“I hate the bollards,” complains Fred Gotts. “We need civil unrest,” threatens Roger Clements. “It’s madness,” asserts Tyler Talbot.
These are just three comments posted to a petition opposed to motor traffic restrictions introduced by a trial Low Traffic Neighborhood (LTN) in the leafy, middle-class suburb of Jesmond, one mile from the center of Newcastle, northern England.
Gotts lives in Kent, Clements in Wales, and Talbot gives an Australian address.
Still, the great majority of the 3,100 who have signed the month-old petition live in Jesmond, but it has also been circulated by national and international anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown groups which are also opposed to LTNs and so-called 15-minute cities — this might help explain the inclusion of some radical comments on the petition.
“The council have turned a once bustling part of town into a no-go area,” claims Newcastle resident Wilfy Wilson. Dimitrios Farmakis says the bollards have created a “gated ghetto,” and fellow local Brian Daglish accused Newcastle City Council of “putting up Berlin walls.”
To the likely surprise of many residents of what has long been one of Newcastle’s most desirable neighborhoods, Nagma Ebanks Beni wrote on the petition that the LTN was “making Jesmond unbearable to live in.”
Not so, says Steven Kyffin, emeritus professor of design at the nearby Northumbria University and who lives on one of the roads bordering the LTN.
“The [roads] are quieter since they were blocked [to motor traffic],” Kyffin told me by email.
“More residents are sitting in their front gardens enjoying the sun. We can hear the birds singing more clearly. I see more people riding their bicycles to and from Waitrose [supermarket] and the [local] shops.”
Kyffin bristles at the use of post-war East German segregation analogies.
“I was brought up in Berlin. The wall I saw as a child did not resemble what I see or experience here in any way,” he said, pointing out that “we could not interact in any way with the community on the other side nor drive round the Berlin Wall.”
(Despite claims from LTN opponents of being “locked in their houses,” no address within the Jesmond LTN is inaccessible by car.)
In April, the North East England edition of the ordinarily progressive Bylines website carried an article topped with the offensive headline: “Low traffic neighbourhoods and the ghettoization and sterilisation of Jesmond.”
This, perhaps unintentional, use of Holocaust terminology is unsavory. Such language is common among conspiracy theorists, some of whom promote the racist “great reset” theory. This is a supposed plot led by bankers (usually Jewish bankers) where global elites actively seek to replace white Anglo-Saxons with multi-racial immigrants.
The Great Reset was originally an economic recovery plan drawn up by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it inspired false rumors about the creation of an oppressive world government.
The WEF is led by Klaus Schwab, who, with his Jewish-sounding surname, is frequently demonized with tropes similar to those long found in antisemitic literature.
(As a sustainability journalist reporting on LTNs, 15-minute cities, and reducing car use, I have been frequently described as a “WEF shill” on social media and received death threats. I live in Jesmond, close to the LTN.)
The majority of those opposed to LTNs are not conspiracy theory believers. Still, those who support the LTN have been targeted with abuse, sometimes conspiratorial.
There have also been intimidating postings. On a private Facebook group, calls to gather outside of the homes of LTN advocates telling them that “they and their ilk are not welcome in Jesmond” are still online despite complaints made to admins.
In London, the Social Environmental Justice (SEJ) lobby group — created in January 2023 — was set up to distance LTN opponents from the Together Declaration, an anti-LTN body with a $1,025 annual membership level (the “Freedom” tier comes with a Together branded hoodie and tote bag, and there are corporate levels at many times this price). Together started life during the pandemic as an anti-vax group. Alongside opposing LTNs, the organization still pumps out vaccine cynicism.
According to some anti-vaccine activists, anti-lockdown campaigners, some on the far right and far left, and some anti-LTN campaigners, lockdown restrictions were introduced not to curb the spread of the virus but to deliberately bring about a socialist world government run for the benefit of behind-the-scenes capitalists.
LTNs and 15-minute city proposals are often painted as a Stalinist climate lockdown plot to confine people to “cells” and thus make it easier for global cabals to control.
The author of the Bylines article on Jesmond’s LTN above described an image of children playing in traffic-free streets as one which “would not be out in place in Soviet-era propaganda posters.”
On the LTN petition, Rachael Marsh wrote that the installation of bollards was “communism in action.”
