Newly elected councils need to show leadership today

Noisy opposition, misperception and myths, fear of voter backlash – achieving change to the public realm, in the form of LTNs and other schemes for walking and cycling, can be hard. Yet never has such change been more necessary. We look at how campaigners and councillors can overcome the obstacles.

If London is to meet its targets for reducing air pollution, carbon emissions and road danger, and if wants to create better, fairer neighbourhoods, it needs to implement bold, transformative street schemes such as LTNs and other traffic reduction measures.

Such schemes are invariably popular and well supported – eventually. But in the short term they tend to attract vocal opposition. So in an age of polarisation and misinformation, how can campaigners work with councillors to get the change London so badly needs?

1. Plan for the majority, not the minority

In Westminster, 72% of residents live in households that don't own a car. Yet they not only have to tolerate all the external costs of car use, they even subsidise them! Simple fairness would suggest that the streets should be designed for the majority, not the minority.

2. Don't be fooled by loud noise

Opposition frequently seems stronger than support. This is not necessarily because opponents outnumber supporters. It's because those who are against something generally tend to be more vocal than those who support it. But we have seen from the recent local elections that traffic reduction schemes enjoy the tacit approval of the majority.

3. Think in years not months

As we have seen in other boroughs such as Waltham Forest and Enfield, the longer a scheme is in place, the more it is accepted and supported – including by those initially opposed. What was originally deemed an unacceptable intervention comes to be seen as a significant improvement. That's why bold schemes need to be put in place early in the election cycle – to give time for the benefits to become apparent.

4. Don't under-estimate demand for walking and cycling

It is certainly true that the modal share of walking and cycling is currently very low. But it's low because polluted and dangerous roads deter potential walkers and cyclists. Survey after survey has shown that there is huge pent-up demand for active travel, especially cycling. With a borough-wide network of LTNs and joined-up protected bike lanes, walking and cycling rates will rocket.

5. Bust myths

Time and again when discussing LTNs, objections are raised that have little basis in reality. These tend to focus on the disabled, delivery drivers, trades and emergency vehicles. Properly designed schemes need not adversely any of these groups. Objections need to be challenged with facts. Emergency vehicles have repeatedly stated that they welcome LTNs and that response times are not affected. Not all disabled people drive, and those that do (who can be exempt from any restrictions) often welcome the prospect of fewer cars on the road.

Another objection – if not quite a myth – is that traffic on boundary roads will increase. The evidence on this is mixed. On some LTN boundary roads, traffic has increased, on others it has decreased. But experience suggests that, even where there is a temporary increase, traffic levels eventually settle down to what they were pre-LTN, and over the longer term start to evaporate.

It's also important to remember that correlation is not causation: an increase in traffic on a boundary road may not be caused by an LTN. And many main roads in central London are already so gridlocked or heavily congested that an LTN isn't going to make much difference.

6. Manage expectations around consultations

Residents often think of consultations as referendums that will decide whether or not a scheme gets approved. In fact the legal purpose of consultation is to inform government decision-making, not determine it. Campaigners and councillors need to make this clear – otherwise residents will think they are being ignored.

7. Beware selection bias

A deeper problem with consultations is that they have an in-built selection bias. The type of people who tend to respond to them are usually people who have the time, inclination and capacity to do so. These tend to be more affluent and older residents – who are disproportionately car owners. Those who have the most to gain from the reallocation of road space – those who live on main roads, rely on public transport, walking and cycling, and have limited access to green space – tend to be those who are least likely to respond.

This bias could be addressed by conducting random interview surveys rather than online consultations. The extra time and expense involved would be justified by the fact that the council would get an accurate picture of what all residents think – not just the car-owning minority.

8. Be honest

To gain residents' trust, councils and campaigners need to be clear about what schemes such as LTNs will involve. That requires a clear exposition of the downsides as well as the upsides. Yes, some car journeys may take slightly longer, you may not be able to park where you've always parked, and there may be a short-term increase in traffic on boundary roads while the scheme beds in.

9. Be specific

It's just as important to be clear about what the aims of the scheme are. The more specific and local these benefits are, the more the scheme will be supported. 'Reducing speeding on Acacia Avenue and cleaning up the air around the local primary school' will gain more support than abstract issues such as climate change and the environment.

10. Recognise cognitive bias

Among opponents, there tend to be various cognitive biases at work, such as loss aversion and confirmation bias, that intensify opposition. Downsides can take on a disproportionate significance and upsides get ignored. Then there's the fact that some of the principles of traffic management, such as traffic evaporation and induced demand, are counter-intuitive and difficult to understand.

Then there is the riddle of 'empty bike lanes', which only seem empty because those using them are not trapped in slow-moving traffic. Also bear in mind that many roads are empty most of the time as well, and no-one is calling for them to be removed.

The answer to these biases and fallacies is to recognise them for what they are. Opposition may be sincerely held, but misconceived.

11. Remember it's all connected

Finally, when you're bogged down in the minutiae of this or that scheme, remember that reducing car use in cities is the answer to so many of the societal problems we face today. Not just the obvious problems, such as pollution, congestion and carbon emissions, but other problems relating to land allocation, such as housing, biodiversity, and food security and energy security. The epidemics of loneliness, depression and anxiety (and of course obesity) could be addressed by creating neighbourhoods that encourage walking and social interaction. Social care bills could be reduced as neighbours get to know one another again. The benefits of reducing car dominance in cities are incalculable, and they are there for the taking.