Are recent street changes to blame for increased congestion? Well…

In recent weeks traffic levels have shot up across London and much of the UK with many entirely blaming changes to streets designed to encourage a switch to walking and cycling being blamed.

How credible is this argument? Well, looking at the numbers shows congestion will continue to rise sharply regardless of measures taken.

New DfT report

Over the past week, the Department for Transport revealed in a report that car and taxi traffic in Great Britain increased by 2.2 per cent to 278.2 billion vehicle miles in 2019 compared to 2018. Traffic city backstreets is up 15 per cent from five years ago. They also note that “between 2012 and 2019, growth in car traffic outstripped population growth, indicating an increase in average car driver distance (car traffic per capita grew by 8.1% in this time period).”

Average journey lengths are going down. An extra 300,000 cars were registered for use last year alone.

That was pre-pandemic. Once it hit, public transport capacity was reduced hugely. Government are encouraging people not to use it – but how in a city like London do people get around?

In such an environment, it’s either do nothing and watch traffic spike further and further or take measures to shift behaviour of those who choose to drive. Note, that isn’t everybody but those who do have a choice. It does mean short term disruption but long term positive impacts on congestion as behavioural change is undertaken which in turn frees up road space for public transport, the disabled, business deliveries to give three examples.

And the thing is, there’s examples the world over of this working though it often wasn’t easy to get the ball rolling. It’s making cycling the option for young and old, rich and poor and your average bloke rather than those in lycra. Go to any number of countries and look at the variety of people on bikes then come back to London. It couldn’t be more different. Hostilities between cyclists, drivers and pedestrians is on another level here. What are we doing so wrong?


Unfortunately measures have been handled extremely poorly. Communication of what will happen without action is badly handled and it took a huge amount of time to enact change compared to many other nations, and doing so when traffic is already back to high levels both puts off those who tried cycling during lockdown and frustrates many bus passengers and drivers now stuck in traffic.

Traffic up already

One thing that will prove disastrous is many taking to cars and that’s exactly what we are now seeing with traffic at 105 per cent of levels last year. Traffic is also now worse in areas where no changes to streets have been made alongside spots where Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and street changes are implemented.

If traffic is up while work is undertaken to make cycling viable to more people, it’ll be little compared to what happens if people feel they have to drive. Remember, many are still working from home or on furlough. Some parents are still keeping kids at home.

So while each scheme needs studying and some appear wasteful and of little use, others will in time assist with changes needed to prevent increasing gridlock over a longer time period. For those saying reopen all backstreets and block improved walking and cycling links, how do you propose reducing car use and ensuing congestion? We know car use is up sharply. If it isn’t reduced, all those same arguments employed against LTNs such as emergency services being held up will apply ever more across just about every corner of London – and beyond.




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J Smith

I've lived in south east London most of my life growing up in Greenwich borough and working in the area for many years. The site has contributors on occasion and we cover many different topics. Living and working in the area offers an insight into what is happening locally.

18 thoughts on “Are recent street changes to blame for increased congestion? Well…

  • Traveling from Brockley to Kidbrooke has been an absolute nightmare. Its either go through the heart of Lewisham (No thanks) or sit in 20 min of delays on the A205. I used to travel through Hither Green but that’s no longer an option. 💀

    • You make that sound like it’s an expedition.

      Google reckons it’s about 3.5 miles (from beside Brockley cemetery to Kidbrooke Parade post office) – that’s maybe 20, 25 mins on a bike, and you’d still be able to go through Hither Green.

      You could walk it in a bit over an hour.

      • John. Did you mean to be patronising? You certainly made a good go of it.

        What do you know about Erik? Elderly? In ill health? No bike? Is he going for work? For leisure? Either way, 3.5 miles there 3.5 miles back = 7 miles. He can’t walk that ‘in a bit over an hour’. It’s a fair schlep for many and don’t forget the climbs en route whatever the mode of travel.

        Erik is now adding to the traffic on the south circular or the disgrace that is the central Lewisham road system. As an aside, I’m still waiting to see if the designer of that layout that has caused all the jams there (and subsequent pollution from idling traffic) has been imprisoned. He should be.

