Friday, 14 August 2020

Tackling The Main Roads

So last week, I wrote about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and how it was my opinion that we needed a little honesty from those objecting to them as to why they are objecting to them.

The post had a few comments (I've published all received) and unfortunately a few have kind of reinforced the point I was making. There were people projecting onto others with the usual tropes of why nobody is thinking of elderly people, disabled people and NHS workers (home visits). There was a comment about the schemes pushing traffic from where wealthy car owners live onto the main roads where less well-off people live. There was also a comment about going the extra mile (yes I smiled) to listen to concerns which I cannot disagree with.

Then we had a description of the idea as being draconian, the idea that international experience can just be dismissed and that apparently LTNs will make it difficult to access places of worship so people will have to stop practicing their religion. Actually, none of these comments are new to me, I have literally heard it all before. 

A low traffic neighbourhood in Utrecht. Completely
permeable to walking and cycling. Motors go the long
way around (and there are still plenty of cars in the city).

Politically, it's easy to support something which is generating lots of noise. In my local government experience, noise usually meant that some people didn't like something and therefore "noisy" support was quite rare. Also, when I say "people didn't like something", this was almost exclusively because the scheme was going to "take" something away from their ability to drive and park where they like. 

Zebra crossings take away parking spaces (I want to park there), permit parking costs people money (I don't want to pay for a permit), pay-and-display would kill the local shops (I don't want to pay for my 5 minute drive to buy a newspaper), 20mph speed limits cause pollution (despite driving a SUV), filtering that street will stop ambulances (but I'm happy to be part of the problem causing congestion that stops ambulances). Won't somebody think of the children (despite nobody actually asking the children what they want to see).

Newcomen Street, London. Filtered. The horror. This should
be a cabbies' rat run not space to socialise outside the pub.

In many cases, the responses to traffic consultations tended to be around people that support something that will add to the community benefit (quieter streets, a road which is safer to cross, slower drivers passing a school, improvements to bus services) versus people who saw the scheme taking something away from them personally (I now have to pay, it takes me longer to drive round the corner, you're stopping me parking in dangerous places) - I think it's important to try and prise the real objections from people while being mindful of concerns because real objections may simply get lost in the noise.

It's with all of this in mind that I turn to the main roads. Lots of noisy people are saying LTNs will push drivers back to the main roads and that we must tackle them first (or at least at the same time as LTNs). These are reasonable concerns, but before I dive in with some ideas I think it's worth saying that we have a couple of issues to try and work through. First is how we have got to where we are in terms of the levels of traffic on our roads and streets. This has happened over decades and as a response to government and local policies which have pushed and prioritised both the use of private cars and lorries for logistics, whether it's planning policy, local road building, fuel duty policies and so on.

Heading out of London on the A127 towards the M25 on
a week day evening. Where was the consultation for this
level of congestion and community severance?

Experiences vary with location of course. The Department for Transport's forecasting has always shown significant traffic growth which is never quite matched by reality, although the growth is still there. There is evidence to suggest that road building induces traffic, but it is a complex situation. What we do know is, however, is there's little ability to expand road capacity in our urban places to cope with the "end of the pipe" problem where people leave the strategic road network.

It would be equally possible to have a traffic reduction forecast based on developing policies which specifically set out to achieve that (which incidentally the Mayor of London has). The fact that the government still has growth forecast means that tackling main roads will already have that pressure even if we do nothing.

An urban arterial road in Amsterdam. People have a
genuine travel choice here.

My second point is kind of at the opposite end of the scale. While it's easy for me to say that I wasn't consulted on the country getting to where it's at, I could respond by saying it's the consequence of who we've voted for over the years. If we are going for change which happens quickly, it is very easy to cry foul of not being consulted despite, equally, local authorities also being voted in (see my comment on the Mayor of London seeking to reduce traffic for example). We seem to have the boiled frog meeting the stages of grief, to mix models. OK, here's my ideas on reducing main road traffic

Widespread use of Controlled Parking Zones.
This is an incredibly powerful thing in our toolbox because without the management of kerbside space we'll get nowhere. For main roads, this is vital because it underpins other things we might need to do. For example, if we are pursuing a motor traffic reduction policy, we will need to make cycling and buses (and maybe trams) more attractive and this will require changes to how road space is divided up at the basic level. Walking is important, but at this stage, I'm looking at trips for bus or cycling distance.

