London Fields traffic filtering: can traffic ‘evaporate’?

My inner traffic geek was intrigued when flyers appeared through my door last year about plans to close roads in my area to through-traffic. Hackney Council wanted to turn Middleton Road, a residential road near London Fields, into a cycle “Quietway”, part of a network of low-traffic, backstreet routes across London.

To do this, they needed to cut traffic from the current average of 4,000 vehicles a day to less than 2,000. Under the council’s initial area-wide scheme, 13 junctions would be closed, allowing local traffic to access properties (albeit using longer routes), whilst encouraging through-traffic to take alternative routes along main roads.

The reaction for, but mostly against the scheme was vociferous. Petitions soon emerged and council-run meetings were overrun with furious residents concerned about the impact of traffic levels and pollution on neighbouring streets, as well as increased journey times.

Following this opposition, the Council abandoned the trial and launched a consultation (now on-going) into this initial concept (now referred to as ‘Option 1’) plus three other less comprehensive schemes.

Rebalancing streets

I’m not a cyclist and I’m not involved in the campaign supporting ‘Option 1’, but I do broadly support a scheme that re-thinks the balance of power on streets, and gives other users including pedestrians and cyclists greater, but certainly not all, control.

Some of those opposing the scheme worry about becoming ‘prisoners in their own home’, as one lady put it at a meeting organised by the campaign for the area-wide scheme this week. I disagree with this since local drivers will still be able to drive. I also believe the scheme gives greater freedom to a wider range of people, or wins back freedom for road users that have been neglected in the past. But more on this in another post.

Impacts on neighbouring streets

However, I appreciate residents’ concerns that streets that will not be closed to through-traffic (including Richmond Road and Queensbridge Road) will see an increase in traffic levels. These streets are already busy thoroughfares, not only for vehicles, but also pedestrians including children accessing a few schools and children’s centres along these roads. I agree that a dramatic traffic increase on these routes would be unacceptable and understand how residents have been close to tears when speaking at local events about the scheme.

Traffic ‘evaporation’

That said, I’m interested in the findings from research studies that show how schemes such as this don’t simply shift traffic to nearby areas or streets, but lead to an overall reduction or ‘evaporation’ of traffic. It’s worth explaining these findings as there’s a lot of miscommunication about them.

A 2002 study (by Sally Cairns and Phil Goodwin at UCL and Stephen Atkins, University of  Westminster) of 70 case studies worldwide, for example, demonstrated that ‘11% of the vehicles which were previously using the road or the area where roadspace for general traffic was reduced, could not be found in the surrounding area afterward’ (Cairns et al, 2002). In the more comprehensive cases, the reduction of overall traffic was much higher. So, when Nurnberg Rathausplatz closed to traffic in 1988 almost 25,000 vehicles disappeared from the altered routes every day, but less than 3,000 extra vehicles were seen on alternative routes. Measured over five years, there was actually a reduction of almost 12,000 cars on neighbouring streets as well.  Not all cases (especially in the short term) show such dramatic reductions in traffic levels on alternative routes, but in most cases, the increases gained on alternative routes are nothing like the losses on the altered ones, demonstrating that they simply do not not take the burden of all diverted traffic.

Wider effects 

What these studies show is that when road space is reduced, people make a wide range of responses such as choosing different modes of transport, travelling less often, travelling at different times of day, or taking different routes. For me, therefore, Option 1 is not just about creating a safe cycle route, but also about changing behaviours and rethinking what streets are for.

Of course this scheme must not work in isolation – it’s clear that additional improvements must be made on Queensbridge and Richmond Roads to make them safe, efficient routes. Plus there’s a whole lot more that can be done to get people out of cars.  It’s also clear that if this area-wide scheme did dramatically increase traffic levels on neighbouring streets, then it should be dismantled (given Hackney Council’s willingness to respond to the public outcry about the initial trial, I trust they would do this). But if there’s a possibility it can lead to a shift in mindset and behaviour, then surely it’s worth testing.

5 thoughts on “London Fields traffic filtering: can traffic ‘evaporate’?”

