Saturday 6 February 2021

Better Streets & Camera Enforcement

The enforcement of traffic contraventions has evolved over the years. Once the preserve of traffic police, it has gradually moved over to local authorities, although it's still not universally applicable because of government inertia on moving contravention enforcement being rolled out universally.

As I have mentioned in other posts, the basic UK approach to road rules is that you can do what you like unless there is a legal restriction which is either at the national level (or devolved nations level) such as defining the national speed limits or the local level with traffic orders.

For many years, the enforcement of contraventions of traffic orders was the remit of the police. Parking-related matters were enforced by traffic wardens and moving offences by the police (usually the traffic division). Over the years this has gradually been decriminalised because in many cases contraventions are not seen as criminal.

On the whole, I think decriminalisation is a good thing, although I wish that the legislation had reserved police powers to issue fixed penalties on a civil basis. I won't give you a history lesson on how things have developed, but the change to a civil enforcement approach has taken over 30 years and it will probably continue to develop (in fact it needs to). 

One of the key tools for civil enforcement is closed circuit television (CCTV) with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Because of a populist and idiotic campaign by former Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, councils lost the power to enforce most parking contraventions by CCTV, but the ability to use them for moving offences was retained, although only in theory because their use isn't allowed UK wide (London being a notable exception).

The use of cameras has reared its head again in recent months with the roll out of so-called Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London. I say so-called, because like anything, the use of engineering measures to filter out motor traffic from side streets is nothing new, but we always need a shorthand to describe a thing, so LTNs are here to stay!

The photograph above was taken by me standing in the middle of a crossroads in the De Beauvoir Town neighbourhood in the London Borough of Hackney. This crossroads had bollards on each arm making the middle of it territory for walking and cycling and creating part of a wider LTN. This filtered crossroads was delivered over 40 years ago and after controversy which would be familiar today.

The De Beauvior Town crossroads filter was cheap to install, it's cheap to maintain. It's simple and effective with barely any impact on the aesthetic of the streets. Personally, I think it might be nice to depave some of the space which was reclaimed, but that's another issue altogether. Legislation and technology has moved on since the 1970s, but communities are once again pushing to reclaim side streets from the explosion of motor traffic we've seen in recent years and so the art of filtering streets is back.

In my view, the most effective schemes are those which use physical measures to make it impossible to drive a motor vehicle through a location where it is banned. Whether it's a line of bollards or some planters as have been used in Enfield (below). It makes it completely obvious to drivers that they cannot get through.

Personally, I am not particularly bothered about people taking motorcycles and mopeds through these filters. Despite them usually being banned, whenever I have seen people sneaking through it has usually been slowly and carefully because motorcyclists don't want to hit anything or anyone as they will come off badly too. I would rather see local deliveries made by cycle, but pizzas by moped are better than pizzas by car.

There are some situations where the filtering of traffic causes a genuine problem for the emergency services, bus operators or because of a particular and very localised issue. For some cases, the use of a removable/ over-runnable bollard or a gate (below) might be enough.

In most cases, this will be something for the fire brigade because if an incident develops, they may need to bring additional resources in. Imagine there's a house fire and there are fire engines in the street with crews fighting the fire. It might be easier to bring kit in from another direction. The way fire responses work is there will be a minimum turnout to a call and if multiple calls from the public are coming in, resources might be stepped up. 

When the fire brigade arrives, an officer will be in charge of making an assessment and further assistance might be called in further along the timeline and so by and large, fire access is not used for the initial response. Police and ambulance services generally don't carry keys to bollards/ gates and wouldn't take their vehicles over flexible bollards (photograph above) because of ground clearance. They would follow the "open" route into the LTN.

If we are left with situations otherwise not manageable, then we have cameras. They have enabled filtering which may have not been considered before. For example, a bus gate (above) can give public transport a direct route advantage with private car drivers having to go the long way around. We can using rising bollards, but they come with their own maintenance and operational issues. An exemption list can exclude known registrations from enforcement and because buses and emergency services vehicles aren't changed too often, it isn't that difficult to manage. For those which slip through, it's pretty obvious to an appeals processor what a bus or ambulance looks like!

