Road closed or open? The signs revamping low-traffic neighbourhoods

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An alternative road sign is being adopted by communities around England to promote the benefits of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN).

Finding that the official signs on the temporary barriers installed in her own LTN in Brixton, London, conveyed the wrong message, Sarah Berry and other local residentsdesigned a green sign reading “road open to” with icons showing pedestrians, a scooter user, a wheelchair user and a bicycle.

It has become a popular alternative to red “road closed” signs frequently used at entrances to LTNs.

Campaigners, residents, and councillors say red signs do not effectively communicate the point of LTNs, which are intended to deter drivers from cutting through residential streets between main roads, known as rat-running.

“The red signs are kind of the opposite of what these schemes are trying to suggest, which is that the use of this space is changing,” Berry said. “It’s no longer going to have cars streaming through, it’s going to be a place where the community can stop, have a conversation, let their kids play.”

LTNs are not a new concept, but the response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to a proliferation, on a trial basis, as councils seek to promote active travel and reduce local pollution.

While a significant majority of people are in favour of them, including community groups and healthcare professionals, they are not universally popular. Although many traffic models predict a long-term drop in traffic as the result of LTN introductions, some pro-motoring groups claim they will lead to additional congestion on main roads and say councils have planned them poorly.

Inadequate or absent signage can also feed into negative attitudes. “I’ve not seen any [explanatory] signs, just a big planter and a yellow ‘road blocked’ sign next to it. That’s what is compelling the frustration,” said a resident of Tooting in south London. “There are no signs to say, ‘Access only for residents, pedestrians, and cyclists.'”

Unclear signage can create further confusion when filters like plastic barriers are used instead of the attractive wooden plant boxes that appear in some neighbourhoods. This was the case in Nottingham’s Victoria Embankment before the community replaced the red signs with green ones.

“Before the new signs went in, it just looked like roadworks and we saw some people cycle up to the temporary filters and turn around, thinking they weren’t allowed through,” said Emma Metcalfe, from Pedals: Nottingham Cycle Campaign of the scheme to stop rat-running through the city park.

Some councils are starting to take note of the important role signs can play in community engagement and conveying the true meaning of LTNs. Salford city council is considering replacing its red signs, while in Oxford, where 10 LTNs are under consideration, the council is advocating for green signs to feature on filters.

Cllr Tom Hayes said: “The street signage has to reflect the desire to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community within the low-traffic neighbourhood area.”

Berry’s sign’s inclusiveness has also received praise on social media. Some communities want to add different icons, such as a skateboarder or a horse rider, to reflect local interests. “People are really thinking about how they can adapt these signs to fit the world that they live in,” Berry said.

She believes the signs can also speak positively to drivers who feel excluded or inconvenienced by LTNs. Describing red closure signs as “antagonistic”, she said the green signs could help drivers see the roads – and themselves – differently.

“They can see that space as a pedestrian, wheelchair user, runner, whatever. Then all of a sudden, it’s not banning me as a driver, it’s welcoming me as this other thing that I also am,” Berry said.

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