  • Two things very briefly – yesterday for the first time for 5-6 months I drove from Greenwich to Hackney around mid-day – a journey I used to do a lot. The traffic was dramatically lighter than I have ever known it before -straight through the Blackwall in ‘top’ gear all the way and doing the journey in the time I could once only do very late at night. Same coming back.
    The point about road closures and cycle paths is that they need to be planned with care and thought – and many current ones appear to have been done with little consultation and no idea about the results. Putting in closures which make drivers go much longer distances or sit in polluting jams is insane. Traffic planners need to be a lot clearer about WHY people drive – taking on whole day movements not just trips – and issues like stuff needed to be carried and women making journeys at night, and so on – and address those issues rather than ‘traffic’. Stop designing schemes which ramp up antagonisation. Have a little thought.
    Why did I drive yesterday? – because I can’t face Stratford station – confusing, crowded and critically no seating at all on the concourse. Sorry.

    • Doesn’t that say a lot about how poor Greenwich Council planning is though?

      Many other authorities had substantial lists of future projects drawn up over a long period ready to go. Greenwich apparently did not.

      This all ties in again to annual LIP funds from TfL and how they are spent. Many other councils draw up detailed plans in advance, create websites and events to share plans, seek feedback and go from there.

      Greenwich do almost none of that and draw up plans apparently after the start of the financial year not in advance. At least none is made public. They’re always chasing and never leading. Reactive not proactive. For my sins years of reading transport documents at various authorities show RBG to be very poor at planning ahead and coming up with suitable plans, and well costed plans. The amount spent on some projects is a nonsense.

      In terms of safety and walking this also ties into my perennial theme of investing income from new housing via S106, CIL and New Homes Bonus into improved links, including the link between the Peninsula and east Greenwich. RBG sure as hell aren’t short of income from new developments in the area. And what have they done?

      It’s hard to blame people who drive I agree when an authority does so little. I almost think what they are doing now is designed for hostility and to fail.

    • Mary touches on a point here that is too often forgotten in transport. Most trips are not performed in isolation. It’s something that’s come up in the context of how women are ignored in transport planning – for example, the school run is often performed by women on their way to work. It’s part of a chain. Same with going to the shops – you call in on your journey rather than making a separate trip.

  • The problem with the current popup nature of measures is linked to the Government funding, basically unless the projects were literally implemented in weeks, no funding was on offer. The issue with that is, nobody gets an opportunity to think things through and to model implications and communicate to the public correctly.

    Traffic isn’t going to go away and cycling / walking isn’t going to replace the majority of public transport / vehicular journeys. It will only get worse due to people ordering even more online e.g. supermarket shopping etc.

    • It will not get worse because of online grocery shopping. Online grocery delivery is more efficient. One van delivering to dozens of households takes dozens of cars off the road.

    • Cycling and walking doesn’t need to replace a majority of trips to have a large impact on roadspace and essential users.

      The trouble is everyone claims their journey is essential and the only option – when we know many are a short hop for ease and some are exceptionally lazy.

      Online deliveries work well and can be much more efficient than everyone going retail parks. Still a long way to go though. Better hubs for returns and pick ups. Not placing sorting offices in places that are crap on foot would help please Royal Mail – see Thamesmead as an example.

