Is Traffic Removal the Answer to Portsmouth’s Air Pollution?

Image by #LetPompeyBreathe campaign.

Ahead of Clean Air Day 2019 on Thursday 20th June, Tim Sheerman-Chase from the Let Pompey Breathe Campaign looks at the benefits of traffic removal in reducing air pollution in Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is a congested city, which causes delays and air pollution. Traffic Removal in the UK organized a series of talks at the University of Portsmouth on 6th June. I wanted to spread their ideas to a broader audience, since Portsmouth City Council is under pressure from the government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to reduce air pollution as quickly as possible. They have also set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030, which will be a challenge to achieve.

Traffic removal covers a number of topics including pedestrianization (usually with some cycling provisions), filtered traffic permeability (to favour better cycling and walking over motor vehicles) and rerouting of traffic. These measures are intended to improve a local area by making a more pleasant living and working space, including increased footfall, increased retail spending, raised property values, less accidents, less pollution and more green spaces.

Guildford High Street is pedestrianized in the day time (Monday to Friday from 11am to 4pm; Saturday from 9am to 6pm; and Sunday from 12noon to 5pm), which allows for loading times. Image credit Tim Sheerman-Chase.

While traffic removal has long been of interest to urban planners, the studies of UK based interventions are rather dated. With further research, we can better understand how changes to the transport system affect people’s behaviours and their satisfaction with the schemes.

Traffic removal schemes are traditionally thought to displace almost all of the traffic to surrounding roads but it seems that while some displacement happens, some travellers change their transport mode or even go to a completely different destination. Why this happens is currently unclear but it is difficult to study as areas far away from a scheme can be affected. Several towns and cities are considering radical plans, including London and Leeds. Taunton has a scheme that may or may not happen in some form. Worldwide, about 12 cities have announced they are going car-free.

Traffic removal often meets resistance from local businesses, residents and politicians. Paradoxically, most of them accept these schemes after a year or two, saying they would not choose to go back to the original arrangements. Businesses may overestimate how car dependent their customers are. However, the scheme has to have enough of a “wow” factor for people to be happy with the changes, so introducing less ambitious schemes can often be counter-productive. The failed pedestrianization of Palmerston Road South is perhaps an example?

Traffic restrictions can be introduced on a trial basis, which can often addresses the concerns of people affected. If the scheme is unpopular, it can be withdrawn. People’s initial reaction to traffic removal can often be that ‘it will never work here’, until they see it actually happen. Also, businesses in nearby pedestrianized areas can object since they will lose their distinct advantage! People are also often concerned that plans are made piecemeal, without an overall transport strategy.

Places that have remained traffic free, such as Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, have found different uses for pavement space such as planting trees, storing bicycles, extending shops, cafe areas, bench space and more. People tend to walk in the road. However, on the islands most bulk goods are moved by horses, which might not be appropriate for Portsmouth!

Shared spaces, also known as ‘living streets’ are a type of road scheme that removes road signs, road markings and reduces the distinction between pavement and road space. The counter-intuitive effect is that accidents and traffic speed decrease because people are uncertain about traffic priorities. Schemes like this have been introduced in Bournemouth, Ashford (Kent), and in other places. Some design features are often required by blind pedestrians in order for them to navigate the space, like a small kerb. While footfall increased in these schemes, the traffic level was often unchanged.

These schemes seem to have fallen out of favour after the “Accidents by Design” report, which reported low satisfaction with these changes. Motorists can still dominate a space since they are protected from injury. Planners are waiting for updated guidance before any new schemes are done. Some schemes use paving that is claimed by the manufacturer to reduce NO2 by converting it to nitrates. However, Portsmouth also has a problem with nitrate pollution in waste water.

Ashford’s shared space scheme. Photo credit Tim Sheerman-Chase.

Professor Djamila Ouelhadj from the University of Portsmouth pointed out that people will not accept traffic removal unless alternative modes of travel are provided, along with interoperability of traffic options. This can include sustainable freight distribution centres, integrated ticketing and apps to provide travel information. Professor Ouelhadj also discussed her plans to showcase the university’s expertise in these areas as part of a new Intelligent Transport Cluster on 13th June.

High street retail has faced challenges from both Internet shops and out of town centres. Some businesses have adapted to provide experiences rather than simply selling products. City centres need a good balance of shops and services to remain healthy and vibrant. The High Street UK 2020 research project showed that the best city centres have predominantly office space rather than simply retail, with low industrial usage. Another study listed and ranked many factors that make healthy city centres: parking was not a high priority, and car dependence was a negative factor.

For Portsmouth, one issue is the selection of sites that are suitable for traffic removal. The easiest places to change will often experience the least benefits from doing so. The retails areas in the south of Portsmouth are fragmented between Gunwharf Quays, Commercial Road, Fratton Road and Palmerston Road: perhaps it is time for them to be connected by walking & cycling routes that are pleasant to use?

It is time for politicians to be bold and tackle the city’s congestion and pollution, and to move toward active travel.


Further information

Clean air day is on 20th June.

The Council has published Portsmouth’s annual air quality report – read Tim’s analysis here.

Madrid is a rare exception, where traffic has been reintroduced after limits were imposed.

Read more S&C articles on air quality in Portsmouth.


This article was originally published at Let Pompey Breathe at the Green Party blog.