humble bicycle. That same year, 37% of all journeys in Britain were cycled, according to Carlton Reid’s book Bike Boom. From that peak, the figure has fallen to about 2% today.
The mid-20th century is a “what if?” moment, where one possible future was blotted out by the ascendancy of the car. In the 1930s, the government planned to vastly expand a national network of cycle routes as well as create a new system of motorways. Both were delayed by the war, and in the end government prioritised the motorways. From the 50s onwards, car ownership became an aspiration of the middle classes and a symbol of a new age of affluence. By the 60s, Britain had become a “car-owning democracy”, in the words of Simon Digby, the MP for Dorset west at the time.
As cars became more common, so did congestion and pollution. In response, in the 60s transport minister Ernest Marples introduced a raft of new driving restrictions, including yellow lines and parking wardens. Marples said in 1964 that an enraged motorist had once thrown one of his new parking meters through his drawing room window. “I am accused of declaring war on the motorist,” he said in a 1963 speech to the Passenger Transport Association. “That is a complete travesty of the truth.”
During the 70s, concerns about the environmental impacts of the car grew, particularly around emissions from leaded petrol. By the time Margaret Thatcher announced that her government would oversee “the largest road building programme since the Romans” in 1989, a growing ecological movement responded with a series of militant actions, among them a protest camp on the site of the planned M3 expansion at Twyford Down in Hampshire. Almost a year later, the camp was evicted and the motorway was built.
Out of this anti-roads scene came a group called Reclaim the Streets, which crashed into public consciousness in May 1995 with a daring piece of street theatre. At a busy traffic intersection in Camden in north London, two cars driven by activists collided. Their drivers got out and began to argue. The argument escalated until both drivers took out sledgehammers and smashed up the cars, creating a DIY barricade and allowing other members of the group to set up a sound system and a children’s play area, turning the busy high street into a carnival. The group, which was immersed in 90s rave culture and the movement against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, went on to hold dozens of similar events all over the UK.
“A year after we were being branded as terrorists, Islington council organised a very similar party to the one we’d hosted,” said one former activist Roger Geffen. “This idea that you should close city streets to motor vehicles and open them up to people – it was already starting to go mainstream.” When I asked Chris Knight, a former Reclaim the Streets activist, about the group’s philosophy, he said: “It was quite simple: kill the car! A car just captures so much: private ownership, privatised space, isolation, egocentrism, deafness to the world around you. ‘Kill the car’ was just beautiful.”
This group of anarchists and radicals wanted to take back space from cars and promote walking, cycling and public transport for everyday use – the same ideas that would resurface 25 years later among the policies of a Conservative government. Geffen, now director of policy at advocacy group Cycling UK, exemplifies the way car reduction policies have gone from a fringe belief to the mainstream: his march through the institutions took him from illicit raves and squatting to Buckingham Palace, where he received an MBE for services to cycling in 2015. “It’s been an interesting trajectory,” he said.
On a September evening between lockdowns, I watched a cricket match happening in the middle of Rye Lane, a narrow high street in Peckham, south-east London, which used to be choked with traffic until it was closed to cars by Southwark council in July. A makeshift wicket was set up outside a local institution, Khan’s Bargains, and people spilling out of bars jostled for a chance to bowl. It was exactly the sort of creative use of public space that Reclaim the Streets wanted to inspire, and a rare moment of genuine collective joy.
Will we look back on the past year as another “what if” moment, a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reduce the car’s domination of our roads and cities? By the winter of 2020, more than 30 councils across the country had withdrawn or scaled back new traffic-reduction schemes in the face of opposition. Some of these projects were only ever intended to be temporary, but TfL and the boroughs had stated their ambition for new bike lanes and LTNs to become permanent if the data showed they were working effectively.
In December, a few days after Kensington and Chelsea council announced it would scrap a new cycle route along Kensington High Street, a group of Extinction Rebellion activists and cycling campaigners gathered in an attempt to stop the removal of the lane. Wearing hi-vis jackets and carrying placards, a small group of protesters climbed on to construction vans and prevented the workers from pulling out the bollards separating cyclists from the traffic on the busy east-west road. Donnachadh McCarthy, the founder of the Stop Killing Cyclists campaign, told me the group had held protests here before to commemorate cyclists killed in the surrounding area – 15 people have been seriously injured while walking or biking along the high street itself in the past three years – but this was the first time his group had used such militant tactics.
The following night, after a second protest was dispersed by the police, the council succeeded in removing the bollards. A few weeks later, the route was still busy with cyclists, who now mingled with buses, taxis and high-performance cars. The scars where the bollards used to be were still visible on the asphalt.
The recent reforms suffered another blow in January, when Mrs Justice Beverley Lang ruled that TfL had acted unlawfully in using emergency measures to introduce changes to road layouts. The judge ruled that the process behind the decision to exclude taxis from Bishopsgate and the overarching Streetspace plan were “seriously flawed” and did not recognise the “special status” of taxi drivers.
The ruling also found TfL had not sufficiently researched or mitigated the potential adverse impacts of Streetspace projects on taxi passengers with disabilities. Transport for All, a charity advocating for accessible transport, found many disabled people felt “their concerns [about LTNs] have been ignored, creating feelings of anger and frustration”. However, the organisation has pointed out that traffic reduction schemes do not necessarily need to be scrapped, but rather modified with features such as tactile paving and exemptions for disabled drivers.
TfL points out the ruling did not make any direct findings on the lawfulness of low-traffic neighbourhoods, but with the legality of the Streetspace plan itself in doubt, some councils are worried the judgment could have a wider impact. While most schemes remain in place pending TfL’s appeal, Sutton and Croydon councils have withdrawn LTNs. Sutton council said in a statement: “Some schemes were working well, but we have no choice given the legal judgment.” In June 2021, a separate set of judicial reviews will challenge the future of active travel schemes in the boroughs of Lambeth, Hounslow and Hackney.
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With TfL on the back foot in Kensington, cycling advocates have called on the mayor to use his statutory powers to take back control of the high street from the council. At the cyclists’ protest in Kensington in December, the transport historian Christian Wolmar said that the borough’s bike lanes had long been the site of a broader power struggle over the future of the city. As police officers hovered and tried to disperse the protesters, Wolmar recalled the council scrapping cycle lanes in Kensington and Chelsea more than 30 years ago, amid a wider conservative backlash against the leftist policies of the Greater London council, which included an early attempt at a London-wide cycle network. I asked how he felt about having the same arguments 30 years on. “Everything we know about urban planning shows that cities that give themselves to car dominance become less pleasant places to live. Who would want to live in Los Angeles if you could live in Copenhagen, for Christ’s sake?”
Across Europe, increasingly radical car-free policies have been met with vocal opposition. In Paris, a major pedestrianisation scheme faced a protracted court battle (which the scheme ultimately won), while Berlin’s pop-up bike lanes launched during the pandemic faced a legal challenge from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.
But when I asked Wolmar if he thought the backlash in London could kill the city’s car reduction plans, he was confident it would not. “They’ll win a few battles,” he said, “but they’ll lose the war.”
This article was amended on 25 March 2021. Mention of a 1939 government cycling plan was corrected; some national cycle routes were in place before the war. According to Kensington and Chelsea council, 15 pedestrians and cyclists were seriously injured, not killed, in a three-year period on Kensington High Street.