Simple Streets: Where Less Is More

Roundabouts, cycle lanes and shared space

Highway design is increasingly sensitive to all users – not just motorists. Many planners are cutting the clutter. Patrick Taylor analyses highway design from a cyclist's point of view.

An article reproduced from Cycling Mobility Magazine, 2011. If only "highway design is increasingly sensitive to all users ... planners are cutting the clutter" was actually true!

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Dutch cool: an old and uncluttered street, Dordrecht, the Netherlands

It is nearly 50 years since the first publication of Traffic in Towns, an official study for the UK government. Also known as the Buchanan Report, it shaped decades of transport planning policy and how people travel, even today. The 1963 report had been commissioned from Sir Colin Buchanan, a British town planner, by Transport Minister Ernest Marples in 1960. Britain was still recovering from the devastation of the second world war and the new Conservative government was promising to manage the expansion of motor transport that was clogging up towns and cities.

Buchanan studied real places in detail: Oxford Street in London, the City of Leeds and Norwich and the town of Newbury. These were communities where the predicted huge rise in car ownership could disastrously affect the urban environment.

Oxford Street – a busy shopping street and through road – epitomised the conflict between vehicles and environment. Buchanan considered taking through traffic underground, but piecemeal development had already made this impractical. He concluded the long-term solution might be severe restrictions on vehicular access.

Crucial to his ideas was a road hierarchy, from local networks with restricted traffic flow, to larger distribution roads, to bypasses and urban motorways round congested towns. This was a scalable highway infrastructure in the fullest sense – except that cycling as a means of personal transport was largely ignored. Buchanan's world is divided only into pedestrians and motorists.

The report encouraged planners to demarcate the zone of the motor vehicle with raised kerbs, bollards, road markings, and pedestrian barriers. Five decades later, with the ever-increasing use of traffic lights, traffic islands, street signs, and special lanes for different types of vehicles, the designer's urban tool kit has reduced once-elegant streets to a confusing, uncoordinated hotch potch.

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In need of "decluttering": cycle lane clutter in the Netherlands
(bollards, kerbs, signs and a multitude of road markings)

Eric Pickles, the UK's Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is worried that English towns are losing their character: "We are being overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards, patchwork paving and railed off roads wasting taxpayers' money that could be better spent on fixing potholes or keeping council tax down. We need to cut the clutter."

Small wonder that debate rages amongst cyclists and those responsible for highway design as to whether demarcated cycle lanes – as installed in the Netherlands – are good or bad. The first cycle lane in the UK opened in 1934 in London, as a government experiment inspired by the prospect that "cycling in comfort as well as safety would be appreciated most by cyclists themselves."

Cycling groups objected to bicycles being forced off the roads and the idea was dropped until local authorities began to introduce them as an optional facility in the 1980s. Even today, cycle lanes remain contentious amongst cyclists and policy-makers around the world.

This controversy embraces the design of roundabouts too, which can vary considerably from country to country. Roundabouts (sometimes called rotaries in the US) can be designed to slow down traffic and make them safer for cyclists. It's all in the geometry. In Britain they are generally designed to maintain maximum traffic flow, with large radii and multi-lane entry / exit tangential to the roundabout centre, not perpendicular. What is referred to as the "continental style" is smaller, with single lane entry / exit, and approach roads perpendicular to the roundabout centre.

A study by the TRL, the UKs independent transport research consultancy, shows a connection between tighter geometric design, lower speeds and safer cycling – the smaller the difference in speed between motor vehicles and bicycles, the higher the cyclist's status and visibility, and at lower speeds those accidents that do occur tend to be less severe.

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A Danish roundabout. Cyclists have priority over motor vehicles

Highway designers disagree on whether cycle lanes on roundabouts are safer; some say it is better for cyclists to ride with the traffic because motorists have a better view of a cyclist in the road that on the periphery. However, Danish roundabouts often have a protected lane for cyclists, offering right of way over motorists, and most Dutch intersections of all types have a complex network of additional cycle lanes extending spider-like around the lanes for motor vehicles. These are often a little distance away to allow for sight lines and feature traffic lights just for bicycles. Negotiating busy intersection in the Netherlands can be time-consuming.

According to the European Commission, the British make more trips on foot than any other nation in Europe, but the Netherlands is the land of the bicycle. Visitors are often struck by the number of cyclists in the streets. "Why can't we have this in our country?" many visitors wonder. "You can!" reply the Dutch. I'm not so sure.

Part of the Dutch success lies in natural geography; part of it in their approach to infrastructure design. Flatness is conducive to cycling, and the Netherlands is almost universally flat. The segregation of bicycles from other forms of transport began in the 1890s and cyclists have enjoyed their own official roads since 1905. It is also a compact and urbanised nation with a high population density. This makes a difference: cycling remains a convenient way to get around and investment in cycling infrastructure is a safe bet politically.

The separation of bicycles from motor vehicles, both in urban and rural areas of the Netherlands, is therefore not the result of a modern movement to make people healthier or to save the planet. It is the result of social and environmental evolution over more than 100 years, which has led to the situation today in which it is perfectly natural to choose to ride a bike instead of driving a car for many journeys. 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are made on a bicycle, compared to 1.3% in the UK and 0.9% in the USA; the Dutch figure rises to 60% for trips in inner cities.

