London Fields’ low traffic neighbourhood in action. Photograph: Hackney Council

Senior councillors and officers heard from Hackney Downs residents this week about the impact that radical changes to the road network in their area are having on their lives.

The council has introduced three low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in Hackney Downs, London Fields and Hoxton West, which it says has “significantly reduced” traffic in each area, as well as putting in another 15 traffic filters and creating 40 new traffic-calmed streets near schools.

Residents on Hackney Downs’ Benthal Road, who have conducted their own informal survey of traffic levels, presented transport chief Cllr Jon Burke and lead officer Andy Cunningham with information suggesting that congestion in their area had in fact increased, rather than seeing the decrease by a third expected under the plans.

Murray Armstrong of the Benthal Road Action Group said: “The views about the LTN are various amongst the residents’ group. Personally I think it is a great idea, but we have a problem in that we are not getting any benefit from it. In fact the situation has worsened, and at busy times we’ve got a vehicle every 30 seconds coming up the street.

“Even during the quiet periods there are about 50 cars an hour using Benthal Road. We are concerned to see that the volume of our northbound traffic has not decreased. Traffic from the east has been replaced by traffic from the west. We believe this is GPS-driven. A lot of the traffic is commercial or taxis, with a lot of private cars.

“It’s not just the volume we’re concerned about, but safety. We’ve counted one bicycle for every two cars on our street at busy times, and this is a two-way street. This creates bottlenecks and road rage, and many of the bicycle users are school students.”

Armstrong went on to claim that the changes had “closed off” Landfield Estate, echoing concerns from Nightingale Estate residents that the changes have made it difficult for them to drive from their homes, with others reporting concerns of increased pollution caused by traffic displaced by the schemes.

One Nightingale Estate resident, Jamel, said: “I agree with the LTNs, but I think the way it is implemented was not good. Eighteen months almost feels permanent. I’m from Nightingale Estate, where there are six road closures.

“Whoever implemented this does not understand the area, because for me to get to Stoke Newington now, there is no route. I know the aim of this is to stop pollution, but Clapton Pond’s pollution feels horrific now. Other councils are making a one-way system, or during school hours, but this is no entry at all.”

Another added: “I’m a resident of Nightingale Estate, and I do not understand how this was implemented. We are gated in, with only two exit roads. At rush hour you cannot leave.

“There is so much that should have been done before this to ease us into it. If it was one-way systems, that would have helped with traffic flow and directed traffic around and stopped build-up on other roads.”

Cunningham expressed his gratitude to residents for providing traffic count information, going on to stress the importance of feedback and that LTN schemes “take a while to settle down”, with the council committed to reacting and making changes if problems occur.

There were 49 accidents in the Hackney Downs area in the four years to March 2020, with the council seeking to address road safety as well as attempting to discourage private car use in the borough and prevent a so-called ‘car-led recovery’ as people continue to avoid public transport, potentially choking the streets with traffic during the pandemic.

While residents raised concerns over the impact of the LTNs on emergency vehicle response times, both Burke and Cunningham pointed out that not only are most of Hackney’s road filters undertaken without blocking roads but with planters and cameras, but also that all blue-light services have been generally positive in their feedback on how they have been rolled out.

Weekly conversations are also understood to be taking place with Transport for London to see how traffic signals can be changed to ensure smoother traffic flow, with all changes continuing to take place in consultation with emergency services, with the bollard-free design of the schemes following feedback from the services themselves.

The council officer maintained that, when looking at changes of the type that have been made, the Town Hall will be seeing the discussion as one of what more can be done to make the schemes function better, rather than taking them out entirely because of problems created elsewhere, as has been seen in other London boroughs.

Cunningham said: “We looked at what we could do to reduce traffic on the Brooke Road/Evering Road junction as part of our safety scheme. We tried to then design a scheme around that which means that we are not diverting traffic on to other residential roads, and it ends up being a much larger scheme.

“It’s hard to break down the area into smaller chunks without pushing traffic onto residential roads. In this area, if we were going to do something, we need to do something in one go.

“I do take the point that we could have done the communications part better and sent a clearer message out quicker than we have done. Because of the timescales we had, and the wish to deliver these schemes quickly with the funding and time limits, we moved ahead quickly.

“Looking back, we would have done it in a slightly different way and we need to learn lessons moving forward. But trying to get this message out about major changes to the way people move around, particularly when we then have problems with people removing bollards and actually muddying the waters in terms of which roads are and are not closed, it’s actually quite a hard thing to do.”

In response to concerns that LTNs merely displace traffic from one area of the borough to the other, Burke argued that, while he felt it was “hard for people to hear”, the schemes have highlighted in the short term how many cars could or should be on the main road network in the absence of using residential roads as a “pressure release valve”, a phenomenon exacerbated by sat navs directing people to use cut-throughs.

Burke went on to reassure those listening that, if conditions of congestion on roads such as Northwold Road were to persist, then the problem would be looked at “in more detail”, while pointing to roadworks in the area that had stacked up during lockdown and lower public transport usage as contributing to the problem.

One resident said: “When we implement these things, we don’t stop people from having cars or needing parking, we just move the problem from one place to the next, and that is clearly evident in the problems we are having at the moment. We’ve got people living in their flats because they can’t open their windows because of fumes.

“Journeys that would only take 15 minutes are now taking an hour and a half. Cllr Burke talks about journeys in London being short journeys, but you need to look at why they are short. I am a mother and I need to take my children to school.

“It takes me at least 20 minutes to drive from one place to the next. If my children are not on time, will they get detention and will they be seen as truants? We don’t live in an exclusive bubble. It is not always possible to operate on a local basis. Don’t wait until six months to start thinking about solutions. They need to be implemented now.”

The resident, Cherysse, was told by Burke that the Town Hall “does not accept the need for driving children to school”, with the transport chief pointing to figures suggesting that up to a quarter of peak-time traffic in the borough is from parents driving their children to and from school, with school streets closures aimed at discouraging school run congestion in favour of disabled drivers, emergency and commercial vehicles.

According to the Town Hall, LTNs are aimed at securing the “cleaner, greener” city seen during lockdown, as well as helping pedestrians and cyclists travel more safely with public transport capacity remaining low.

While it has accepted that the schemes were partly responsible for an initial rise in congestion in some areas, the local authority has maintained that traffic will begin to ease as sat nav apps update and drivers become used to the changes.

Burke said: “LTNs have probably been the most topical change that we have undertaken to the local road transport network at probably any time in living memory, but they are only one element of a whole number of things that we are doing as a local authority to address the issues associated with the operation of motor vehicles in Hackney.

“It’s important to remember that Hackney had over 120 modal filters prior to the delivery of the new LTNs, but clearly the most recent three represent a big change to the status quo and they are part of a broader long-term plan which would see LTNs brought to every area of the borough.

“There is a perception amongst a minority of people that we think that there are roads that are acceptable collateral damage arising from changes to the transport network. That is not how we feel about this at all. We want to deliver net decreases in the numbers of cars and miles driven on our roads, and that is part of a jigsaw of which LTNs are just one piece. It takes a while for drivers to modify their journeys, non-essential journeys to be eliminated, and for people who had previously driven through the borough to take different routes.

“Unfortunately, supply-side solutions like better cycle lanes, improved cycle safety training programmes, better bus routes and prioritisation can only get you so far. All the evidence is clear that you need demand-side solutions that actively discourage motor vehicles’ use.”

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