The reduction of motor traffic in British towns and villages is not a particularly alien concept. Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, the bypass became an increasingly familiar, and often contested, way of reducing the effects motor vehicles were having on the centres of these settlements – namely, the problems of congestion and pollution resulting from an excess of motor traffic.
There is a rather fantastic ‘Look At Life’ film from 1962, showing how bypasses were built to deal with these problems.
Indeed, just as with the towns featured in that film, many of the towns and villages in my county, West Sussex, are now ringed by recently-constructed dual- or single-carriageway roads, designed to divert through-traffic away from the towns and villages themselves.
The villages of Ashington and Billingshurst both had bypasses constructed in the 1990s, taking the A24 and A29 trunk roads, respectively, away from the village centres.
These were villages that were blighted by through-traffic, particularly Ashington, a small village that had a thunderous A-road running through the middle of it. The old route of the A24 is now considerably more peaceful.
DfT traffic counts show that the A24 bypassing Ashington carries around 30-35,000 vehicles per day; it’s obviously completely inappropriate for that amount of traffic to be passing through the centre of a village. Bypasses are often necessary.
The town where I live, Horsham, also has a bypass. The original northern section (built in the late 1960s) was extended in the 1980s to incorporate a western diversion, keeping the main trunk roads, the A24 (running north-south) and the A264 (running approximately SW-NE) away from the town centre. In theory, this should mean that the town itself should have very little motor traffic passing through it; what motor traffic there is should only be accessing the town.
Bypasses are just as common in the Netherlands, and serve much the same purpose. A big difference, however, is that the Dutch are far more assiduous about ensuring that bypasses serve their original purpose – taking out the through-traffic from urban areas.
By contrast, in Britain, bypasses are often presented as ‘relief roads’, aimed at easing the congestion that through traffic might otherwise cause. You will still find little impediment to direct journeys by car through Horsham, Billingshurst or Ashington – the roads have remained largely unchanged subsequent to the construction of their bypasses, which are in effect an ‘additional’ measure to accommodate motor traffic. The roads are much quieter than they would be without bypasses, but they are still unpleasantly busy, and needlessly so.
In the Netherlands, by contrast, bypasses form part of a package of measures aimed at reducing motor vehicle use within town centres; they are, explicitly, a way of keeping the traffic out.
The Dutch city of Assen does, of course, have a ring road, the single-carriageway Europaweg. It is also flanked by a motorway, the A28.
But what makes Assen different from a typical British town with a bypass, however, is a centre that is difficult to drive through (although it is still easy to access by car).
Some of the town centre streets are access-only, or allow only pedestrians and cyclists to use them.
Others form part of a network of one-way streets, arranged in such a way that their use, by car, makes no sense as a through-route, although they remain useful and convenient two-way routes for bicycles.
Routes for motor vehicles into and out of the city centre still exist, of course – they haven’t been excluded from the city completely. To take just one example, deliveries to shops, restaurants and offices remain essential, and these will have to be made by lorries and vans.
It’s not just the city centre that has been carefully planned to favour bicycle use; residential streets in the suburbs are typically designed in such a way that the only people driving on them will be those seeking to gain access to a house or property on it, achieved through a combination of selective road closures, and/or one-way arrangements. Likewise, driving from a place of residence in a suburban street will often involve a circuitous route out onto a distributor road, while making that journey by bicycle will be continuous and direct. The street below, which heads into the city under the ring road from the new settlement of Kloosterveen, is a direct route for bicycles only, along the canal.
Radial routes that still exist for motor vehicles will have bicycle paths running alongside them, making cycling into the city a safe and pleasant option for people of all ages.
Busy junctions are also easy to use by bike; there is no mixing with motor vehicles, achieved by means of a separated network of paths, or, more commonly in Assen, a dedicated green stage for bicycles –
It wouldn’t make sense to make the use of cars difficult in the city centre without providing a feasible alternative. A pleasant and attractive city centre has been achieved through facilitating, and prioritising, bicycle use both in that city centre and across the city as a whole.
The equivalent UK town or city has very little (and often none) of these advantageous measures put in place to enable sustainable modes of transport. Journeys by car are often just as short and direct as they would be on foot or by bicycle. Similarly, the major routes which a UK cyclist will have to use to get into and of town centres are typically unpleasant and hostile for cycling, being shared with high volumes of motor vehicles.
While Horsham has a bypass, it also has an inner ring road, constructed after the bypass was completed.
This means it’s still very easy to drive through the town. There is, undoubtedly, a large amount of motor traffic here that should be using the bypass instead. And without any attractive conditions to cycle in, many short trips within the town – to work, to school, to leisure facilities, to shops – will continue to be driven.
The safe, high-quality segregated cycle facilities common in Assen, which protect cycling on arterial routes, are non-existent in the UK. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the car continues to be used for such a high proportion of short journeys in this country when the alternatives are not being prioritised, or made attractive. 56% of all British journeys under 2 miles are made by car. If we are really going to make a dent in that figure, the sound policy of bypasses needs to be accompanied by the measures the Dutch have put in place.