This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 150.
Liveable Neighbourhoods, or ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’, can often be created easily in urban areas by blocking a few ‘rat-runs’ to all but those on foot or cycle. By creating physical ‘modal filters’ and greatly reducing the amount of motor traffic, noise and pollution are reduced, young children can travel to school more safely and elderly and disabled people may have the confidence to reach local friends or shops without needing to use a car, assuming they have one. Although the new layout may mean that some people in private cars, delivery vehicles and taxis have to go (in the typical worst case) less than a mile extra for some trips, access is retained to everywhere in the area.
In areas where full permeability still exists, the ‘growth’ of traffic on minor roads has risen far faster than that on main roads or motorways. Rat-running by the drivers of light vehicles, and even HGVs, has increased as sat-navs direct drivers to the ‘shortest’ or least-congested route for part of their journeys instead of a higher-quality road.
This rat-running is an issue for many villages and, just as in urban areas, filtering minor roads can vastly reduce the problem. However, sometimes in rural locations this may mean that the diversion for drivers is much longer, with trips to the local shops, pub or recreation area now a road trip of five miles or more.
Is there a way out?
Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) to create access restrictions for environmental reasons have been available for 40 years, but have been little used because enforcement has been limited to action by the police.
Changes which should shortly be implemented will mean that Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras can be used by Local Authorities (LAs) to enforce such restrictions. Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs), similar to those issued for parking offences, can then be used to enforce any access restrictions. If used appropriately, these can be used to help both reduce short car trips, and stop ‘rat running’ through villages and small settlements, especially by large vehicles.
It has worked in London, where ‘Civil Enforcement’ has for many years been available under different legislation to control night-time movements of large lorries by the use of ANPR cameras. Penalties of £550 are given to HGVs over 18 tonnes, but ‘paperless permits’ are also available for specific vehicles and to specific locations. A TRO could be used to prohibit ‘Any motor vehicle’ or ‘Any HGV over 7.5 tonnes’, for example, and include ‘EXCEPT permit holders’, which would mean full access could be retained for the residents of a village.
How would this work?
New regulations for ‘Civil Enforcement’ of minor ‘Moving Vehicle Offences’, similar to those available in London, are being written and the guidance for use and enforcement of such controls will be critical. Now, it would be a daft and inappropriate use of the powers if the first time a vehicle breaks the restriction a fine were issued. (Perhaps it’s a lost person – or a poor sat-nav?) If a vehicle goes through more than once, a warning letter could be the next step. Only when the restriction has been in place for a while and yet the same vehicles are regularly breaking the law should fines be issued after warnings. Remember, most inappropriate traffic on such routes will be regular, say several times a week, and removing such traffic will make roads much quieter.
What about the permits – who should get them? Perhaps all those living in that village where the control exists? Vehicles delivering to local shops could benefit, although those permits might be time-restricted so that they can only be used outside school hours. In my local village shopping street, where a diversion would only be 800m, I observed that over 50% of traffic was just passing through.
What about the other, uncontrolled streets in the village? Many will be quieter as drivers previously used them to approach the now restricted road. Other drivers may now find the village is quiet enough to make cycling and walking a pleasant choice, so could leave the car at home. Seemingly paradoxically, many research projects over 50 years have revealed ‘traffic evaporation’: even the ‘diversion’ routes often end up with less traffic. This is the opposite effect to ‘induced traffic’ where a new road, supposedly built to relieve congestion, generates new or longer trips, so that even the old one is soon busy again!
PCN money doesn’t go to the government coffers – it can be used to support the system, with any excess income required by law to be used for transport-related activities. This could be used to support local bus services or maintain and improve foot and cycle routes. The new laws will also allow civil enforcement of Mandatory Cycle Lanes, School Streets and yellow box junctions.
However, in Cambridgeshire there is currently a huge hole for Local Authority enforcement! Although it is now expected that Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act (2004) will be ‘enabled’ later this year, opening up the chance to create liveable villages through these new regulations, not all district councils in England are covered. The new enforcement of minor moving vehicle offences by LAs requires the LA to propose a scheme, and for it to be approved both by the local council and the Department for Transport. In Oxfordshire, only Oxford was covered, but now the county council has approved, and is asking DfT for permission to implement, a scheme to cover the rest of the county. That will then mean that out of over 300 LAs in England only six will remain without the necessary powers, including South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Fenland! What are we doing wrong here and how and when will it be corrected?