Before this year Jody Graber, a tradesman from Islington in north London, had never been involved in politics. He had certainly never gone on a demonstration. But over the last two months he’s found himself leading a series of street protests and briefly occupying Islington Town Hall.
In a video filmed at one of his demonstrations, you can see him on the back of a pick-up, in a pink polo shirt and jeans, shouting through a makeshift PA. “This is when they should be scared in these town halls,” he yells, geeing up the crowd, “normal people who do normal things come out onto the streets to demonstrate, they should be scared, because we’re coming from them!”
It’s a scene of righteous fury. But what Graber is protesting isn’t climate change, poverty, civil rights, Brexit or even mixed-gender changing rooms. What’s stirred this passion, is “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” (LTNs) – attempts to reduce driving and increase walking and cycling that have become a source of perhaps surprisingly virulent protest.
When the government began advising people to avoid public transport in March, it led to an increase in car use for everyday journeys. That was fine for a while during lockdown, when most people had nowhere to go. But when restrictions on working and socialising were eased, it started to pose a big problem.
In China, a few months ahead of the UK on its COVID journey, congestion and air pollution were reaching new highs as people avoided public transport and travelled everywhere by car. The UK government feared gridlock and worsening air quality in every big city. They made £2 billion available to local councils to improve roads for cyclists and pedestrians, encouraging people not to return to their cars.
Some councils used the money with a light-touch – widening pavements and improving junctions for cyclists. But others went further by blocking off residential streets to cars, creating LTNs.
The idea is that quiet roads where people live and go to school would be pollution-free and safe to cycle on, with traffic diverted to main roads.
Local governments had seen the public acquiesce to drastic lifestyle alterations to accommodate social distancing and imagined the same thing would happen with LTNs. They seemed a mild inconvenience compared to curbs on how often you could leave the house, visiting relatives, having sex unless you live with your partner and so on. Instead, all hell broke loose.
You could see the oncoming storm on Nextdoor, the popular local bulletin board website (imagine Mumsnet but full of Dads looking for plumber recommendations). During the early months of lockdown, many London Nextdoor boards were full of kind offers of help – delivering food to old ladies, people chipping in to pay the gas bills of those who’d lost work. But once the LTNs were announced, there was outrage. On one Islington board, posts pitting cyclists against motorists prompted hundreds of comments. “Let's get together and pay a lawyer to challenge local government dictatorship,” one poster on my local Nextdoor in east London suggested.
It was on Nextdoor that Graber first heard about the LTNs. He says he saw a video of a fire engine on a 999 call driving up to one of the un-lockable bollards they’d installed to stop cars going through. The driver had to get out, find the key, unlock the bollard, drive through and put it back. “That really triggered me,” he says. “I thought if there was ever a fire or anything at my children’s house, those two or three minutes could cost a life.”
He agreed with other posters he saw on there – why were tradespeople and disabled people who had no choice but to travel by car facing traffic jams? And why was traffic being funnelled down some streets but not others? “What really annoys me is that it’s a Labour council who are supposed to be looking after the neediest, the most vulnerable, the working class,” Graber says. “It’s them that’s doing it using money provided by a Tory government.”
So he attended a few protests and started giving speeches and quickly found himself the leader of a movement.
Islington was the second borough to get an LTN but they’re now springing up all over the country: from East Craigs in Edinburgh to The Groves in York. Advocates say they’re having wonderful impact on neighbourhoods where most residents don’t even own a car.
Sarah Berry, a living streets campaigner in Lambeth, understands some of the pushback. “I imagine if you’re someone who has always gotten around by car and hasn’t really thought about it – and all of a sudden you’re being told that it’s bad for the environment and bad for your community that could feel threatening,” she says, but adds: “These things when designed well, show people that the streets are not just for cars – they’re for walking, cycling, play, scooters and wheelchairs.”
Berry continues: “The argument I hear so often is ‘what was a two minute drive is now a ten minute drive’, to which my response is obviously, ‘why are you driving somewhere that only takes two minutes?’”
This incenses those who feel driving a car is a right. Councillor Jon Burke, a socialist firebrand on Hackney Council who makes daily impassioned defences of the LTNs he helped design on Twitter, has received a death threat which he has since reported to the police.
So heightened are the tensions, that many anti-LTN protestors believe that the councils have been calling them "vermin". In fact, councillors in Islington and Hackney have simply talked about "ending rat-runs" the common term used for shortcuts on residential streets.
In many boroughs – including Islington – LTNs have been introduced as emergency measures without much consultation. Instead they are being trailed on a temporary basis and then evidence of their success, including public consultations, will decide if they stay.
For Graber, those consultations will be too little, too late. He plans to stand for local election himself on a platform he’s calling “We Are Islington” – highlighting how quickly LTNs have brought wider issues into focus.
“If they’d asked us about it before they went and did it – a proper consultation – there’d be much less opposition. But there’s no democracy,” says Graber.
On Facebook groups like Horrendous Hackney Road Closures and Ludicrous Road Closures there are plenty of stories about disabled school students in tears and ambulances being delayed. “Those events can be horrific in isolation,” admits Berry, but adds, “you hear less about all the times it works.”
Department for Transport data suggests that 50 per cent of car journeys are made for leisure or shopping activities. LTN advocates argue that yes, their plans increase congestion, but that congestion should in turn make it inconvenient enough to dissuade people from driving, freeing up space for those who have no other choice than to drive.
Yet even some cycling and clean air campaigners question whether LTNs are really the answer.
Paul Lomax, who is based in south London, hadn’t owned a car for 17 years and only got one recently. He still mostly cycles, and has dedicated a lot of his free time to making streets friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians. He is part of One Lewisham, a group that “aims to reduce traffic, improve air quality and enable safe cycling and walking”, but the group is strongly against the LTNs.
“The LTNs are not a traffic reduction scheme,” he tells me. “Eighty-five percent of traffic remains will be pushed onto main roads or other roads. But our main roads are heavily residential, some of them are more populous than the roads in the LTN. Also people on the main roads are more likely to be poorer, not own a car, and more likely to be BAME.”
Lomax suggests that these schemes are merely a way for cash-strapped councils and the Conservative government to avoid proper investment in cycling and public transport infrastructure. Proper cycle lanes on main roads are also expensive. It’s much cheaper, he says, to pressure people to get their bikes, close off roads and hope for the best.
“They say it’s about pollution, but making the ultra-low emission zone larger will make so much more of a difference to pollution,” Lomax says. “They say it’s about cycling but if you want to improve cycling, you need to improve cycle lanes on main roads which is what cyclists actually use. This is about saving money for the government.”
He says he recognises that this issue has become, culturally, about more than bollards. He feels strange taking the same position as “loads of UKIP-type nutters, the Association of British Drivers and libertarian freedom types who campaigned against 20mph neighbourhoods who just want their freedom to drive. It’s frustrating when you‘re seen as being on the same side as them but one of my goals is to try and make the Green Party realise it’s a folly.”
As Berry points out, most of the LTNs are temporary, consultations will begin soon. When they do begin, you can be certain those council traffic meetings will be some of the liveliest ever seen in town halls.