Imagine that you are responsible for improving the walking environment in an area where walking rates are exceptionally low – perhaps making up around a few percent of all trips that are made.
You would probably start thinking about the kind of changes that would be required to make walking a pleasant, attractive and obvious option.
Routes for walking would have to be direct. They would have to be free from stress and danger, and obstructions. They would have to be convenient, and be of suitable width. And they would have to go everywhere that people needed to go.
You would, ideally, like to end up with a dense walking network, which has all these qualities. In short, you would be designing for walking, to ensure that it makes sense as a mode of transport in its own right.
After this period of abstract thought, you reach for your bookshelves, and pull out the official guidance, published by the Department for Transport – Walking Infrastructure Design.
You start reading the Introduction.
Planning and designing high-quality infrastructure involves developing individual site specific solutions, but there are some common requirements that need to be satisfied. The underpinning principle is that measures for pedestrians should offer positive provision that reduces delay or diversion and improves safety.
Sounds good! You read on.
When designing improvements to walking infrastructure, the hierarchy of provision (Table 1.2) offers useful guidance on the steps to be considered.
Eagerly, you flick to this Table 1.2, which offers ‘guidance on the steps to be considered’. You discover that the first ‘step’ you should consider is
Traffic volume reduction
‘Traffic volume reduction’? You scratch your head.
This makes little sense. What does this have to do with walking, and improving the environment for walking? ‘Traffic’ (meaning motor traffic) is an entirely different mode of transport; shouldn’t a manual for improving walking infrastructure focus on precisely that?
Perhaps, you wonder, the Hierarchy of Provision in ‘Bus Infrastructure Design’ suggests considering first ‘train travel reduction’, or ‘plane travel reduction’.
But of course it doesn’t, and nor does ‘Walking Infrastructure Design’ (mainly because neither of these documents exist). However, Cycling Infrastructure Design does exist, and unfortunately it suggests you go about planning for improving the cycling environment in precisely this unfathomable way – by suggesting you reduce an entirely different mode of transport as a first step.
A strong objection here is that the Hierarchy is confusing policy with outcome. Reducing motor traffic should be the result of improving the environment for walking and cycling, yet it is presented here as the actual design policy.
But an even stronger objection is that the Hierarchy fails to focus on what it should actually be dealing with – the bicycle. In a recent lecture, Professor John Parkin described the Hierarchy of Provision as
a completely inappropriate way of planning for cycling. It denies the existence of cycling a a distinct mode.
Indeed, the Hierarchy represents
planning for cycling with reference to another mode, rather than designing for cycling itself.
It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. As I’ve argued before, the Hierarchy of Provision embodies the historical fixation of cycling campaigning on fighting motor traffic. The focus here is not on improving the environment for cycling, but on abstract goals that may, or may not, have side benefits for cycling.
It is woolly and unfocused, and when used as a planning tool we find that it is all too easy to skip through all the steps and end up right at the bottom, with the conversion of footways to ‘shared use’ – because this is the easiest option. Indeed, at this same lecture, a transport planner working for a client mentioned that the scheme she was implementing involved shared use pavements – not because this was the best design solution, but because that was what the council wanted. And the Hierarchy does little or nothing to stop councils plumping for this option.
At another lecture last week, I heard Keith Firth of SKM Colin Buchanan stating that
What’s great about the Hierarchy of Provision is that infrastructure is quite a long way down the list.
Well, this might be true in an ideal world, a world in which councils would actually consider the wholesale removal of motor traffic from their towns, reducing the need for the amount of physical alteration needed to the street environment. But unfortunately we don’t live an ideal world, and that means the fact that design solutions that might be very, very important in particular contexts are ‘a long way down the list’ is actually a serious problem.
Dutch town and city centres, while often largely devoid of private motor traffic, do not simply relegate physical infrastructure into last place. Even on wide roads that only carry a limited amount of motor traffic, we still find the same kind of cycling infrastructure that would be appropriate on much busier roads.
This kind of approach makes no sense according to the Hierarchy, because it is a combination of serious motor traffic reduction, and physical separation. The difference flows from the fact that the Dutch design for cycling. They design to make sure that cycling is comfortable, safe, attractive and convenient. They don’t design for it with reference to other modes of transport.
The other manifestation of the curious way we design for cycling around other modes of transport is the distinction we have between ‘on carriageway’ and ‘off carriageway’ provision. We can have ‘on carriageway’ cycle lanes that, protected by a kerb, amount to a cycle track. But we can also have ‘off carriageway’ provision that essentially amounts to the same thing.
The distinction is hard to fathom, but it stems, again, from a failure to design for cycling as a mode of transport in its own right. ‘On carriageway’ means treating bicycle traffic like motor traffic; ‘off carriageway’ means treating it like walking traffic. In other words – how do we fit cycling in, around other modes of transport.
But we shouldn’t be thinking like this. We need a comprehensive approach to planning for bicycle use, that starts from the kind of thinking we would employ for designing walking networks, and ensures the quality of routes, whatever kind of treatment is appropriate at a local level.
We need to design for cycling in its own right.
Thanks to John Parkin for providing the inspiration for this piece