Road Cycling

This Road Is Not Closed It Is Open To All Except Those In Motor Vehicles – Forbes


Motoring in the U.K. is almost at the same level of use as before the coronavirus lockdown, introduced in March. Still, in many parts of the country, motorists are finding they can no longer travel where they used to travel: bollards, traffic cones, planters, and other barriers now block their way. This is by design.

Key workers who choose to walk or cycle are benefitting from the protective barriers, some of which are described as “temporary.” Others are being set in stone, or, more accurately, granite curbs and concrete.

When roads are “blocked” in this way, local newspapers describe them as “closed.” This is not true. They are not closed to all users, only those in motorized four-wheelers. Cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, wheelchair users: all can still use these supposedly “closed” roads.

Transport wonks describe this reallocation of road space as “filtered permeability,” a term coined by academic Steve Melia in 2008. He used it to describe the public realm changes he saw in bicycle tours of European cities.

Full permeability was where motorists were allowed to go anywhere they liked. Filtered permeability was an urban design technique where travel was “deliberately restricted for private motor vehicles, but maximized for walking, cycling, and public transport.”

Through motor traffic should be “channeled onto a limited network of main roads,” Melia wrote in Local Transport Today.

The strategic placement of bollards on roads previously open to all traffic creates short cuts “for the sustainable modes.” People use these modes, he continued, “because of the time and convenience advantage compared to traveling by car.”

He now defines the concept of filtered permeability as “separating different methods of transport to give an advantage to some modes over others.”

And the advantages should always go to those not in motor vehicles. It’s not a new concept. A 1942 report from the Ministry of War Transport—penned by Sir Herbert Alker Tripp, a 1930s assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police—recommended car-free, pedestrian-only shopping precincts, and bridges and underpasses in town centers to keep pedestrians and cyclists apart from motorists.

The ideas were later adopted by architect and town planner Colin Buchanan in the internationally influential 1963 report, Traffic in Towns. Unrestrained motor traffic “given its head, would wreck our towns within a decade,” claimed Buchanan’s report which also became a best-selling book.

“The problems of traffic are crowding in upon us with desperate urgency,” the report continued.

“Unless steps are taken, the motor vehicle will defeat its own utility and bring about a disastrous degradation of the surroundings for living. Either the utility of vehicles in town will decline rapidly, or the pleasantness and safety of surroundings will deteriorate catastrophically—in all probability, both will happen.”

The report recommended limiting motor vehicle access to some urban areas:

“Distasteful though we find the whole idea, we think that some deliberate limitation of the volume of motor traffic is quite unavoidable.”

Buchanan and his team recognized motorists would not welcome such restriction of supposed freedoms.

“It is a difficult and dangerous thing in a democracy to prevent a substantial part of the population from doing things they do not regard as wrong,” worried the report authors, but pointing out that the freedom to drive everywhere prevented those not in cars from exercising their freedom.

“There must be areas of good environment where people can live, work, shop, look about and move around on foot in reasonable freedom from the hazards of motor traffic,” recommended the report.

Some pedestrian precincts were built following the report, but mostly the U.K. government used the report’s recommendations to also build urban freeways to cater ever more lavishly for motorists often because “the motorist” was equated with “the voter” and politicians would be “anxious to please the motorist, and frightened of annoying him” making “drastic action politically difficult.”

Lockdown

It is still “politically difficult,” as local politicians are grappling with today, as they take space from motorists and allocate it to more sustainable modes of transport instead. Earlier this year, the Department for Transport (DfT) loosened its rules to enable roads to be closed to motor traffic and given over to pedestrians and cyclists during the duration of the coronavirus lockdown.

Extra space for people enables key workers and others to maintain two meters of physical distance when walking or cycling.

Typically, any change of use for roads in England has to be enabled by local authorities issuing “Traffic Regulation Orders”—these usually take time to implement, have to be publicized through paid-for advertisements in local newspapers, and by on-site notices. Objections can stymie them.

The looser rules—announced on April 16—will be “withdrawn once conditions allow,” stated the DfT.