Such inaccurate, inflammatory arguments detract from the often legitimate concerns of residents, many of whom describe how the LTN has made their lives worse.
“I can no longer get my kids to the other side of Jesmond for their English and maths lessons,” wrote Melissa Brown on the petition.
“Cycling is not an option with 5 kids and just giving birth. Walking is not either, as we do not have enough hands to push the strollers. It now takes 20-30 minutes to drive there and it used to take 7.”
At an LTN protest beside the Coast Road in April, a woman, who declined to give her name, told me:
“I feel that I’m fenced in, and I can’t move about [in my car]. My grandchildren have got to get to school – it’s about a mile walk. I just feel kettled at the minute.”
On the LTN petition, Pat Roycroft said the “killing bollards should be removed” and accused Newcastle City Council of “tyranny” for trialing the traffic measures, claiming that the “cult” LTN was installed with “no democracy or consultation.”
Many others have made the same claim, a claim the council refutes by saying that it leafleted residents in January last year and in February this year carried out an online “pre-consultation” exercise over 12 days. Emergency services were quizzed about the proposed road changes in September 2022 and then again at the beginning of this year.
The council stresses that the erection of bollards on several residential roads in Jesmond does not mean the placement will be permanent. Instead, the closure of some streets to motorists is a “trial,” with traffic count and air quality data collected over a year or more.
“The formal public consultation is running now, as required by the legal orders, which runs from when the scheme is implemented,” said Jane Byrne, the council’s cabinet member for transport.
She added: “Neighborhoods should be somewhere you can get to, but not be used as a through route, which is what the scheme provides. All businesses and properties are still accessible by car.
“Reducing traffic on local streets not only makes the area safer but encourages more people to walk, wheel and cycle on local journeys, which is good for the environment, as well as improving health and wellbeing.”
Jesmond is small, just 0.8 miles (1.3 km) west to east and 1.2 miles (1.97 km) north to south. It has many upscale independent retailers, some excellent restaurants, and several private schools, including Newcastle’s largest. There’s also a Nuffield private hospital and, on the outskirts, a non-emergency NHS hospital.
But mainly, it’s a residential area, with housing ranging from multi-million-dollar mansions (some bought by Newcastle United Football Club soccer players) to modest terraced properties and many student flats.
It’s the ideal 15-minute-city with many amenities nearby and no huge need to drive for many people.
Yet, as some of those who signed the petition admit, many want to continue making short car journeys within Jesmond, often 500 meters or less, zig-zagging via residential streets.
(People often want reduced motor traffic on their streets, but demand car access to residential streets nearby.)
In 2019, 7% of U.K. car journeys were less than one mile, while 17% were between one and two miles. Added together, that’s almost a quarter of all U.K. car journeys being short enough to walk within minutes.
In Newcastle, there were 85,900 cars registered in 2009; by the end of 2022, that had risen to 99,400 cars, a congestion-increasing uplift of 15.7%. Jesmond is a high car-ownership neighborhood.
Many of those who signed the petition — which is advertised in many local shops, including a Post Office — claim the LTN adds to congestion by forcing motor traffic onto already busy roads.
However, council data released June 16 shows a slight reduction in congestion on the four-lane A1058 Coast Road, which leads to the city’s Central Motorway. A junction on this road was the location for two anti-LTN protests earlier this year.
(Newcastle City Council uses traditional pneumatic tube traffic counting devices as well as A.I. cameras which can detect cyclists, pedestrians as well as cars and larger vehicles. Traffic and air quality data is also sourced from Tyneside’s Traffic and Accident Data Unit. Newcastle is especially rich in traffic and air quality data — the Urban Observatory, run by Newcastle University and funded in partnership with the U.K. Collaboration for Research on Infrastructure and Cities, has, it states, the “largest sensor deployment in the U.K. and the largest set of open environmental monitoring data in the world.”)
The interim report published today found that a daily average of 24,962 motor vehicles traveled south on the Coast Road in May this year. In summer 2019, a pre-pandemic baseline for the council, the average weekday count was 25,205 motor vehicles.
There were also fewer motor vehicles northbound, with an average of 20,859 in May and 25,935 in the summer of 2019, a reduction of 18%.
An average traffic count does not capture congestion at peak times. Many of those opposed to the Jesmond LTN agree that traffic congestion at the Coast Road junction, where the protests were held, has long been chronic, but they say the jams have worsened since the bollards went in.
