Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 15th, 2008

How to reduce road space

with 4 comments

Yesterday I wrote

Ken Bassett of the District of North Vancouver asked if there were studies of communities that have reduced road space

and really I do not think he got a very good answer. He may not have heard my unrecorded comments (since I did not have a microphone) that said Copenhagen where city government, along with Jan Gehl‘s Centre for Public Space research, is constantly measuring and analyzing street usage”.

In fact there have been all kinds of experience in reducing road space allocated to vehicles in a concerted attempt to regain some of the qualities that places had before we all thought we needed a ton or more of steel and an internal combustion engine to go anaywhere. Obviously, cities which have their roots before the twentieth century have a skeleton which still more or less represents a walkable city. And in many places, we are now rediscovering how to make cities walkable again.

In my experience the first time I heard about this sort of thing was when English towns started to follow the experience of Norwich and create “pedestrian precincts” to try and make traditional town centres competitive with the growth of edge of town retailers. The North American Shopping Mall – an enclosed space surrounded by parking, providing climate controlled traffic free shopping – has pretty much taken over the role of the traditional urban retail street. Not entirely, of course, and in some places the two do co-exist. But they do demonstrate that there is a skill and expertise in planning multi-activity spaces which many cities had neglected or left to voluntary bodies.


In Grenoble, France, the major shopping street was used as the route for their light rail system, and closed to all other motorised traffic. Of course when it was first mooted, the merchants were bitterly opposed, but that changed very quickly as takings rose as customers showed they appreciated a traffic free environment. In many cases, there was no net loss of road space as city councillors were persuaded to open up new, diversionary routes, often by traffic engineers convinced that vehicles had to be accommodated. But events conspired against them, as it was frequently demonstrated that when a road was lost to a network due to unforeseen circumstances – a bridge collapse perhaps, or a security alert – that congestion did not get worse, in fact it often improved as vehicle traffic declined. There are so many examples that MVA published a “study of studies” for Transport for London which listed the closures then known. (Cairns, Sally, Carmen Hass-Klau and Phil Goodwin, 1998, Traffic Impact of Highway Capacity Reductions: Assessment of the Evidence, Landor Publishing: London. See also Phil Goodwin’s inaugural lecture .)

This gives rise to my often repeated mantra “traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available”. European cities which had experimented with metro and pre-metro soon stopped since the street space freed up by the removal of streetcars filled up with car traffic. This led to more constructive thinking, and many cities adopted the strategy of deterring through traffic from their centres. Cars were allowed in, but had to return the way they came. Trams, bikes and pedestrians could still cross the city centre but not cars or trucks, which had to go round the long way. This actually is the reason the London’s congestion charge works. A few people short cutting across the central area contributed far more to the congestion than those needing to be in the centre, so the charge simply encourages them to take the (free) ring roads. Which are actually quicker.

London has also started to remove traffic from a few key streets. One of the first was one between King St and Henrietta St in Covent Garden which is now a performance space based on the portico of a church and a couple of pubs in what used to be the Flower Market where Liza Dolittle sold posies. Another very succesful project was the removal of traffic on one side of Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery.

At the same time much road space in London has been paved red and designated for buses only: and the buses have cameras in the their noses to ensure that miscreants get traffic fines.

More determined efforts of road space reallocation have been increasingly adopted all over the world. This has gone hand in hand with such ideas as Car Free cities – our own small start of a car free Commercial Drive once a year is very small beer indeed in this league.

The main thing to notice about all this is the way that thinking changes when you substitute the word “people” for “vehicles”. And in cities it is not the speed or even the distance travelled that should be measured but the time that individuals occupy the space. Cars want to zip through the city and get somewhere else. People want to spend time in the city for all kinds of reasons – all of them superior to the driver’s need for speed. By catering to cars we have lost urbanity. And by listening to pressure groups that represent car drivers, Vancouver has lost some of the progress it had made. And actually traffic calming is built in to our suburbs right now. Arterials may barrel through, but lesser roads don’t. They are circuitous and dead end, to deter through traffic. And they operate at slow speeds since there are no curbs or sidewalks – which means when people do walk they walk at will, and as they are your neighbours you had better pay attention. So cars slow down, the kids are (fairly) safe and the neighbourhoods resist traffic engineers who want to “upgrade the street to urban standards.” The City of Vancouver achieved something very similar in the West End with a few well placed barriers and the odd one way street. Bikes and peds excepted, of course.

We tend to think in terms of moving capacity – and of course transit can move many more people than a lane of cars. Which is why the Cambie Street situation is so unnecessary. But central places are where cities show why they have persisted for so long. The problem has been that accommodating cars has got in the way of the face to face and chance encounters that make for commercial success, cultural exchange and serendipity.

We will have to retrofit our suburbs, as cars become steadily less affordable – and desirable. At present getting a straight route through a subdivision for pedestrians and cyclists meets with suspicion, and fear. Eventually the real security of eyes on the street will win out, I hope. We also have arterials that have been reduced from four lanes to two lanes, two bike lanes and one bi-directional turn lane. The traffic capacity is actually the same but the speed is much closer to the posted speed, and is therefore much safer. Before too long I am confident that we will see more roundabouts than traffic lights, more pedestrian crossings – many of them raised and between sidewalk bulges – and much wider sidewalks with room for cafes or fountains or chess tables. Urbanity.

And it all starts with getting in the way of the cars.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 15, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Traffic, Urban Planning