Low traffic neighbourhoods have generated a lot of headlines since they were introduced - but now a team of researchers has been finding out what Greater Manchester residents really think of the active travel schemes.
Researchers in the Active Healthy Cities group at the University of Salford looked at four active neighbourhoods that have been installed within the past 18 months or so in different boroughs of Greater Manchester.
They found a huge variety of opinions on the ground, with some residents delighted by the schemes and others expressing a wide range of concerns and reservations.
The team says it hopes its findings, which have now been published in a report, will help political and transport bosses in the city-region design better schemes which get people walking and cycling which are also more acceptable and popular with residents.
What are Active Neighbourhoods?
Active Neighbourhoods, or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, are places where people are prioritised over vehicles and where emphasis is put on walking and cycling.
Usually this is done by placing a number of modal filters, usually large planters, across roads so they are blocked off to most vehicles.
They are intended to support a shift away from high levels of private car use and a dependence on car ownership.
The Active Healthy Cities team looked at four areas across Greater Manchester: Trinity and Islington in Salford, Levenshulme in Manchester, Garside Hey Road in Bury and Cheadle Heath in Stockport.
What did the team find?
The research group said much media coverage of controversy over LTNs, particularly in London, had tended to focus on perceived clashes between supportive cycling groups and a furious car lobby.
However, when they started talking to people living in and around the four neighbourhoods in Greater Manchester and conducting walk-alongs and group sessions to assess their views, a much more nuanced and complicated picture started to emerge.
For example, some of those frustrated with the neighbourhoods were those who predominantly walk, particularly older and disabled people.
Harriet Larrington-Spencer, one of the group who is also a PhD researcher at The University of Manchester, said: “They were struggling to see how the modal filters were supporting walking journeys.
“There are differences between the areas but this came out similarly strongly.
“There were issues with a lack of dropped kerbs, cars and vans parking on the pavements, the poor condition of pavements.
“Two older ladies said they had to look at the ground all the time when they were walking so they didn’t trip, which would have meant they couldn’t go outside at all.
“One of the problems is that walking is such a mundane activity that there isn’t much activism around it. One woman described herself as a ‘militant pedestrian’. That doesn’t really exist, and I think we need more of it.”
There was also a perception that active neighbourhoods were mainly supporting cyclists, who are better organised through forums and online groups and more used to lobbying politicians and leaders over issues such as safety and a lack of infrastructure.
However, there were also a number of very positive comments, with people praising how safe the roads felt without speeding cars and how more young people were able to use active transport methods to get to school.
Existing issues in areas colour perceptions of active neighbourhoods
Harriet said there were intriguing examples of residents viewing active neighbourhoods arriving in their localities through the prism of other things taking place there.
In Levenshulme, where there have been issues with soaring property prices, discussion on social media tended to take cues from London and see the active neighbourhood as part of the area becoming more middle class and gentrified.
In Garside Hey, on the other hand, the implementation of an active neighbourhood in an area of social housing which was not as well off had been seen as segregating them from surrounding areas.
At the Bury scheme one respondent also told the researchers that the modal filter planters, which had been picked because they were thought to look attractive, resembled something in a farmyard.
Harriet said: “It just shows the importance of that level of engagement and consultation on how it’s going to be interpreted.”
Consultation is a major issue for communities
The research team heard a good deal of frustration about the implementation of the active neighbourhoods, which had mainly been installed quickly during the Covid-19 pandemic when the Government made cash available.
Residents were worried that councils often reacted slowly to their concerns, that signs were sometimes missing, and that there was anecdotal evidence that emergency service crews did not know about the schemes (there is little official evidence that LTNs affect blue-light response times).
There were also major concerns about monitoring and evaluation of the schemes, with some people suggesting there was little way of telling whether the neighbourhoods were going to be successful or not.
Harriet said: “People were looking a lot to London for evidence, in particular looking at pollution monitoring and vehicle monitoring along the boundary roads.
“That evidence needs to be in place in Greater Manchester.”
Widespread desire for change and School Streets gets the thumbs-up
Harriet said that whether respondents supported the current active travel neighbourhoods or not there was a widespread desire to see things change and not go back to how they were pre-Covid.
She said: “People wanted change from what we have at the moment, both in terms of the environment and making areas nicer for residents to spend time in.
“They thought kids deserved better.”
School Streets, where roads near education establishments are briefly closed off so children can walk, cycle or scoot to and from their lessons each day, also received a very positive reaction across the board.
At the moment, though, the scheme is not being officially backed across Greater Manchester and it is up to individual schools and groups of volunteer parents to run a School Street.
This, the researchers are worried, means it is primarily something that will be offered in better-off areas.
What happens next?
The researchers have now made a number of recommendations.
These includes making the schemes more walking-focused, consulting more with older and disabled people and banning pavement parking.
Communication and engagement needs to be clear and consistent and it needs to be obvious to residents how the schemes are being monitored.
The team will continue looking at active neighbourhoods and hopes its findings will be taken on board.
Harriet said: “Active travel is a basic unit of the approach being taken in Greater Manchester and hopefully what we have done is provide insight into what people are feeling and ways to improve them to make them more acceptable and viewed more positively.”
What have transport bosses said?
The research was part-funded by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and the city-region’s transport commissioner Chris Boardman has provided a foreword to the final report.
Mr Boardman said: “Active neighbourhoods are a core part of Greater Manchester’s plans for an integrated, London-style public transport system.
“They help to enable the first and last step of journeys to be made on foot or by cycle to the local bus stop, Metrolink or train station.
“But they are so much more than just transport. They are an opportunity to ensure neighbourhoods are for living in, rather than racing through.
“Active neighbourhoods have the potential to transform communities, cutting air pollution, road collisions and rapidly increasing levels of physical activity.
“These outcomes can only be achieved by reducing through traffic but may only be accepted if pavements are usable and safety is improved on the road.