In dividing up this road space we may well need to clear car parking out of the way for bus lanes or other bus priority measures to successfully work or to provide space for cycle tracks as they have done in Copenhagen;

If you don't manage parking on an area basis, you'll just push parking into side streets which will add to the traffic problems in the areas that LTN opponents say can be dealt with by dealing with the main roads.

Care is needed in designing CPZs because you tend to find people on the edges don't consider themselves to have a parking problem, but they will if a CPZ comes in. You'll also get push back from residents who feel they should be able to park for free.

Limiting the number of permits residents can obtain.
With a CPZ in place, we can use local policy to influence how many permits residents in the area can have which helps with how we apportion road space. Maybe we have decided to rework kerbside operation on the main road so that there is no parking at peak times (because traffic flow is important), but as we are in transition to a low car future, we need to provide some visitor parking for shops, businesses and residents on the main road.

Having a CPZ in place gets us control and limiting permits will free up space at the end of streets so we can provide some parking for visitors and maybe residents who cannot park on the main road. I would tend to put visitor parking first because there are often concerns about the needs of disabled drivers and people visiting shops, business and residents (accommodating tradespeople is a common worry). Rationing can be by number, cost or some other system, but limiting numbers allows us to play around with the ratio of residents' vs visitor parking bays.

If we throw in other uses such as parklets and cycle parking, then we have a set of uses that can be adjusted over time as our low traffic future develops.

Emissions-based pricing of residents' permits to speed up adoption of cleaner vehicles.
This is a slight side-issue, but whether we like it or not, cars will be with use for some time and so we can provide cheaper permits for cleaner cars - we should very much charge for electric vehicles, it's just that dirtier vehicles should be charged much more. 

This will have the effect over time of people either deciding to switch to cleaner vehicles (which at least helps with air quality in the medium term) or decide to give up vehicles because their old one costs a fortune to park or the emerging improvements to cycling and public. There should be a clear message from the local authority that prices will be going up, even for electric car owners and maybe permit costs will start to reflect the value of public space.

Size-based limits on residents' vehicles.
A step on from emissions is looking at the size of vehicles. There are some authorities which limit the sizes of vehicles which are eligible for residents' permits. For example the London Borough of Hackney has a limit of 2.27m in height, 5.25m in length and the unladen weight must not exceed 3,500kg. This is in the realm of stopping large commercial vehicles being parked in the street which may be owned by or registered to a resident. 

In a low car future, we may push down those limits so that when people do need to park, we can be more efficient with the space or perhaps we have bands to allow people to keep their current vehicle, but gradually make changes to the process.

Charging for destination parking.
This is another tool linked to the need for CPZs because the second we charge for something, someone will try and find the same for free and that could mean more people driving around uncontrolled streets trying to find a free space. I extend charging to any public car park under local authority control. If a private operator can undercut the price, then good luck to them because it's not going to be long-term.

Destination parking charging is immediately powerful because it allows rationing of street space and it provides revenue to run the parking management service and for transport scheme investment. Don't shy away from it being a revenue raising wheeze because it partly is - celebrate it even.

Year on year of removing on-street car parking.
We now have quite a lot of control and we can play around with different scenarios. If we have been clever, we'll start to see empty parking bays whether paid for or residents' parking. This gives an opportunity to repurpose the space. 

I like the use of parklets, especially if they manage surface water, but before we know it, there will be large areas of unused asphalt. Clever changes of use means that we can have less paved areas (from a surface water management point of view) and physically less area needing long term maintenance in terms of resurfacing.

One word of warning for people who don't want LTN though. If we open up empty carriageways with reduced parking demand, we positively invite people to cut through the area, often as speed, so you'll need to come up with a way to manage that.

