Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods – an Old Idea 'Lying Around' in a Crisis

In a crisis, Milton Friedman once famously observed, politicians act "on the ideas that are lying around". The basic function of academics, writers and campaigners is "to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."

I remembered that quote a few days ago when a Guardian journalist interviewed me about renewed interest in low traffic neighbourhoods, an idea, or set of ideas, I have been researching and advocating since the mid-2000s. Following the government's offer to fund 12 new 'mini Hollands', authorities across the country are now planning many more low traffic neighbourhoods of their own. Did I feel excited by what was happening, she asked. Maybe.

The term 'low traffic neighbourhood', meaning a residential area where through traffic is filtered out, is fairly new. It first appeared in print on March 10th 2014 following a press release about the mini Hollands planned in Outer London. Someone in the mayor's team seems to have coined the term to explain what mini Hollands actually meant. As the borough of Waltham Forest found to their cost, presenting a foreign idea designed to attract more cyclists is guaranteed to pour petrol on the flames of conservative opposition. Improving the environment for local people is a better way of describing its benefits, although some opposition is inevitable, however change is presented.

The term may be new but the idea has a long history. It was a key recommendation in the Buchanan report of 1963, which used the term 'environmental areas'. Buchanan was influenced by Radburn, a new town built in New Jersey in the 1920s, which was in turn influenced by the English garden cities. The Radburn layout is a more specific design, for new developments. Buchanan's committee was proposing something more radical: the systematic removal of through traffic from existing town centres and residential neighbourhoods.

Today, Buchanan's report is better known for advocating concrete walkways and urban motorways. The crisis which prompted them to make such radical proposals was a "rising tide of cars" which threatened to engulf British towns. The report itself is more nuanced than its reputation. Politicians of the 1960s and 1970s found the concrete and the motorways more appealing than the environmental areas, which were quietly forgotten, at least in Britain.

In the late 1970s the term 'traffic cell' began appearing in the professional literature (much later in the general media). This was a literal translation of the German Verkehrszelle, originally applied to city centres, which were divided into segments or cells, allowing vehicles to move within them but not between them. This idea, which spread to Swedish cities such as Gothenberg and Dutch cities such as Groningen was often the first step in a gradual process of pedestrianisation. Of course, some British cities also pedestrianised their centres but the idea of traffic cells or environmental areas made little progress here.

In the mid-2000s I spent several summers cycling around Europe, mainly studying carfree residential developments for my PhD. Along the way I noticed a bigger factor in the success of cities such as Freiburg and Groningen, which I called 'filtered permeability'. Through traffic is restricted to a limited network of roads, whilst bikes and pedestrians are free to move in all directions (and buses or trams also have an advantage). Bikes are separated from pedestrians and only share roads with cars where through traffic has been removed. In some of these cities low traffic neighbourhoods are the norm.

Back in Britain, I was frustrated to see the shared space and New Urbanist movements shifting this country in the opposite direction. Manual for Streets, widely trumpeted as a progressive document, reinforced the conservative view that roads must remain open to through traffic in all directions.

A political crisis prompted Gordon Brown's government to look for "ideas lying around" to assuage growing public opposition to the scale of greenfield building. Their solution, the Ecotowns programme, was flawed but it did produce some highly progressive transport guidance. The DfT and particularly the TCPA acting for DCLG incorporated several of my recommendations on filtered permeability and carfree development almost word for word. I remember being excited reading that.

But of course, a bigger crisis, the financial crash, was about to wipe all that away. The Eco-towns went the same way as Buchanan's recommendations, re-emerging with all the damaging aspects (small, fragmented, anti-urban) and none of the positive ones as 'garden cities'. Excitement, it seemed, was premature.

I carried on researching these issues, learning why British local authorities found it so hard to remove traffic from even small areas like Brighton's Old Town. And in 2011 I set up the Living Heart for Bristol, a campaign to remove through traffic from Bristol's city centre. The public always seemed to like the idea when we asked them. The previous mayor liked the idea. We got it written into a semi-official report during Bristol's year as European Green Capital. But even the smallest steps towards implementation remained "politically impossible", until a few weeks ago when COVID-19 made them "politically inevitable" – for the time being.

Bristol Bridge and Baldwin Street – the only routes for through traffic across the city centre – closed to general traffic on August 2nd. Other streets have been temporarily closed to motor traffic with a view to making them permanent. Meanwhile, a new coalition has formed to campaign for low traffic neighbourhoods across the city.

By the time those decisions were made the Living Heart for Bristol had wound down after years of official stonewalling. Did it make any difference? Only to the ideas that were lying around.