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Bristol’s low-traffic scheme stalls as row over Ulez spreads from London

Sian Norris in Bristol
Sunday July 30, 2023

The busy St James Barton roundabout in Bristol, where the city’s low-traffic schemes have divided residents. Photograph: Charles Stirling/Alamy

On Bristol’s Church Road, in the east of the city, cars, buses and lorries rumble past African-Caribbean hairstylists, eastern European bakeries, and cafes and restaurants selling a selection of Middle Eastern, Somali and Jamaican cuisine. Women talk on phones tucked into their hijabs, while a halal butcher takes a delivery of freshly cut beef.

Behind the high street bustle, however, tensions are growing about a delayed trial for a “livable neighbourhood” – a low-traffic initiative intended to provide “an opportunity to work with local communities to co-design residential streets that are better balanced for all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists”, according to Bristol councillor Don Alexander, who is responsible for transport in the city.

Low-traffic schemes have proved increasingly controversial across the UK, with Bristol no exception. In Jesmond, Newcastle, the council conducted an internal review after opposition to its introduction of a low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN), while Oxfordshire county council has said its decision to introduce an LTN has created divisions.

The recent byelection in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was seen by many as a referendum on the ultra low- emission zone (Ulez) introduced by London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Anti-Ulez protests have even found their way to Bristol, despite the policy not affecting the city. A recent public meeting on livable neighbourhoods was organised with the help of London-based anti-Ulez group the Together Declaration. Speaking to a Bristol audience, co-founder Alan Miller encouraged attenders to pose with “No 2 Ulez” signs.

It was a stunt that troubled documentary film-maker Alex Blogg, who has lived in east Bristol for eight years. “Ulez is a London issue,” he said. “People in Bristol are talking about their lives and livelihoods. It’s not appropriate for this neighbourhood.”

Blogg, who described himself as “pro-livable neighbourhoods, with caveats”, is excited for “new opportunities for more cycling and walking, as well as … spaces such as pocket parks, benches, more green”.

“I cycle around the area with my toddler son,” he said. “There are roads where you can feel the pressure from cars behind you when you are on the bike.”

Local media reports inaccurately claimed that a second trial of a livable neighbourhood in south Bristol had been paused, with Alexander confirming to the Observer that this was not the case.

“It was always intended that the East Bristol Liveable Neighbourhood scheme would be a pilot to inform future schemes,” he said.

The city’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, had recently said the council “will focus on this trial before moving on to a second one”.

Beyond east Bristol, and in Whitehall, there is a growing political backlash against low-traffic initiatives. Downing Street is reportedly considering a ban on councils introducing new LTNs (although government sources described this as “speculation”), as well as denying local authorities access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database, making the zones unenforceable.

This follows an announcement earlier this year that LTNs would no longer be able to be created using government money. For cash-strapped councils already struggling to make ends meet, the decision may lead to them scrapping their plans altogether. This has prompted questions as to whether we are seeing the end of LTNs nationally.

Back in Bristol, Abdi Bunail, the proprietor of the Waamo cafe on Lawrence Hill, was keen to express his reservations about the proposed trial.

“The whole neighbourhood is against the livable neighbourhoods,” he said. “Many people here have large families. They have lots of children who go to different schools, elderly people requiring care – it won’t be easy to access places. For us who live here, it is going to affect us.”

Bunail’s views are familiar to Chris Johnson, the man behind Keep Bristol Moving, which campaigns against the livable neighbourhood trials.

“We don’t feel people were properly consulted,” Johnson said. “I spoke to local businesses who knew nothing about the plans. We are concerned this will harm businesses and risk people’s lives if emergency services can’t access streets easily. The elderly and disabled are overlooked by the scheme.”

Blogg is sympathetic to his neighbours such as Bunail. “I am really aware that I work from home, I cycle, I don’t rely on a car,” he said. “There are people in the area where that’s not the case – care workers and taxi drivers who need to use their cars, and families who need to get from their house to the supermarket. A lot of people don’t feel listened to.”

But campaigners are concerned that politicians may be dissuaded from taking action on the emissions and air pollution caused by high volumes of traffic.

“With all the news that we now see every day about the impact of climate change around the world, and the effect of polluted air on health, this should be the time to accelerate plans to encourage more walking, cycling and the use of public transport,” said a spokesperson for the Bristol Cycling Campaign, which is supporting the trials. “Rolling out and enabling livable neighbourhoods is essential to make our air cleaner.”