Pre-pandemic, 11,756 motor vehicles were counted on Osborne Road, one of the main boundary roads, on an average weekday in 2019. Following the LTN installation, this rose to an average of 11,875, an increase of 119 motor vehicles.
So how about average journey times? Some opposed to the bollards say five-minute car journeys now take longer, sometimes four and five times longer.
According to the council’s interim data, eastbound journey times have instead been reduced. Those in the opposite direction “remain slightly higher than that of the baseline period,” but, says the council’s report, “this trend has begun to decrease.”
A car journey along the Coast Road that took five minutes at peak times before the pandemic in 2019 now takes four minutes, found the council.
These reduced journey times are on the main boundary roads; LTN critics state that car journey times would be even quicker if motorists were still allowed to cut through residential areas.
The council’s interim report does not contain average times for these cut-through journeys — often described as “rat runs” — probably because such trips are impossible during the trial period.
A freedom of information request to Newcastle City Council discovered that the council did not carry out pre-installation traffic modelling for the scheme. The council preferred to iterate as it went along. Indeed, a tweak was made a week after the first bollards went in, with concrete blocks closing an extra road to motorists.
The council states that the LTN has successfully reduced the number of motor vehicle journeys on another of the scheme’s boundary roads. Before the erection of bollards halfway along it, Osborne Avenue was used by around 3,750 motor vehicles daily at its western end. According to the council, this has now “dramatically decreased to around 1,250 vehicles per day, taking more than 2,500 vehicles off this residential street.”
In a press statement issued alongside the interim report, Councillor Byrne said:
“It is important to caveat that this is just a snapshot in time, and more data would be needed over a longer period to provide a fuller and more accurate picture.
“As we have said all along, this is a trial, and trials mean we can make changes if required based on emerging feedback and data.”
Newcastle City Council’s finding that some motor car journeys appear to have disappeared tallies with academic studies elsewhere.
A recent study undertaken in Lambeth, London, using actual mileage data from cars, found that LTNs have cut the daily distance driven by motorists compared with those outside the zones. Annual miles driven by residents living in four London LTNs decreased by 6% in the two years since their introduction compared to control areas.
Study author Anna Goodman of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “People who live in LTNs start driving less, on average.”
In meetings with residents, councilors now admit that the LTN could have been better advertised before it started, but, then, unlike the installation of the bollards, the advance notification from leaflets and roadside notices didn’t lead to widespread awareness of the proposed changes.
According to the council’s interim report, the LTN was installed to reduce motor traffic through residential streets and push motorists onto “identified main routes for vehicles around the area.”
One of the key reasons for wanting to reduce and channel motor traffic in the area is because of predicted congestion in the future from a growing city population.
There are several housing developments coming on stream a few miles distant which will lead to gridlock in Jesmond if nothing is done, believes the council.
Those opposed to the LTN because they experience congestion at the junction leading to the Central Motorway might feel better disposed to the scheme if they knew the journey delays they say they are suffering from now could be far worse in the future.
“The Coast Road is already congested with slow average speeds, particularly inbound in the AM peak,” stated a 2022 council document.
“Rather than being something that manifests along the length of the Coast Road, the majority of the impact is felt as traffic arrives into Newcastle.”
The briefing document stressed action otherwise “traffic growth will put increased pressure on an already congested highway network, impacting on journey times, reliability, road safety as well as air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Going down Osborne Avenue 1686948205 feels like a peaceful Sunday morning no matter when you go,” wrote student Emma Hunter last month.
“It’s nicer for pedestrians, and children are safer and can play in the street. There are benefits that you can’t hear or see too: less traffic means less pollution, making you mentally and physically healthier, and of course, since short journeys now require going all the way round, it encourages walking and [cycling], which is good for people and the planet.”
In a letter to the Guardian today, Jesmond resident Alec Collerton wrote:
“Most main roads are overcrowded and if a shortcut is available through a residential area then we, as motorists, will take it.”
He explained that Jesmond “[had been] plagued by the use of its terraced streets as rat runs by motorists trying to shave a minute or two off their journey time.”
But the bollards erected in March at “a stroke eliminated through traffic,” he stated.
“Our streets were transformed into calm, safe, unpolluted avenues to walk, cycle, push prams or simply stand on to take the air.”
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