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The "Dutch ideal", where cycling is easy and convenient for all, is a worthy goal, but may not be easily replicated in other places for a number of reasons – not least because of the enviably flat terrain in the Netherlands

The Dutch or Danish standard of cycling infrastructure is not a likely outcome for many other towns around the world, but there are ways to encourage more and better cycling where the bicycle is not a segregated means of transport. Local authorities in Britain, for example, are beginning to create 'shared space' schemes. Shared space can be simply defined as:

  • A street or space in which movement of all kinds is determined by negotiation and social protocols, rather than by state regulations or control.
  • A street accessible to both pedestrians and vehicles, designed to enable pedestrians and cyclists to move more freely by removing design features that encourage motorists to assume priority.

Shared space schemes aim to desegregate all road users – the complete opposite to the traditional Dutch model of segregation.

Consultation with all users of public space when planning and designing streets is a key part of the process, as is improved road safety. It is perhaps in line with the current thinking of the UK government [Big Society] that the behaviour of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists towards each other is negotiated locally, rather than controlled by rules imposed from above. Improved safety comes from an increased perception of risk and the need for drivers to think for themselves, take more care, and behave courteously as guests in the street.

The shared space concept was pioneered by traffic planner, the late Hans Monderman at Makkinga, a village in the Netherlands. Most of the town's traffic lights, road markings and signs were removed, together with parking meters and stopping restrictions. A similar project was introduced in the town of Drachten. The number of accidents at one junction where the principles of shared space where applied was reduced by a factor of almost ten.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an architect and expert in the design of public spaces, is a UK advocate of simplified streetscapes and shared use. In his publication Shared Space: Reconciling People, Places and Traffic, he uses the example of a skating rink to illustrate how the concept works: "Informal social protocols serve to keep skaters moving in a roughly consistent direction, with beginners on the outside and faster skaters on the inside... Regulating the activity through precise rules and controls would destroy the dynamic interactions essential to the process."

His design for the transformation of the ring road in Ashford, south east England, into a low-speed public space received an award in 2009 for its contribution to transport and urban design. What was previously described as a "one-way race track" has been converted to a two-way road. A third of its length has been transformed into a series of streets where the space is shared between vehicles and pedestrians.

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Shared Space, Widemarsh Street, Hereford. Reproduced by permission of Hamilton-Baillie Associates Ltd

Hamilton-Baillie's shared space scheme for the city of Hereford, in the west of England, completed in December 2010, is designed to be seen as a sequence of spaces. It also tackles the issue of navigational aids for the visually-impaired. The apparent width of the central strip is reduced by a double kerb, the outer of which provides a small change in level to provide tactile guidance for partially sighted or blind people and their guide dogs. The inner kerb is flush. Motor vehicles can drive anywhere between the shop facades but are visually encouraged to use the central strip. The lay by in the centre is a taxi rank, and street lighting is mounted on the buildings to eliminate lamp posts. The similarity with the old street in Dordrecht is striking (see first photograph above).

Shared space, of course, is not a new idea. Hamilton-Baillie tells us to "visit any Mediterranean hill town or market square. One can observe the informal sharing of street space by vehicles and other users. Such arrangements remain commonplace throughout the world." What is new is the replacement of failed highway schemes – like the Ashford ring road – with ones that reduce the domination of motorised traffic and are sympathetic to other forms of transport.

It is unrealistic to expect universal cycling infrastructure in countries where utility cyclists are a small minority. But a step change for cyclists in countries implanting shared space schemes is an acceptance that they can safely share a surface with pedestrians, especially if they already share a surface with motor traffic. There is a strong perception in many countries that cycling on footpaths puts pedestrians in danger; this must not be confused with what a shared space approach tries to accomplish. While footpaths are often too narrow to safely accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists, shared spaces are broad, often taking up the width of the street.

A significant issue with shared space areas is that reduced use of kerbs makes it more difficult for guide dogs helping blind people. The dogs are trained to stop at kerbs and wait for instruction. The partially sighted or blind owner memorises specific routes using kerbs as orientation clues and orders the dog either to turn or to cross when they arrive at a kerb. As the population ages and sight loss becomes more prevalent, the need for an appropriate language of navigational clues becomes ever greater.

Whilst good design is an important aspect of shared space, its principles are defined by changing the way in which people interact in public places. There are no official design standards or planning tool kits. And shared space is not a panacea for busy roads where two-way traffic flow must be maintained and where heavy goods vehicles, buses, and cars don't always mix well with slower moving bicycles.

Shared space does, however, point to the dawn of a better urban environment with a "less is more" approach to traffic management and street design, in which citizens and architecture are restored to pride of place. "Less is more," the phrase popularized 50 years ago by the pioneering architect Mies van der Rohe, represents the principle of extreme simplicity, enlisting every element of a design to serve multiple visual and functional purposes.

Other countries may never achieve a cycling habitat like the Netherlands or Denmark, but through effective and innovative highway design, we can help to ensure that, as societies begin to grapple with the social and environmental effects of 60 years of supremacy of the motor vehicle, the bicycle is a vital part of the transport mix.


This article was first published in Cycling Mobility Magazine, Issue 1, March 2011. Cycling Mobility unfortunately ceased publication after four issues because not enough people paid the £79 annual subscription fee to enable the German publishing house to meet expenses. "Meanwhile, the car industry continues to spend billions on advertising." Ross Ringham, the magazine's Editor in Chief.