Camera use does rely on having a street layout which makes it obvious to drivers that they cannot go through. The example above is really obvious but it doesn't sit well in the street scene. I think this is hard to get right. The photograph below is in Hackney. The red "road closed" is temporary and so the filter will eventually rely on people obeying the "no motor vehicles" signs. 

The planters help show something different is going on, but I think there is a better way to lay out a filter like this. If there's space, then having planters offset means a driver will have a planter right in front of them and will have to make a real and conscious effort to turn to get round it (you can leave a nearside gap for cycle traffic, but it's not entirely required.

The image above shows the offset arrangement (upper panel) which is easy enough to drive a fire engine around but it makes it more obvious to a driver they shouldn't go through (lower panel). It might just help deal a bit with the whine from people who say they didn't know.

ANPR cameras are not cheap, although it is always difficult to pin costs down because each local authority approaches things in a different way. I put in a FOI to my local authority for a school streets scheme. The capital (purchase) cost for the cameras was just under £10k each. If you add in costs for a mobile phone data connection, back office software for processing ANPR images, traffic signs, traffic orders, staffing costs to design and set up the project and so on, the costs came in at around £40k per site. Once set up, there are ongoing annual revenue costs of maintenance, staffing (processing of fines, managing those staff etc).

People will say that the costs are recouped through fines, but the problem with that is that we don't want people driving through because it defeats the object of having a filter in the first place even if it takes relatively few fines to actually balance the costs of running a site for a year. It also means that managing the camera is very sensitive to other pressures such as staffing costs/ cuts as well as telephone and software costs.

In a few cases, residents are agitating for exemptions. From a technical point of view this would mean obtaining the registrations of residents' vehicles and adding them to an automatically applied exemptions list. From a traffic order point of view, this would need to be a permit scheme (with signage reflecting this) and permits can be charged for which would (should) cover the costs. 

The problem for me with this is that these residents don't want other people driving through their area, but want the full convenience to drive out of their local LTN however so they choose. Even if this is a limited number of vehicle movements per day, it does nothing to nudge residents into taking more sustainable choices and it maintains a certain level of road danger for people not driving within the LTN. Lower traffic means everyone should be playing their part.

This can be challenging for blue badge holders (who can be drivers or passengers) where they absolutely rely on cars for their daily needs and who may be genuinely impacted by a scheme. The only solution here is engagement and it may be that swapping a physical filter for a well-designed ANPR filter is a reasonable adjustment to make, although in the case of non-driving blue badge holders, monitoring the vehicles that they are passengers in will take effort to get right. Of course like anyone, blue badge holders move away from an area and so having a process of periodic review is also needed.

The only way to do this fairly is to properly work through the issues. It may be that as we move to a lower traffic future, the disbenefits for some people disappear. For example, a general drop in traffic on main roads (through other policy and engineering changes) might mean that fears from emergency services are not realised or diminish to the point where a filter can be changed from a camera-enforced arrangement to a physical one. 

Cities are not set in stone and things change, but there needs to be boldness to break the cycle of car-dominance and I remain fully convinced that LTNs are a key catalyst for this, but if we are considering cameras, this needs to be properly and robustly assessed and not a first resort in order to avoid difficult conversations or engagement. 

One significant issue to leave you with is that camera enforcement is very much a London option because some 16 years after it was brought into force, Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 hasn't been enacted despite councils wanting it to be (England and Wales). For Scotland, I have had a dig around and although cameras can be used to enforce parking and low emission zones, it appears that moving traffic matters remain with the police - if anyone knows more, please do let me know. for Northern Ireland, it's even harder to work out what is going on, but it seems enforcement lies with the police. Again, any local knowledge would be gratefully accepted.