  • Really thorough explanation Murky, shame consecutive Govts couldn’t have done the same really. Yes change has to come and it’s going to hurt some and please others but it’s essential, to keep cities moving efficiently. At first the opposite applies until people adjust their car usage. Outside cities a different approach is needed, but city suburbs suffer from traffic too not just inner cities. So why has the UK delayed so long with this compared to other advanced economies big cities? It’s possibly that Tory govts didn’t want to upset their voting base, and also massive lobbying from car manufacturers, just as lobbying from corporate food manufacturers has delayed action on obesity.
    Mary I disagree on a couple of points (sorry) Little consultation and no idea about the results? I think they were on a time constraint here- consultations take time, and tbh they should have started during lockdown, but they had EVERY idea that it would initially potentially cause chaos, it was obvious. But they are hoping (praying?) that people adjust habits, go back to Public Transport and cycling and walking (those able) and we’ll all end up with fewer cars. It wont happen overnight, big change never does, but it will improve all our quality of life. Imagine a scenario where Trafalgar Road was no longer a through route to /from London and used very little (difficult i know!). a single paved area in the centre for essential vehicle use (electric) with a 10mph restriction (no more fatalities!) trees planted either side with benches under the shade (like many continental streets) Restaurants/coffee bars etc all with on street tables under giant umbrellas, kids playing safely while parents soak up the sun having a cappuccino with friends. A pipe dream? Why should it be? Think Bromley High Street but with all indy shops, no chain stores. Boutiques would set up, fresh fruit/veg stalls etc etc. You get the jist I hope. May not be in my lifetime sadly, but it has to start somewhere, reclaiming our streets from cars. And regarding stuff needing to be carried and women travelling at night? I think many modern women might resent that comment, they cycle as much or more than men locally, and as far as i know aren’t under a sexist curfew (unless Trump/Johnson have their way). And if you want to see women and men carrying heavy stuff (and kids) around on bikes check out my Greenwich cycle hire Facebook page for how Hollanders do it!
    And Jack, that’s rather a pessimistic view, the opposite could happen (if we want it to). Shopping could become more localised. Put a premium on delivery services unless for disabled customers, and why couldn’t cycling replace many/most vehicular journeys, in cities at least? And public transport, if money spent on it rather than on new wider roads, could easily replace the majority of the rest. It will take good planning, new tech perhaps, and hard graft and a genuine concern for those who really cannot walk/cycle/use public transport. Sell off the cars for the majority to ‘out of townies’ who will still need them, and pocket the monetary savings. replace car industry with new cleaner green industries which we could lead the world in (instead of just keeping the japs and germans and yanks happy, who own pretty much all our car industry).
    There will be loads of people taking issue with me I’m sure, and maybe one or two who agree to an extent, but these are policies I’ve advocated since the seventies, we’re 50 years behind already, and our polar ice caps are on the way out. It may be already too late. But we could at least get a cappuccino in the sun under a shady tree on a traffic free Trafalgar Road before we all expire in the apocalypse. Dramatic stuff eh.

    • This is exactly the sort of pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-sand nonsense that alienates a lot of people from cyclists. Totally out of touch with how people live their lives in the real world. People are too busy trying to keep their heads above water to spend all day sitting in the middle of Trafalgar Road guzzling coffee. I look forward to you towing your cement mixer up Vanbrugh Hill behind your bike.

      • A little bit of a straw man there I fear – how many times have you needed to take a cement mixer up Vanbrugh Hill in the last six months? I’ll accept answers from your van or from your bike trailer …

        No one’s saying vans and cars and trucks don’t have a place, just that *none* of us should default to jumping in the car as the only way to get somewhere, especially when it’s three hundred yards down the road and we could walk there quicker than starting the engine and having to hunt for parking …

    • Two things – I am aware of the constraints the Council is under – I think there should be better planning but over the long term – these short term arrangements are stupid and forced on councils by this nasty government who are aware the Councils will get the blame not them,
      Trafalgar Road – in the 51 years I have lived in Greenwich there have been endless schemes to pedestrianise it and the resulting rows for each one. I remember only too well the row when a Bristol University student project suggested a congestion charge on Trafalgar Road – there were 6 protest meetings and all sorts of abuse aimed at the Council who knew nothing about it. There was a scheme for a tunnel under the foreshore, there was a scheme to build a tunnel under the lawns of the Maritime Museum, there was a scheme to dig up most of Greenwich for a tunnel, there was a plan to close it and run all the buses down Blackheath Hill, and so on and so on and so on. Whatever, the buses have to get through somehow.

  • I’ve voted Labour all my life but as a direct consequence of the absolute and total shambles Greenwich and Lewisham have turned the roads into around here I would either not vote or vote for another party at the next council elections and encourage others to seriously consider where their vote goes.

    • ALWAYS vote, just give it to a party that pledges (and has a history of) doing what you want them to do. Going to be green for me – even if its probably a wasted vote.

      • No vote is a wasted vote.My dad spent nearly four years in pretty rubbish conditions in the Far East to help ensure people can vote today. There were quite a few like him!

        I’ve always said that even if none of the candidates appeal to you, get off your bum anyway, toddle a few hundred yards to the polling station and exercise your democratic right to spoil your ballot!

        • The right to vote in this country was won well before WWII. There will never be meaningful change until there is voting reform.

  • Traffic management could be improved if commuter drivers were not allowed to park for free all day in side streets that are close to railway stations. If you can’t park for free, you will have to find another way to start your rail journey. My road on the weekends looks so different from the bumper to bumper parking of weekdays. Residents on such roads call for controlled parking, yet councils do not see them as a way forward.


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