  1. An interesting and informative analysis. Thank you. But why do theese already quiet streets need ‘rebalancing’? The main impulse seems to be facilitating the cycle Quietway. Middleton and surrounding roads provide pleasant cycling routes already, I am told by many cyclists. Closing them for the Quietway’s provision seems to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut, bearing in mind the extra traffic it will put on already busy surrounding roads and the negative impact on residents dependent on vehicular transport. Often the latter are not fit young things who could take up a bike and ride but the elderly and less able.

    Your research about evaporating traffic was interesting. As you note not all traffic barred from closed roads evaporate. According to your figures enough would remain to make traffic on Richmond and other roads heavier. No road in this area was built as a through road to take heavy traffic. Take a look at Richmond Road at the moment and see how it struggles to take the backed up traffic. Richmond Road of course is narrower than Middleton so it could be argued Middlleton Road should be made to take more traffic.

    Why didn’t the proponents of the closures, when they were planning them in ignorance of local residents, plan traffic calming measures for Richmond, Queensbridge and Lansdown? The fact that they didn’t gives me, a resident of 22 years in Richmond Road, very little confidence that should a form of road closures go through LBH will do anything about extra traffic diverted Richmond and other roads. Indeed facing central government cuts would it have the cash to take any action? You seem to have more faith in our Council than me.

    Lastly I don’t know the circumstances of the case studies you have looked at for evaporating traffic. A lot of the traffic we have going through our roads is east/west: through traffic getting in/out of London; traffic which has been going through Islington and then on through Waltham Forest boroughs. I can’t see how local road closures will dissuade that traffic from coming through Hackney until London-wide measures are forthcoming to provide alternative cheaper non-car routes in and out of London. Still wanting to come through Hackney, should there be local road closures, it will be funnelled down already busy roads.

    So please reconsider your support of the London Fields road closures!

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  2. Thank you for your detailed and considered comments. I’ll try to offer some responses but I hope others’ experiences/information can add more detail. Also the research I refer to in my post is not mine – it was written by Sally Cairns, UCL; Stephen Atkins, University of Southampton; and Phil Goodwin, UCL in 2002. That research is available here. http://contextsensitivesolutions.org/content/reading/disappearing-traffic/resources/disappearing-traffic/

    As for the cycling experience I can’t comment on that, or on the Council’s motivation for setting up the trial. But I can comment on my views as a local resident responding to the consultation document. I am interested in how the scheme might bring additional benefits for people like me, i.e. a pedestrian and a mother (I do also own a car). I hope these views are relevant.

    As for the elderly and less able, it’s hard for me to comment without speaking to a large number of them. But I’d like to know how far such people would be annoyed if their car journeys increased by (a few?) minutes. After all, Option One is not preventing them from using cars or driving to their doors. Perhaps it would be useful for the council to provide more information on how far journey times would be increased.

    As for Richmond and Queensbridge Roads gaining extra traffic, I agree that changes needed to be made to these routes. I also agree that the Council should offer more assurance that changes will be made so that these streets will not take extra burden. I was interested to hear about potential traffic filtering plans for these streets. Did someone at the Option One event this week mention closing a road on the other side of Mare Street to prevent some of this East-West traffic moving across Richmond Road? I’m afraid I don’t have more information on this at the moment.

    As for the traffic evaporation research, you are right that each of the case studies is very different and they can’t provide direct comparisons for E8. But if you take a look at the research, there are other case studies that deal with routes handing through-traffic. I am not saying that this research proves Option One will definitely work, but it does show that road closures in many places have successfully changed wider behaviours – so therefore, in my personal opinion, it’s worth a trial.