  1. Residents/ permits for ANPRs: Much of the reasoning for LTNs is to reduce or prevent drive-through traffic using residential areas for "ratrunning". But it is hard to see why residents within LTNs and other permit holders should be prevented from leaving or entering their own areas from any direction - or even driving across their areas - for the many reasons why they might sensibly use their cars: because of immobility and/or absence of public transport, heavy loads, need to do something urgently, rain, sleet and freezing wind ( Beast forn the East-2 today!). As an 80-year old, do I ( or maybe you) fancy bringing a bag of compost from my local garden centre a mile away either on my bike or wheelbarrow? or having to drive an extra 1-1/2 miles around the cameras on roads already extra-congested from the traffic being diverted around the LTN - hardly saving the planet? I am sure we who wish for a permit system on the camera restrictions being imposed on us are quite ready for "...proper and robust assessment and for ....difficult conversations and engagement..." Our problem is mainly the absence of these things, and instead, substitution of over-simplified generalities and feel good postures by the authorities. "Proper assessment and engagement" - we live in hope!

    1. The problem with this is that if we want to get people out of their cars (recognising that not everyone can - want is a different debate) then we need to make streets quiet for walking and cycling. Once you start adding exemptions the streets starts to get busier.

      At the neighbourhood level, the target is residents - both helping those who might already walk and cycle plus those who either currently find conditions off-putting or, frankly, need a good nudge to make better choices for short trips.

      Blanket resident exemptions will reduce the effectiveness of the LTN for those walking and cycling plus it will do nothing to nudge some residents to make a change. We end up with a system that favours residents who drive and excludes those without a car or who cannot drive (such as children who we want to have transport independence).

      Applied across a number of areas, LTNs will reduce short resident trips by car which helps offset any reassignment of previously rat-running traffic back to main roads. The act of people turning in and out of side roads has an impact on main road capacity and so LTNs are good at eliminating them.

      In the medium term, the main road network will rebalance, so if you have use a car, then journey time increases are offset. If you need to take a car to get compost then fine - you are not making that trip on a daily basis and many of your *short* trips have maybe switched which offsets total mileage.

      The thrust of my argument is cameras should be reserved for very few and specifically local issues such as a bus gate or an emergency access because of a local road layout. Once you start allowing residents free reign, you are actually semi-privatising that space for the one who can run cars and/ or drive at the expense of those who do not/ cannot.

    2. Alexyxx, if you would like to live in an area where residents may drive about exactly as they wish but external through traffic is prohibited, that's called a gated community. It's something you have to pay for. Local authorities should certainly not be in the business of creating them for free.

  2. I live on a large estate that went 20mph about a decade ago as a first attempt to combat rat running,as the estate is bordered on 2 by arterial roads and it was often quicker to cut through and avoid 2 sets of traffic lights. Didn't work.

    What did work, was converting one exit into a camera enforced bus only exit (gate). You can go through, but it's a hundred quid donation to council coffers.

    It took time to settle in and for some people to learn costly mistakes and change habits.

    It's transformed the estate and made it a lot quieter, cleaner and safer for all residents, especially elderly and children who are often don't have access to cars and are slower at crossing the road. Where I live has <50% car access per household, so it's important to ensure our environment provides for them and keeps them safe too.

    Those affluent enough to have a car can still exit the estate, as travel hasn't been blocked, but directed to best aid traffic flow on the major roads bordering it.

    Closing that exit has actually made the arterial road bordering it flow better as there now isn't as long a queue as rat running drivers are now longer not trying to cut back in.

    Had that camera been setup to allow locals to filter through it would have been useless
    We had consultation and a local councillor campaigned for action against the rat running. Within 3 months he was in local rag calling for the "cash cow" to be removed. 2 years later and it's not even an issue anymore. Change takes time to embed and for people to adjust but they do adjust and life becomes better for all as a result.

    Just for record I work at places between 18 and 35 miles away, and often need to use a car to carry equipment. This post is written from that perspective.

  3. Moaning motorists resulted in a compromise solution to a narrow rat-runned road locally. A camera enforced filter closing to motor traffic at peak hours in one direction in the mornings and the other in the evenings.
    As might be imagined contravention is rife with complaints about unclear signage.
    Oh for the diagonal filter as originally planned.