The new guidance on Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) “has been produced in response to concerns about the ability of traffic authorities to implement the publicity requirements when making permanent or temporary TROs during the current crisis,” said a DfT statement.

For the duration of the lockdown, local authorities will no longer have to go through a time-consuming and often fractious process to close roads to motor traffic—they will be able to impose emergency TROs with a minimum of advance notice and little recourse to objections.

Brum, Brum

Even before the lockdown, many U.K. cities were aiming to tame car use. The “allocation of road space will change away from single-occupancy private cars,” promised the Birmingham Transport Plan launched on January 13.

The idea is to “move people not [motor] vehicles,” added the draft masterplan, saying that, in the near future, there has to be a preference for “mass transit and active modes of travel.”

Currently, 25% of all car journeys in Birmingham are one mile or less. To discourage such use—and reduce congestion and improve air quality—Birmingham City Council planned to introduce a motor-traffic circulation plan similar to the one that the Belgian city of Ghent implemented in 2017.

Officials divided the Belgian city into six zones, and, through signage and hard infrastructure, motorists were diverted on to distributor roads rather than being able to drive directly from zone to zone. Furthermore, a small central zone, including much of the old town, was closed to cars completely. Driving in the six outer zones—or “cells”—was still possible, but car journeys became longer. Pedestrians and cyclists were not subject to the same restrictions and could travel swiftly into central Ghent.

Because of this ease of use, and fewer cars, there was a massive jump in the number of people who cycled in the Flanders city, rising 60% between 2016 and 2018. This surprised city planners, who had assumed such a figure would not be realized until the plan’s end date of 2030.

Ghent’s traffic circulation plan is based on much earlier ones introduced in Dutch cities during the 1970s and 1980s. The first was Groningen, which, against much local opposition, divided its city center into four quadrants. Private motor traffic could only go from one quadrant to the other via a ring road, and a system of one-way streets was installed literally overnight. Two-thirds of all journeys in Groningen are now done by bicycle, and no business owners would want cars to dominate the city again.

Ironically, many of the public realm improvements made in Dutch cities were based on the pedestrianization concepts outlined in Traffic in Towns of 1963.

These improvements—now a fixture of many Dutch cities—were initially opposed by many. Officials in the Dutch city of The Hague were met with fierce resistance in 1973 when they announced plans to install cycleways on three major shopping streets. At the scheme’s first public meeting, local shopkeepers, backed by the municipal Chamber of Commerce, complained that restraining motor traffic would reduce turnovers. Angry shopkeepers protested by blocking an intersection with their cars, and they only backed down when they were offered compensation should the cycleways lead to a loss of takings.

The cycleways were duly opened in 1978. None of the shopkeepers ever had any cause to apply for compensation—in fact, the construction of the cycleways, and the extra journeys they encouraged, increased retail takings.

Parking

In local economies severely dented by lockdown there’s a growing acceptance that unrestrained car use is not the economic savior many used to think. Curbside parking is being replaced with tables and chairs as socially-distancing cafes and restaurants take to the safer open air.

Many cities have had enough of saturated car use. In a blog post published last year, Waseem Zaffar, cabinet member for transport and environment at Birmingham City Council, said the city needed to “become a place where walking, cycling and using green public transport are the best and most preferred ways of travel, reducing our reliance on private cars.”

In a foreword for Birmingham’s proposed circulation plan, Zaffar reaffirmed that the city must change, if it wants to avoid gridlock: “Over-dependence on private cars is bad for the health of ourselves and our families, bad for our communities and bad for business as measured by the millions of pounds of lost productivity caused by congestion.”

He added that car use is “bad for the future because of the very significant damage caused by vehicle emissions and their impact on climate change.”

Instead, stressed the city’s transport lead, the “more journeys we take by walking and cycling, the more we will improve air quality and our health and the more we will reduce congestion.”

Filtered permeability, then, isn’t going away. For many cities, bollards are here to stay. This isn’t a restriction of freedom—in many cities, motorists will still be able to access most areas, but it won’t be by the shortest route. Want to get somewhere fast? Go by bike.