Tinkering around the edges

This post has been written to vent our frustration at planning policy and traffic management ‘initiatives’ that are contradictory, lack any holistic overview and to be brutally honest, appear to be set up to fail. They beg this question – is there anyone in the upper echelons of local and regional government capable of joined up thinking and taking a long term view when it comes to policy development and implementation?

In this piece, we pick out trends that shine a light on what seems to be the complete inability of councillors and planning officers to join the dots and come up with coherent, sustainable plans for our future. All they seem to be able to come up with are ‘solutions’ that are little more than performative and tick the box of being seen to be doing something. There’s a lot of discussion, debate and growing anger around the concepts of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), Clean Air Zones (CAZs) and so called ’15 minute neighbourhoods’. ‘Solutions’ which once you take more than a cursory look at them are little more than tinkering around the edges of considerably more fundamental issues that need to be resolved.

Towards the end of this piece, we try to offer some tentative thoughts as to how we can move forwards. Thoughts which inevitably acknowledge the numerous flaws of a failing system and turn to how we can get out from under its yoke and build a saner and more sustainable future built on the understanding that we do indeed live on a finite planet.

LTNs, CAZs and 15 minute neighbourhoods – being seen to be doing ‘something’ while not achieving anything of substance


LTNs are a lovely idea – in theory that is. Imagine the bliss of living in an urban neighbourhood where measures have been put in to minimise the amount of traffic coming down your road, making it a much pleasanter place to live. Less, pollution, less noise and being outside on your street becomes a much pleasanter experience. Who could possibly object to streets in urban neighbourhoods having the amount of traffic using them substantially reduced? Let us try and explain why people do object…

Unless there are measures that actually reduce the overall volume of vehicles using the roads in a town or city, all LTNs achieve are shifting the traffic burden onto someone else. We’re talking about measures such as vastly improved public transport networks that will persuade people to leave the car at home because the bus and/or train offering is a faster and more comfortable way to move around. We live in a region where bus services are being slashed and what remains of the local rail network after the Beeching cuts of the 1960s is widely seen as a joke. Also, it’s a hilly region, so cycling is only a serious option for the younger, fitter and braver members of the populace. So sadly, many people are forced to rely on their cars to get around because there are no viable alternatives.

So what happens when there aren’t anywhere near enough viable alternatives to having to use a car, yet LTNs are still being imposed? What happens is that the same volume of traffic is forced to use a smaller network of roads. The inevitable result is…more congestion! You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work that one out… As it tends to be the more affluent streets who can leverage the system to make sure they become an LTN, inevitably the displaced traffic is forced upon lower income areas. It could be argued that LTNs are a form of class war.

What they certainly are is a piecemeal, so called ‘solution’ to the problem of traffic. They’re little more than a gesture that appeal to those with sharp elbows and a knowledge of how to work the system to get traffic in their neighbourhood reduced at the expense of others suffering more traffic. If they’re not accompanied by sustainable, long term plans to offer a viable alternative to car use, they’re essentially a waste of time at best and at worst, socially divisive.


Then there are the CAZs such as the ones in Bristol and Bath. In theory, they’re a great idea because with both cities being in the Avon Valley surrounded by hills, anything to reduce pollution from vehicles should be welcomed. However, when there’s no serious attempt to offer a genuinely reliable public transport alternative into and out of both Bristol and Bath, the objective of improving the air quality isn’t going to be achieved. As mentioned previously, the public transport infrastructure in the Avon region leaves a lot to be desired. So, those who feel they have no option but to drive because of the nature of their work will find ways around CAZs which generally means using the side streets just outside them. While the city centres may see a reduction in vehicle traffic and the consequent pollution, surrounding districts will experience more traffic and deteriorating air quality. All that gets achieved is the problem is displaced. Basically it’s still the same amount of traffic circulating around but in different locations.

Fortunately, we’re not the only ones raising criticisms of the way LTNs and CAZs are being implemented: LTNs move pollution onto other streets – Evan Rudowski | Medium/Bath Chronicle | October 6, 2020

Bath is choked with cars. Reducing car use would benefit the city greatly in terms of overall quality of life — reducing traffic, congestion, pollution and, in the long term, our collective carbon footprint.

Of course getting rid of cars is a massive challenge and needs to be solved primarily on a societal level. But all of us are still obligated to do what we can locally, and personally.

In my family’s case, we’ve chosen to live a car-free life for the past 24 years. We’ve made deliberate choices to achieve this, in terms of where we live, work and go to school. Our primary methods of getting around are walking and public transport. We belong to the car club for those occasional times when we may need to use a car.

’15 minute neighbourhoods’

We’ve written more than we care to remember about this concept. For the record, this is the most recent piece we’ve written: Where we stand on 15 minute neighbourhoods 10.1.23. Everything else we’ve written on the topic is linked to from this piece so, to avoid having to re-hash every argument, we urge you to read it and follow the links.