Workplace parking levies.
So far, I have discussed some pretty common concepts that many authorities are already using, but they are never going to raise enough money for significant investment in the main roads. Workplace parking levies (WPLs) are an incredibly powerful tool for raising funds for investment in alternatives to the private car. For example, Nottingham's WPL has helped fund extensions to the city's tram network.

WPLs can be controversial as some see it as a "tax" on jobs, but it at least requires businesses to confront their attitudes to staff travel, how they use valuable land and for staff, it provides a genuine alternative (trams are great because they tend to get decent priority for road space). Having a variety of options is also good for resilience because you are not relying on a single mode.

Closing and redeveloping of council car parks.
There is often a tension between the need for councils to bring in revenue and the use of private cars in towns and cities in terms of space, road danger, pollution, congestion and so on. This is especially stark in two-tier authorities where the county runs the highway network and the district owns a car park.

Borough Market in London. This used to be a car park,
but now put to a better use.

Horsham is an excellent example because it recently spent £8m on rebuilding a multistorey car park in the town centre. According to Visit Horsham, the car parking capacity has gone up 189 spaces from the previous car park to 516 (wider) spaces, but that's still £15.5k per space. I have no idea how long the project will take to break even, but that's another discussion.

What Horsham has now done is locked in a certain level of car dependency and for the business model to work, it is reliant on people driving in on the town's main roads and thus working against any plans to try and make it easier to cycle and get the bus into town because the argument will be around keeping motor capacity. 

Maybe a better model to have followed would be to build a mixed-use residential-led development to provide a rental income. Rather than having residents drive into the town centre, having residents in the town centre would not only remove traffic from the network, it would create a captive audience who would spend their money locally (because people on foot spend more money than people driving).

Beyond this, gradually removing parking other than for blue badge holders in parks will allow space to go back to parks (less to maintain, depaving etc) assuming they are within the CPZ area.

Bus priority.
There's no one size fits all here, but both links and junctions need to be looked at in order to buses to ensure people can rely on them for journey time certainty (and this does link back to my first suggestion). When I say bus priority I mean exactly that through the use of bus lanes, bus pre-signals at junctions (such as here near Crawley), advanced signal detection etc - it's a bit old, but this is a useful note.

The other useful thing about bus priority is that it can provide a little extra space for emergency vehicles to get past congestion, but I'm not sure I every remember anyone campaigning for bus lanes on main roads to help ambulances.

Use of traffic signal timings to stack longer distance traffic outside of the built up areas. 
This will depend on who controls the traffic signals because it varies across the UK. However in theory, we could use signals to manage the flow of vehicles coming into a town. Rather than having the congestion on the main roads where people live and work, we could stack the traffic further out and ration access only when things are moving in the centre.

It's not a new concept (most things aren't) and there's a good write up here of the technique called "Inbound Traffic Flow Control" which as well as only letting people drive in when there's capacity, it can be used to help buses or other vehicles to bypass queues (either on the main road or another dedicated route).

Constant review and tightening of policies to make driving into town unattractive.
This could well be a mix of the things I've already mentioned, but we're now moving into heavier management such as congestion charges, road pricing.

Away from London, Durham has a tiny congestion charging scheme in the historic city core, although the area covered isn't exactly a series of main roads. Road pricing has been talked about for years and never delivered, but one of its uses is to charge more at busier times to dissuade people from driving. Like parking charges, however, there's a risk that we actually make it easier for the more well off to drive when we're trying to reduce traffic volumes generally.

Hackney has an interesting development with its Ultra Low Emission Streets which ban the most polluting vehicles being driven through areas with poor air quality. This is a useful stop gap until more of the fleet is cleaner, but eventually, if all vehicles meet the criteria, we've still got congestion creeping back. 

Personally, I'm in favour of changes to the street and transport mix which can be backed up with kerbs and asphalt which give a real alternative such as trams and cycle tracks. Even bus lanes are at political whim such as Coventry which infamously revoked a number of bus lanes to improve traffic flow. Constantly reviewing measures for performance is a good idea, but taking out bus lanes to improve traffic flow is very short sighted because bus service reliability will degrade and people will stop using the services.

Lea Bridge Road, Waltham Forest. Kerbs and asphalt locking
in a real alternative to local trips.

