“Some disabled people will benefit from low traffic neighbourhoods and some will not.”
The need for social distancing and worries about public transport during the COVID-19 pandemic led the government to fund a scheme of emergency ‘active travel’ measures to improve safe and accessible walking and cycling routes. The foreword to the statutory guidance1Traffic Management Act 2004: network management in response to COVID-19, Department for Transport, last updated 25 February 2021.
Active travel is affordable, delivers significant health benefits, has been shown to improve well-being, mitigates congestion, improves air quality and has no carbon emissions at the point of use. Towns and cities based around active travel will have happier and healthier citizens as well as lasting local economic benefits.
This green light accelerated the drive towards low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) but flashed up vociferous warnings from private motorists.
Sofia Sheakh’s case (R (Sheakh) v Lambeth LBC  EWHC 1745 (Admin)
) was a High Court challenge to a number of LTNs in Lambeth. These closed off certain roads to motor traffic, introduced new cycle ways and changed parking arrangements. The High Court gave judgment on 28 June 2021 after a two-day hearing earlier in the month.
Ms Sheakh is disabled and heavily reliant on car transport due to restricted mobility. She does not actually live within the LTN areas, but just outside. Her grounds of challenge were:
1the experimental traffic orders were not genuinely experimental;
2breach of the public sector equality duty (PSED – Equality Act 2010 s149);
3breach of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984; and
The court found against her on all four grounds. It found the scheme was genuinely experimental and the consultation had been adequate in the circumstances.
The claims in relation to the PSED largely related to the adequacy and timing of equality impact assessments. The case is a useful reminder that the PSED is ‘not a duty to carry out an assessment. It is a duty to have due regard to what can be called the equality objectives. Assessment is the tool used to create the evidence base to show performance of the duty. It is not the performance of the duty itself’ (para 148). The PSED challenge failed on the facts of the case.
There is a broader point about claims on the ground of disability here. As the court recorded:
The main focus of the claimant’s case is that she and others similarly dependent on travel by car have suffered disproportionately from the introduction of LTNs within Lambeth, because the displacement of traffic from within the LTNs to the roads outside them leads to a build-up of traffic outside them and consequently increased journey times, added stress and loss of quality of life (para 7).
While Ms Sheakh raised a legitimate point, the possibility of increased traffic outside the LTN area applied to all residents, whether disabled or not and whether car drivers or not. It is not clear from the judgment whether she would suffer significantly more inconvenience – because she is disabled – than other car drivers. Once this is considered, it shifts the real focus of the case away from one of disability access and much more towards inconvenience to motorists.
What cases such as this one do not draw out is the beneficial impact on people with other types of disability: cleaner air for those with asthma; better and safer outdoor mobility for the many disabled people who cannot drive; and quieter streets for those with noise sensitivity. Not all disabilities are visible and disabled people are less likely to drive cars than the general population.
Some disabled people will benefit from LTNs and some will not. It is motorists who can all expect some degree of inconvenience. While disabled people’s needs must be taken into account, disability rights campaigners must be alert to the risk of disabled people being exploited to advance the case for other interest groups, such as car drivers.