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How to save a Low Traffic Neighbourhood: Overcoming hecklers, “dodgy” data, and political intrigue as councillors prevent early scrapping of active streets trial

At a meeting disrupted by anti-LTN activists, councillors voted in favour of retaining the Exeter trial, after cycling and walking campaigners criticised a “flawed” and “biased” report suggesting the scheme could be abandoned

An attempt to put a premature halt to a controversial low traffic neighbourhood trial in Exeter – a consistent target and source of vandalism, protests, and intimidation of local politicians since it was first introduced last August – has been rejected by councillors, after active travel campaigners branded a report submitted to the local authority, which advised that the scheme could be abandoned early if its targets weren’t met within weeks, “flawed” and “biased”.

An interim report on the Heavitree and Whipton Active Streets Trial, which those in favour of the scheme say was “sprung” on the committee charged with implementing it “at the last minute”, claimed that while motor traffic has been significantly reduced within Exeter’s newly installed low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), and cycling numbers boosted, traffic and journey times on boundary roads have soared.

The report also concluded that, unless it began to deliver better results by the end of February, the trial could be abandoned early, with the power to suspend the scheme transferred from the city and county councillors to an unelected official.

Despite the report’s conclusions, in a four hour-long meeting on Tuesday, punctuated by the disruptive presence of anti-LTN activists, Exeter’s Highways and Traffic Orders Committee voted to keep the trial in place, a decision one councillor said was necessary in order to obtain “really robust and accurate data at the end of it so we can make this significant decision for our city”.

A “divisive issue” – to put it mildly

The Heavitree and Whipton Active Streets scheme in Exeter, introduced at the beginning of August as part of an 18-month trial by Devon County Council, features modal filters using bollards or planters in a bid to prevent through traffic and increase safety, encourage walking and cycling, and reduce pollution on residential roads, while bus gates were installed to allow access to local residents, buses, and emergency vehicles.

Exeter LTN bollards (picture credit Devon County Council)

> MP calls out "criminal behaviour" after local councillors receive faeces in their mailbox for implementing LTNs

However, the scheme has proved highly contentious, prompting a wave of protests and vandalism in recent months. A week after the trial began in the summer, masked youths ripped out the bollards at the entrance to the LTNs before fleeing on bikes, prompting the police to warn that removing such barriers constitutes a criminal offence and that they are monitoring anti-LTN groups on social media.

And in October, protesters sent death threats and filled the letterbox of the local MP’s house with faeces, leading to one man being cautioned by police, while a councillor’s bike tyres were also slashed.

The rising tensions led MP Sir Ben Bradshaw to appeal to the “overzealous” protestors to “calm down” and put an end to this “abusive and alarming criminal behaviour”.

> Christmas is ruined… by a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (allegedly)

“It’s been quite a divisive issue, as it has been in other places,” local resident Edward Pickering, the editor of cycling magazine Rouleur and member of the Exeter Cycling Campaign, tells

“Exeter has terrible congestion, it has the second biggest work catchment area in the country, making the city a traffic jam. It’s unsustainable and with traffic rising year on year, apart from the pandemic, it’s only going to get worse.”

He continued: “Exeter is saturated with car traffic. Something needs to change. So much pollution is caused, so much time is wasted, so much mental health is damaged, so much money is spent while the place is a traffic jam. People have been against the scheme, but also a lot of people are enjoying the quieter streets and healthier travel options.”

“Biased, minimal, outdated, insufficient, and badly presented”

However, despite the scheme’s noble ambitions, the tensions surrounding it reached fever pitch this week, following the submission of an interim report which appeared to put the immediate future of the trial – just five months into its planned 18-month stint – in jeopardy.

The report, submitted by the Conservative-controlled Devon City Council to Exeter’s Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, comprised of members of both the county council and the Labour-controlled Exeter City Council, called into question the success of the scheme so far, noting its apparent “significant” negative effects on motor traffic and journey times on boundary roads, and suggested that it could be scrapped early.

The report’s conclusions were immediately criticised by Exeter’s pro-LTN campaign groups, such as the Exeter Cycling Campaign and the Heavitree and Whipton Liveable Neighbourhood Group, who labelled its findings “biased, minimal, outdated, insufficient, and badly presented”.

> Petition with “factual errors” to scrap low-traffic neighbourhood launched by a “keen cyclist” after just two months of trial

According to the Exeter Cycling Campaign, the report’s attempt to assess the trial’s impact on traffic in the area was solely based on a comparison between two road traffic counts – a mid-September day in 2022 and a single day in late September 2023, less than two months into the trial and when, the campaigners noted, major roadworks were taking place in at least two different sites in the surrounding area, a rail strike was being held, and university students had arrived back in town.

“So, trying to show trends and long-term behavioural habits changing was not even taken into account,” Pickering says.

“It was just two snapshots, one of which was slightly worse than the other, but even not by much. Considering the mitigating factors, you could even argue the LTN was showing positive effects.”

The report’s use of a green, amber, and red colour scheme to depict the scheme’s successes and drawbacks was also scrutinised. For instance, the reporting of “no adverse incidents” by the emergency services since the trial commenced – a subject which has proved the source of online misinformation – was marked in amber, instead of green, despite its clearly positive connotations. 

Meanwhile a seven per cent increase in the number of people walking and wheeling was also designated amber, prompting the Exeter Cycling Campaign to accuse the county council of “distorting” the report’s findings and presenting them in a “biased” manner.

Exeter LTN trial report

An example of the report’s controversial green, amber, and red metric

Campaigners also noted that some of the trial’s key targets – such as encouraging active travel as a choice for the area’s schoolchildren – were ignored by the report, while other metrics not flagged at the trial’s inception, such as its impact on bus journey times, were featured.