Development of consolidation hubs to switch some deliveries to cargobikes and electric vans.
This is an area which could be both businesses adapting to the other policies on how traffic is managed or as a response to a more organised approach. 

For example in London, Pedalme is a cycle-logistics company which realised that it could serve a large part of central and inner London using electric cargocycles in a way which would be far more efficient than using vans. The use of cargocycles means that as we reallocate road space for cycling, the method of delivery becomes even more attractive as the time advantages improve.

A Pedalme bike delivering in a street during
a pedestrianised time of day in this street.

The Heart of London Business Alliance shows what can be achieved if businesses work together. It's consolidated waste collection project has removed vehicles from the road and improved business recycling rates.

Traffic circulation plans so people who are driving in or HGVs delivering go out the way they came.
This is probably too far for those objecting to LTNs because in fact, a traffic circulation plan will need to use modal filters. For a town or city centre, people can drive in, but they must go back out they way they came in because the area is split off into "traffic cells" and people cannot drive between cells unless they go out to the edge and back in using a different route. The traffic circulation plans of Ghent and Oslo are quite well known, but in the UK, Birmingham is the front runner to do something on a large scale.

As main road capacity demand reduces, we can take more space back for people.
This is probably quite obvious and I've covered this already where parking is removed, but maybe by now we can be radical with some very large interventions such as introducing public squares, closing some main roads to motor traffic completely and having much more space for things such as trams. The photograph below is of Rue Jean-Pierre Probst in Luxembourg City. This used to be a road with one-way for general traffic and two-way for buses. It's now a tram route with space for walking and cycling.

Here's an interesting story about Alexanderplein in Amsterdam where the city turned off the traffic signals at the intersection. The scheme is part of a wider project to reduce motor traffic and improve access for walking, cycling and public transport. It seems counter intuitive, but in general, traffic signals are a product of motor traffic and being able to switch them off at a large intersection shows a great deal of progress.

I'll go back to one of the arguments being made by LTN objectors which is that main roads should be dealt with first or at the same time as LTNs are developed. I'm not actually sure what "dealing with the main roads" actually means in the minds of LTN objectors, but if the concerns are around congestion and air pollution, then little of what I have set out is achievable quickly. 

Of course, bus lanes, protected cycle lanes (as opposed to kerbed cycle tracks) and parking controls can be rolled out quickly with experimental traffic orders, but just look at how people have lost the plot with pop-up schemes in reaction to the Covid-19 crisis - would LTN objectors really support rapid roadspace reallocation? 

Rapid roadspace reallocation in the City of London.

Some of the longer term policy decisions require substantial political capital and time to implement. Traffic signal upgrades may take 15 to 20 years to deal with as kit becomes life expired. Workplace Parking Levies take years to get into place and so the funding for transport works are a long way off (if they were easy and politically acceptable, we'd have them everywhere).

Traffic circulation plans imply immediate opposition from LTN objectors because they use filters; and indeed if we did deal with main roads first, then it is certain that drivers will switch to side streets if they thought it would give them an advantage.

LTNs can be quickly and cheaply deployed and in every part of the world where walking, cycling and public transport are prioritised, LTNs are a core feature - they are the gateway to more substantial traffic reduction policies. Main road schemes take time and money and sometimes years of planning. 

So what is to be done? If we don't put in LTNs, then we need to provide protection for people walking and cycling but putting in cycle tracks and crossings in side streets would be a very odd thing to do - is there even space? Investing lots of money in side streets won't help the case to invest on our main roads (and we really do).

So, my call to action for LTN objectors beyond some honesty in their objections is a plea for them to actually tell me what they are suggesting we do to deal with main roads and how they will achieve general motor traffic reduction. In both cases, how long do they see it taking, where is the political support and how much do they think their ideas will cost. 

One word of friendly advice, however, have a little look at who is supporting your objections because you'll see people and groups with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They aren't supporting you because they are worried about pollution and road danger, they want to carry on driving everywhere and they really don't care about your cause and your community.