What we will say in this piece is that after decades of planning policy assuming near universal car ownership with our towns and cities developing accordingly, it’s understandable that a fair few people will be bemused by the concept of a ’15 minute neighbourhood’. Tract housing has been allowed to sprawl in such as way that when people need to do the weekly shop, all too often they have no alternative but to jump into the car to the nearest supermarket which may be miles away. We’re talking about forty minute round trips just to pick up the groceries for the week. This is the reality of how our towns and cities have been allowed to sprawl for decades without any thought as to the long term when the resources needed to sustain a car based economy start to run out. Given this reality, it’s understandable that a fair few people think it’s a bit rich to find out they’re having ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ imposed upon them when the evidence of their day to day life shows that they do not live in anything that remotely resembles such a neighbourhood.

To ensure that as many of the amenities of life are within a fifteen minute walk would involve the reconfiguration of many suburbs and overspill towns that were built on the assumption of near universal car ownership. While it’s perfectly possible for a lot of the amenities of life to be reasonably close to hand in the older suburbs such as Bedminster or Redland in Bristol, once you get out to places like Hartcliffe to the south or Bradley Stoke to the north, it’s a very different story. Re-configuring the outer suburbs and the overspill towns to ensure that as many of life’s amenities are within a fifteen minute walk is a gargantuan task because it involves correcting decades of flawed and ultimately, short sighted planning policies. That’s before having the really serious conversation needed about how we adapt to a future when the resources needed to sustain a car based economy start to run out.

Set up to fail

The point we’re trying to make is that LTNs, CAZs and so called ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ are essentially performative rather than achieving anything substantial in terms of reducing the overall volume of traffic on the roads. All each of these actually achieve is to add more to our lives in the way of digitised monitoring, tracking and sending out punitive fines in moves that suck us all further into what feels like a high tech, digital control matrix. You can forgive people for thinking that this may be the actual motivation for the imposition of LTNs, CAZs and ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ rather than any substantial reduction in overall traffic volumes.

As we’ve previously argued – Set up to fail 24.10.22 – the rhetoric we receive about reducing our dependence on cars doesn’t match the reality of what we have to deal with, namely the legacy of decades of planning policy that assumed near universal car ownership. Let’s take a very brief look at just a couple of examples of this…

Firstly, with the proposed expansion of the capacity of Bristol Airport from 10 million passengers a year up to 12 million and eventually 20 million, we’re looking at a scheme that’s going to put a lot more vehicles on the roads in the coming couple of decades. These are our arguments against the expansion: Why it has to be no go for Bristol Airport expansion 20.10.22. Then to the north of Bristol, we have the proposed YTL arena and nearby thousands of new homes in what will effectively be a mini new town called Brabazon. Public transport provision for both developments is lagging behind their completion. Even when the new railway stations have been put in, the capacity will not be enough to deal with the numbers visiting the YTL arena or the needs of the thousands of new residents in the area: New North Filton train station near Bristol arena ‘needs higher frequency’ of services 19.12.22.

Now, any rational person thinking about adjacent large scale development would ask themselves what can be done to ensure that as many journeys to and from them are made on public transport. That means planning to get the public transport infrastructure in on schedule so that when the new housing starts to fill up and the arena opens for events, people have a public transport option to choose from. It doesn’t mean shoving them up willy nilly with a vague promise of public transport provision at some point in the future – a point that seems to be shifting ever further away.

When people see this level of confusion and contradiction, you can hardly blame them when they do kick against the imposition of LTNs, CAZs and ’15 minute neighbourhoods’. It’s because they feel that on the one hand, they’re being told to limit their movement while on the other hand, they see business as normal as traffic generating developments keep getting the go ahead. The conspiracy minded may see this confusion and contradiction as a ruse to wear us all down until we comply. As we argue here – Complexity, collapse and radical change 23.1.23 – the truth is that our economic, political and social system has become so complex, it’s getting harder for anyone to join the dots and develop a holistic overview of where we are.

Is there a way forwards?

There has to be a frank, mature conversation on how we adapt society for a sustainable but fulfilling future on a finite planet. The top down solutions discussed by the likes of the World Economic Forum at gatherings such as Davos simply don’t cut it. No one in their right minds wants top down, imposed solutions. What people will buy into is something they have ownership over. Workable solutions depend on being able to develop a holistic overview. That’s a tough call given the increasingly instrumental educational system we have which doesn’t encourage original thinking and asking difficult questions, let alone mastering the art of joined up, long term thinking. But that’s what you get with an educational system that serves the purpose of producing malleable citizens who’ll do the bidding of the corporations and the bankers and won’t rock the boat.

As we’ve mentioned before –The system is rigged… 1.2.23 – unless there’s fundamental systemic change, we’re not going to be able to have the discussion that’s needed on how we adapt our society to the reality of living on a finite planet. The only way that systemic change will come about is when enough people realise that being on a consumerist treadmill isn’t the be all and end all of what life’s about. A spiritual revolution has to be a part of the physical revolution needed to bring about the kind of system change that’s needed. Our gut feeling is that there is actually a bit of a spiritual awakening underway, with more people question what they’re doing with their lives and thinking more deeply about what kind of future they want for themselves, their children and grandchildren. Like any situation in the lead up to profound social and political change, the currents of opposition to what we have to endure will inevitably be confused and sometimes contradictory. So long as we recognise that and reach out to listen to and engage with people, we can get things onto the right track…

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