Finally, the report’s suggestion that the power for deciding the scheme’s fate should be transferred from the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee to the unelected director of climate change, environment, and transport was branded “undemocratic” by both local campaigners and members of the committee itself.

“There was a lot of conversation and a lot of anger, especially from the Labour councillors, about the report’s suggestion. They couldn’t believe it, it just didn’t make sense,” says Pickering.

After the report’s publication, Lorna Devenish, a spokesperson for the Heavitree and Whipton Liveable Neighbourhood Group, told Radio Exe last week: “All the evidence shows that it takes a few months for schemes like this to bed in and for people to get used to them. We are calling on the county highways and traffic orders committee to reject this report and only agree to review the trial once they have more up-to-date figures.” contacted Devon County Council and Labour councillor Danny Barnes, the chair of the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, last week to discuss the report and subsequent criticism, but is so far yet to receive a response.

Fear and loathing in a traffic committee meeting

Alarmed by the report’s negative findings being “sprung” on an unsuspecting committee “at the last minute”, and faced with the prospect of the trial being scrapped before it had time to “bed in”, Exeter’s active travel activists warned last week that any decision to prematurely halt the scheme could leave Devon County Council open to a legal challenge, a measure undertaken by cycling and walking campaigners in similar circumstances elsewhere in the UK.

Last year, for example, Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole Council was forced to concede it acted unlawfully over its decision to reopen the narrow Keyhole Bridge to motor traffic just months after banning cars on the road as part of an ill-fated active travel scheme.

> Victory for cyclists and walkers in legal challenge to council decision to reopen narrow bridge to motor traffic

Children cycling on Active Travel Street (Exeter Cycling Campaign)

(Exeter Cycling Campaign)

Pickering also says the city’s pro-LTN campaigners “spent the last week knocking on doors, talking to people, emailing, and finding out that actually there are a lot of people who are quite enjoying this move towards safer, quieter, more healthy, more efficient streets.”

That persistence paid off at Tuesday’s unusually long and fraught meeting of the Highways and Traffic Orders Committee, whose members voted nine to two in favour of retaining the trial, at least until “more robust” data can be assessed.

“We all voted for this because it was a trial and we want to get really robust and accurate data at the end of it so we can make this significant decision for our city,” Labour county councillor Tracy Adams said after the meeting.

> Proof anti-LTN group falsely claimed cyclists drove to safety protest for "photo op" leads local paper staffer to apologise

Pickering, one of those who spoke in favour of the pro-LTN side in front of the committee, notes that despite the four hour-long meeting’s positive ending, it was far from a straightforward affair, punctuated by a vociferous and disruptive anti-trial element.

“A lot of anti-LTN people turned up to the meeting, and there were reports of booing and heckling from the next room, where a video screen was set up. And I was in the council meeting – I can safely say the atmosphere was tense and my own talk was interrupted by noise from the audience,” the Rouleur editor says.

Heavitree & Whipton Streets for People, Exeter

“Local residents, who welcome the safer and quieter streets as a result of the Active Streets trial, tell me that they often feel intimidated to speak out in support of the scheme,” adds Heavitree councillor Catherine Rees.

“They talk of better-connected neighbourhoods and reduced isolation. Parents are also reporting that they now feel more confident allowing their children to walk and cycle to school. All of this will undoubtedly be having a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health.”

“The battle will continue”

Nevertheless, despite the tensions currently dividing Exeter, Pickering argues that the active trial scheme, should it be allowed to flourish, has the potential to benefit even those who vociferously condemn it on Facebook groups or from the gallery of a local committee meeting.

“It’s not political correctness or woke to point out that everyone driving a car is not efficient,” he says. “If safe infrastructure is put in place, more people will cycle and walk, fewer people will drive, and the roads will be freed up. And the people who have to drive – carers, workmen, deliverers, anyone part of the disabled community – will have the roads freed up.

“So, as well as these being pro-cycling and pro-walking measures, they’re also pro-car. Because they actually turn cars back into what they should be, which is engines of liberation.”

> Rishi Sunak accused of seeking to exploit division over LTNs as he orders review of schemes

He continued: “The trial is being presented as a radical intervention, but it is not. It is a small first step. Cars have been prioritised for decades, while this is one step in a better direction. With every attempt to promote active travel, there is noisy opposition. But LTNs have been a success story around the country in reducing overall traffic.

“The council vote was important, because if it had failed, maybe the next scheme wouldn’t be as ambitious, or a council in another city would think ‘oh, it’s not worth the bother’. It’s a big deal because it’s being allowed to continue.

“The battle will continue, though. We’ll be back to issues like traffic on boundary roads and all the rest of it by midday today.

“We’ve been working our arses off this week, but we’re very aware that the hard work starts now, to make sure that the quiet people in favour of the scheme are heard, and that we persuade any waverers. So we’re going to continue knocking on doors, speaking to people, and holding community rides and walks. We’ve got a year before the trial gets officially accepted or turned down, so there’s a lot to do.”

Ryan joined in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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barbarus | 9 hours ago

I live right in the centre of this. It's really heartening to read that there are people in favour.
The loudest voices are definitely opposed.

I am strongly in favour despite the fact that it has, weirdly led to seemingly longer queues of traffic on our road, at the lights to one of the boundary roads.

I do think that perhaps we should be more honest: that this isn't just about making roads better for active travel, but about reducing the incentive for car travel. As Edward Pickering says, Exeter can't sustain the level of car use it has now.

As a driver myself, I am often tempted to use my car if I'm pushed for time and it will be quicker. If I know it's slower, on the other hand, I'll need to think of something else.

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