Bath’s transport boss has responded to the concerns sparked by the council’s flagship low traffic neighbourhoods policy.
Over the next year, Bath and North East Somerset Council will start rolling out measures aimed at ending rat running in residential areas and making it easier to walk and cycle.
Some residents have said the proposals have left them angry and anxious, fearing communities will be pitted against one another, while political opponents say the changes will make parts of Bath “unliveable”.
Councillor Joanna Wright said everyone needs to act differently to address the climate emergency but anyone who needs their car will still be able to use it.
In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the joint cabinet member for transport addressed issues raised by residents.
Why do you need to change anything?
“The earth is in a catastrophic situation,” said Ms Wright.
“All we hear is how you shouldn’t be doing X, Y and Z to the motorist. We need to think differently about how we’re moving around.
“We’re in a climate emergency. The people that suffer the most are the poor. The wealthiest drive the fastest, drive the furthest, have more road mileage than anyone else.
“The loudest people make the most noise in this city. They seem to endlessly get what they want. That isn’t helping the people having the hardest time.”
She added: “It’s not about a road traffic scheme, it’s about social justice, the climate emergency and public health.
“If you’re telling me where we are now is a good place to be, that it’s OK for the amount of traffic to be moving around in the way it is, creating issues around air pollution, danger, if that’s what you want in your community, I’m surprised – there are very few residents I meet who aren’t angry about that.
“We have to do something. What we’ve done for 40 years is no longer working.”
What is a low traffic neighbourhood?
According to a report by the council’s consultants, Jacobs, low traffic neighbourhoods are “typically considered in predominantly residential areas, where several streets are grouped and organised in a way to discourage through-vehicle traffic or “rat-running”.
“Importantly, residents remain able to drive on their streets, park on their streets and receive deliveries although it is noted that strategies should be in place to help reduce car ownership and usage by residents within any low traffic neighbourhood area.”
LTNs use measures like speed restrictions, partial or full road closures, modal filters and reallocating road space to improve walking and cycling infrastructure.
Conservatives on the council have said they are supportive in principle but the Liberal Democrat administration had “not sufficiently demonstrated that this loss of freedom, which contributes to a liveable city, is a price worth paying”. Others have branded the Lib Dems “anti-car”.
How would you respond to the charges leveled by the Conservatives?
“It’s not anti-car,” said Cllr Wright. “You will still be able to move around the city as you need to, but your journey will be more circuitous. We all have to reduce our vehicle movement by 50 per cent by 2030. We need more active travel methods in place to make that seismic leap.
“The reason people say they don’t walk or cycle is because it’s too challenging, it’s too difficult, it’s not very nice, there’s no infrastructure.
“We’re in a real bind. We’ve got to think differently. This [LTNs] is an approach we think takes the community with us, and at the same time delivers for everyone. If you still want to use your car, you can.
“We all have to act differently. People will say ‘you’re active, you’re fit but some people aren’t and there are hills’. I’m not doubting that.
“We’re going to have to look for some infrastructure to help with that. There isn’t a magic wand. It’s going to take time.
“It’s not like you’re going to wake up tomorrow and the whole of Bath is going to be impossible to get across or around – it’s going to be a gradual journey.
“There will be positives for other people and your own physical and mental health.”
Won’t shutting side streets force more traffic onto main roads?
Cllr Wright said traffic had already been displaced by the advent of satnavs that send drivers down the most direct route, often resulting in rat-running in residential areas.
She said the council would test changes through experimental traffic orders in place for 12 to 18 months to give time for behaviours to change.
Chris Major, the assistant director for highways and transport, previously told a webinar the proposals would displace traffic onto trunk roads and there was “no easy answer” for how the council will support people who live on them.
But he added: “We’re going to get more traffic if we do nothing. We’re trying to put forward opportunities for people to change the way they travel and reduce the overall numbers of vehicles, which should reduce the impact on distributor roads.”
How much money will be available for the changes I want to make in my area? Will I be able to get a pedestrian crossing or just a planter to slow down traffic? What happens if a neighbouring LTN creates issues in my area?
Residents’ associations drawing up submissions for LTNs have reported feeling like they are being “pitted against each other”, and said the rollout had caused anger and anxiety.
Cllr Wright said that is not what the council wants from communities: “We’re trying to get people to tell us their problems, not come up with their solutions. It’s a different question.
“We aren’t islands – we’re a whole. If you do something over there, of course it’s going to affect things over here.”
The work of designing schemes and considering how they interact will be done by council officers.
The authority has budgeted up to £2.2million for its broader liveable neighbourhoods programme in 2021/22 and Cllr Wright said LTNs will be the “basic way of working for the highways department for the foreseeable future”.
As well as the council’s funding, the West of England Combined Authority has £10million available for active travel, and LTNs are also being pushed by central government.
“I’m not waving a Liberal Democrat flag here,” added Cllr Wright. “This is a central government flag.
“We’d like to do all of the schemes but there’s only so much money, and there isn’t a magic wand. We aren’t going to just make it better everywhere in the short term.
“There’s going to have to be a process. The funding is as much about engagement as it is about putting in the infrastructure – the infrastructure is the cheapest part.”
How many LTN requests have been submitted?
Some “really eager beavers” who have been working on proposals “for ages” have already submitted their requests. Applications have come in from North East Somerset as well as Bath, and not just from Lib Dems.
Cllr Wright is yet to submit a bid as she has been getting the policy in place. She has asked residents in her ward of Lambridge what issues they want to be addressed.
Which areas will go first?
How the various schemes are prioritised is still being decided. The process will consider factors such as work going on in the city and indices of deprivation.
“It’s going to be a challenge, I can’t deny that,” said Cllr Wright. “I’m going to have to be able to define why we take something forward first and not something else.
“We also recognise it’s not going to be easy to take anything forward straight away.”
When will the first LTNs be in place?
“It’s going to take months to get to the delivery stage,” said Cllr Wright.
“I would hope we’ll see something by the end of next March.”
She said issues elsewhere were caused by the DfT forcing councils to spend money quickly, but she thinks B&NES Council has taken the right approach.
“It takes ages to do anything on the highways. That makes people frustrated. There’s so much legality.
“There have been moments where I’ve been frustrated at how long it’s taken.”
But Cllr Wright said the authority had taken the right approach: “The pandemic has shown that our route to our destination will be bumpy, but hopefully won’t be as bumpy as other areas. Our foundation stones are in place.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter