What's in a name? UK's 'LTN' review sets up return of rat-runs

Rishi Sunak teed up 'culture war' reforms three weeks ago but project seems to have stalled

A cyclist passes through a low-traffic neighbourhood barrier. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for a review of LTNs in England but three weeks on nothing has been done. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

The review into low-traffic neighbourhoods, which British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ordered last month, has yet to reach first gear amid a backlash over the threat of the return of neighbourhood rat-runs.

An LTN is a street that is closed off, either by automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, bollards or large wooden planter boxes.

The thinking behind LTNs is that they shut off quick through-routes or “rat-runs”, making streets safer and the air around them less polluted because fewer cars pass through.

The idea is to keep traffic on main roads and prevent vehicles cutting through quiet residential streets, something which has happened increasingly since the advent of satellite navigation in cars and on mobile phones.

The term LTN was first coined during the Covid pandemic and many were set up by local councils using money from the government's active travel fund.

One aim is to change behaviour by making local car journeys longer and more inconvenient, thereby encouraging people to walk and cycle more.

As a government study in 2020 claimed: “A successful LTN makes walking and cycling more convenient than using a car for short trips, while maintaining essential access and enhancing the quality of the area, reducing local air and noise pollution, and road danger.”

In some areas, LTNs have been controversial and the bollards and planters have been the subject of violent attacks from disgruntled businesses.

And there has been opposition from some local businesses, who claim that when traffic is reduced, so too are customer numbers.

Ian Snowdon is a local Conservative councillor in Oxfordshire, who also owns a business in the east of Oxford.

“What they should do now is actually remove some, if not all, of the LTNs,” he told The National.

“Let traffic move again.”

As part of a move to placate some of his fellow Conservative MPs, Mr Sunak announced the review in part to convince the public that the government was not “anti-car”.

“I just want to make sure people know that I'm on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them,” he said. The intervention has raised concerns of a "climate change culture war" seeping into government policy and adversely affecting the UK's net-zero goals.

Broader implications

But after three weeks, the Department of Transport has announced little beyond the definition of what an LTN actually is.

It now says an LTN is any scheme under which traffic on residential streets is halted either by the use of ANPR cameras, or by physical barriers such as bollards or planters. No date has been given for when they were installed.

This changes the game somewhat.

About 200 or so LTNs were created on England's residential streets between 2020 and 2022. But they have existed in one form or another for decades.

As such, if a review finds that local councils should remove some LTNs, “rat-runs” could re-establish themselves on residential roads that have enjoyed low traffic for 30 years and more.

“While the term LTNs was popularised during the pandemic, we need the government to show greater understanding that similar schemes have been around for years, that many people already live in them and are happy to do so,” Tim Burns, head of policy for UK walking and cycling charity Sustrans, told The Guardian newspaper.

“Local authorities have, since the 1970s, worked to reduce through-traffic on residential roads, including things we’re all used to seeing: bollards, one-way streets and cul-de-sacs. In fact, LTNs are older than our current Prime Minister and are routine for new housing developments.”

LTNs and other traffic measures such as London's ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) have become hot political issues since the Conservatives narrowly retained Boris Johnson's old parliamentary seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Many observers claim Labour failed to win the seat because of London mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to expand the Ulez to cover most of the capital.

“The problem is that we have high levels of car dependency in the UK,” Rachel Aldred, professor of transport at the University of Westminster, told The National.

“And therefore, if you restrict the ability of people to drive, whether it's a question of bollards, the reduction of car lanes or congestion charges, all these policies are often very, very controversial, because the way that transport and urban planning has developed postwar, it's been very focused around the car and the assumption that we protect and prioritise car mobility.

“So, unsurprisingly, it's often quite controversial when policies challenge that.”

Updated: August 21, 2023, 9:25 AM