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  3. I have mixed allegiances regarding this.
    I live on Richmond Road and my daughter attends Gayhurst School so any increase in traffic along that, already busy, road fills me with dread.
    However, my wife cycles to work and uses Middleton Road so any increase in her safety would add years onto my life (although she says that she doesn’t feel compromised on this part of her journey except when she reaches the junction with Queensbridge Road).
    The business of evaporation baffles me a little – I tend to lean towards results of good research but in this case I can’t help feel this defies logic – I really struggle to accept that through traffic will simply give up on going across Hackney because one or two roads close – I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t force me to use other modes of transport.
    It is also my understanding that the aim is to force traffic onto A roads designed to cope …. where are these mythical east-west A roads ?
    There are further questions that I’m not sure have been answered.
    By how much will the traffic on Richmond Road increase before the much vaunted evaporation kicks in ?
    What if the increase is greater than the subsequent easing ?
    Why include the adjacent streets to Middleton but stop at Richmond Road ? If they feel that simply closing Middleton Road would create rat runs on the nearby streets doesn’t that logic extend to Richmond Road and then to Graham Road ?
    Perhaps most crucially, what are the criteria that constitute success or failure ? What if the Quietway is a fantastic success but there is a 5% increase on Richmond and Queensbridge Roads ?
    I also share the feeling that once this is all in place, removing it would not be as simple as it sounds.
    My greater fear is that Richmond Road residents will be sacrificed for what some perceive as the greater good.

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    1. Thanks Kemal for sharing all these comments. I can’t answer all your valid questions but I will try to get someone from the council to take a look. I agree that residents need to know what increases in traffic levels on Richmond Road will be accepted before they deem the scheme a failure. Also, what changes could/will be made to Richmond Road to cut traffic volumes, improve flow, and increase safety? Can they promise these changes as part of Option 1? Or will these be implemented only if neighbouring streets see increased volumes?

      As for the difference between Richmond Road and other neighbouring streets to Middleton (I think) is that Richmond Road has engineering tools that can better handle higher volumes, such as traffic lights at the junctions plus pelican and zebra crossings. But it might be better for a traffic engineer to comment on this.

      As for ‘evaporation’, the research suggests that traffic disappears as people take variety of actions. Some don’t change their behaviour at all; some might change the time of day they travel or choose a different route; some might share lifts; or decide alternative modes of transport are quicker or more pleasant; some (but not those commuting of course) might not make the journey at all (for example, they might decide to buy groceries online or visit Oxford Circus by tube rather than drive to Stratford). The research cannot predict how traffic levels will change in this area, but it does show us that traffic evaporation is real, it does happen.

      I don’t want to see residents suffer disproportionately as a result of changes, but I am happy to see a council think more broadly about how we use our streets and get around.

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  4. I love the way this blog is being presented, and it’s subtle in its promotion of Option 1 while assuming a mantle of balanced open discourse. Although you say you are not part of the “Campaign,” you are of course via this Blog campaigning in your own way for Option 1. And you have a fair few twitter follows from the ENjoy London Fields/Fume Free Streets gang on twitter.

    “Hackney Council wanted to turn Middleton Road, a residential road near London Fields, into a cycle “Quietway” – Isn’t it the case that this is a TFL demand, and it will happen as TFL wants it, regardless to a large extent of what the Council says?

    “whilst encouraging through-traffic to take alternative routes along main roads.” By “encouraging” I think you mean “forcing.” And “main roads” here seems to include Whiston Rd, Queensbridge, Richmond.” So it’s not taking it off residential and on to main. It’s taking it off one lot of residential and pushing it on to another residential surely. The use of “main road” here to describe other residential streets is disingenuous.

    “11% of the vehicles which were previously using the road or the area where roadspace for general traffic was reduced, could not be found in the” – this is the median and your stating it as though it was the same for all. some schemes (as you say) saw greater evaporation. Some saw less. Some saw traffic increase. Using the Nurnberg scheme (five years, multi-million pound, ties in to wider transport infrastructure) is not a useful comparator for the current scheme.

    It’s all worth bearing in mind as a Lavender Grove resident, and one who needs to cross bottom end of Lansdowne to get to Gayhurst, that this end of the street will need to carry all the traffic exiting this part of the area. so all the traffic from Lansdowne, Appleby, Blackstone Est, Fields Est, Mapledene Est, lower parts of Lavenderm Gayhurst, Lenthall, Mapledene, Middleton etc, all has to exit at the junction of Landsowne and Richmond rd. All the vehicles working on Beyton Crt. All the parks, lido, school traffic. All the delivery vehicles. All at this one point. But as you say, hopefully, once it’s in, the Council will be willing to remove it if it causes problems there. But at present there’s no mechanism for doing this. And if pro-scheme advocates can drum up enough support to force it through, what mechanism are you suggesting to force it’s removal if it causes problems like this?

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