Update 30-10-20
Well, this post has struck a nerve somewhere because it has been nominated for the 2020 Active Travel Academy Media Awards under the blogs category. Thanks whoever nominated me!

Update 26-11-20
And this piece was commended in the awards. Thanks to the judges!


  1. I think you make some cogent points. What annoys me is that both sides are using various statistical arguments that a high school student could see through. In this day and age, monitoring of air pollution and traffic flow could be done in real time, but the results might not suit the proposers of some LTNs. We need to educate people about the benefits of a local community spaces but be open about where we want to get to. People are selfish and will continue to drive as though they are the only important traveller, but forcing schemes upon people without local consultation will only raise the heckles. There is a complex balance between the use of shopping malls against the promotion of local shops that will need to evolve, especially in this time of raised covid deliveries.

  2. I like it, and I like the fact you've acknowledged that, for now, there are disabled vehicle users who need access.

    I've often thought that we should incentivise smaller vehicles as the Japanese do with their Kei-class system, which has produced hugely innovative vehicles ranging from teeny open top sports cars, to weeny people carriers, in short (and they are) something for everyone for the trips that can't currently be done with active or public transport.

    Car manufacturers will tell us that NCAP safety regs mean bigger and heavier cars to increase both passenger and pedestrian safety, kei-cars, which have to meet the equivalent Japanese safety regs show this isn't true. Small vehicles = less need for parking space, less congestion, less pollution, and easier electrification.

    And we already have similar classes of vehicle under UNECE (I think) regs, lightweight and heavy quadricycles. But because there's no incentive for adopting them the market is small, so the vehicles themselves tend to be expensive.

    None of this of course, is as good as having fewer vehicles, but if there were heavy incentives to go small, and heavy penalties for going big, it might help to make car buyers think before opting for the latest Chelsea tractor.

    Now onto "consolidation hubs to switch some deliveries to cargobikes and electric vans." Could we not go a stage further, and make them active travel hubs, places for inner city visitors to securely store their cycles, or hop on a shared cycle scheme bike, or cycle taxi. For disabled vehicle users they might pick up an adapted cycle, mobility scooter etc. And while we're at it, why not open up the space to pop-up markets, Dr Bike schemes etc. Our towns and cities devote a lot of space to parking that could, as with Borough market be repurposed, but how about repurposing it to encourage active travel? I quite fancy the idea of our local multi-storey car park becoming the hanging gardens of Ealing, with roof top terrace, cafe and picnic area and cycles of all types gently pootling in and out.

    I think a lot of this is hugely challenging for car users, just switching road space from one use to another stirs up strong feelings of having something "free" taken away. What is I'd love is that for every loss, there's a greater gain, be that greening of our streets with places to stop and sit, to community spaces (I'd love to see a combined modal filter and community BBQ area for instance, to public art, hopefully all generated, "owned" and maintained by the people who live there.

    1. Big car vs Small Car. One problem - those who could afford it would have both.

  3. Re: "cheaper permits for cleaner cars". I'm not sure I like this idea, but it depends a little if you're targeting carbon or other emissions? High carbon emission cars should cost more to drive (e.g. carbon tax on fuel) not to keep parked. We have a non-electric family car which we use for holidays and occasional trips out of the city. It would be environmentally wasteful to replace it early.

    There's a reasonable argument for charging more for parking larger cars however.

  4. So our highways engineers model traffic as vehicles? Does anyone model traffic flows as numbers of people using the full range of modes (pedestrian, skateboard, scooter, cycle, motorbike, car, SUV, etc.) with logistics deliveries measured separately?

  5. A thought drifted across my LTN protest addled brain last night. You mention stacking vehicles further out of town.

    Which got me thinking about those "Car Park - Full" digital displays you get at places like Westfield, the ones that tell you how many parking spaces are available.

    Now normally I'm not in favour of excess signage, but I'm thinking as a way of hitting home just how congested or towns and cities have become, why not have "City - Full" digital displays on the arterial roads leading in?

    It might be a bit of a gimmick, but maybe it would get some drivers thinking?

    1. I can't for the life of me remember who, but there is a European city which does just that - when the city is "full" signals don't allow more people in.