When I heard reports saying the new pop-up cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTN) were delaying ambulances and putting people’s lives at risk, I thought I should dig around and find out if the accusations were true.
My research revealed that although the London Ambulance Service (LAS) sees the potential for poorly planned active travel schemes to impede emergency vehicles, there is no evidence that current schemes have blocked ambulances in the capital or elsewhere.
The background – Covid-19 and a car-based recovery
When people began feeling less safe on buses and tubes after the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Camden Council feared many local residents would switch from public transport to cars, leading to increased congestion, pollution and accidents.
The council’s concerns are not unfounded. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that since the start of the Covid crisis and despite all the lockdowns, car usage has remained stubbornly high while the number of journeys made by bus and tube has dropped dramatically.
Meanwhile, more and more people have been walking and getting around by bike as evidenced by huge surges in bike sales over the last year.
Despite the upsurge in cycling and walking, TfL estimates that once people return to their usual routines, traffic in Camden could double if all car-owners use their vehicles for the journeys they were previously doing by public transport. (Safer Travel pdf)
Using funding from TfL, Camden Council has put in wider pavements, pop up cycle lanes and traffic-blocking bollards to boost the trends towards increased cycling and walking and nip a car-based recovery in the bud.
Both TFL and Camden Council argue that by swapping car travel for active travel, people will improve their health and wellbeing, boost their local economies and help to cut pollution and fight climate change.
The Town Hall has used Experimental Traffic Orders to implement many of the schemes. Experimental Traffic Orders allow traffic authorities to make changes without consultation, although Camden says it has consulted on a number of the changes and that the public is invited to test out and feed back on all the schemes during the trial periods.
At the end of the trial periods, if Camden wants to make the schemes permanent, it must hold final consultations.
So…are ambulances blocked?
Some people have applauded the active travel and traffic calming measures in Camden, believing they have made it easier to walk and cycle while also giving us cleaner air and safer, quieter roads.
Others have expressed outrage, pointing to the lack of consultation, increased journey times and the failure to be inclusive of Disabled people.
One of the key arguments against the low traffic neighbourhoods and pop up cycle lanes is that they impede ambulances’ journeys to their patients and hospitals. This was the case made by the Camden man who challenged the council on its plans to put a cycle lane on Haverstock Hill.
The media has got involved, sometimes publishing stories that are factually incorrect. The Mail on Sunday, for example, ran a story saying a ‘top paramedic’ had warned new bike lanes were holding up ambulances and costing lives.
Soon afterwards, the College of Paramedics released a statement saying the Mail had misrepresented their position on the issue and that they were not against cycle lanes and never had been.
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request has shown that ambulance trusts across the country do not believe that pop up cycle lanes or LTNs have hindered ambulance response times.
When I heard about this spat, I thought it was important to find out what the London Ambulance (LAS) position was, so I asked them for a comment on the impact of active travel measures on their services in the capital.
An LAS spokesperson sent me an email saying: “We support measures to improve public health by reducing traffic and encouraging walking and cycling but we know that changes to road layouts, traffic management schemes, and road closures all have the potential to impede our response to the most critically ill people. We continue to work with TfL and local authorities to ensure emergency vehicle access is properly considered, and the impact of any changes monitored.”
“This includes looking at ways of implementing traffic management changes that avoid introducing physical barriers, such as automatic number plate recognition cameras (ANPR),” she added.
So, after looking that the facts and speaking directly to the LAS, it seems to me that it isn’t true that pop-up cycle lanes and LTNs in London are blocking ambulances and putting lives on the line. On the other hand, the LAS clearly has concerns and wants to work together with TfL and London councils on street-scape changes to make sure ambulances and other emergency vehicles remain unimpeded.