Bypassing the bypass

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.

The A24 now skirts Ashington, on a dual carriageway. You can see its old route, straight through the village itself

The A24 now skirts Ashington, on a dual carriageway. You can see its old route, straight through the village itself

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.

This used to be a trunk road. Still motor traffic here, but nowhere near as much

This used to be a trunk road. Still motor traffic here, but nowhere near as much.

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. Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 16.42.47In 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.

Something of a resemblance to Horsham.

Something of a resemblance to Horsham.

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.

DSCN9269Others 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.

DSCN9318Other streets that used to be through-routes are now blocked off completely – although still permeable for bicycles.

DSCN9420Routes 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.

DSCN9260To make the same trip into the centre by car involves diverting onto the ring road itself. The route for cycling and walking is the shortest, and straightest.

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.

DSCN9320Busy 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.

This entry was posted in Bypasses, Car dependence, Horsham, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Bypassing the bypass

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    This assumes that the bypass can cope with the traffic which is put upon it.

    For example York, the A1237 ostensibly serves this purpose so in theory you should be able to go out and back in, without having to transit the centre. However the A1237 is so stuffed with traffic and delays so massive that it’s nearly always faster to go through the centre that it is to use the bypass.

    • someonesomewhere says:

      Then obviously the bypass should be enlarged. Perhaps an even larger bypass should be constructed even farther away to accomodate recently built houses.

      • ORiordan says:

        You then get the usual consequence that traffic expands so the bypass gets clogged again… That is, if you increase capacity to speed journey time, the route becomes more attractive to people living further away, so more people take the route and you end up with getting congested again.

        I think as the article says, traffic planners need to actively discourage motor traffic transitting the centre or the bypass and previous route just become 2 different ways of getting from the same A to B.

        • Paul says:

          Quite agree – the by-pass should move the traffic out of the centre NOT increase capacity. The other malign consequence of the policy is that pseudo-motorways get created by stealth incorporating the old road between settlements so no cycle-friendly road remains.

    • Pete says:

      York has made some pretty big mistakes though – like the ring of shopping centres around the outer ring road for example, only really accessible by car. The ring road does need upgrading precisely because of these places. It is also failing to provide an attractive enough route to remove the through traffic from town.

      The traffic levels in the town centre are dreadful, you are allowed to drive down micklegate and over micklegate bridge for example, which is clearly completely bonkers.

  2. fonant says:

    Here in West Sussex just east of Worthing we have the ancient village of Sompting on the A27. The village has a dual-carriageway 70 mph bypass, but during rush-hours it is always clogged with motor traffic, and local motorists use the old road through Sompting Village as a rat-run.

    Adding speed humps and narrowing the road has had no effect on the rat-running, and possibly just increases the number of times the old road is almost gridlocked by cars getting stuck, unable to pass each other.

    I was at a transport meeting with consultants employed by the Highways Agency, and the old Sompting road came up: it would make a very nice cycle route if the motor traffic could be blocked. Villagers are also fed up with their street being clogged with traffic twice a day, and the buses get stuck too. We suggested making the it only possible for buses (with lowering bollards) and cyclists to use the road as a through route. All very sensible, you might think, but the Highways Agency man said “no”: the Highways Agency wanted to keep the old road available to be used as a relief route when the A27 was congested: they wanted to keep it as a rat-run!

    The A27 bypass relief road: !!

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      The highways agency won’t have control over the local road – that’s the local council highways authority. The Highways Agency can make recommendations to the local council, but if the council wants to stop up the road, they can and the Highways Agency can’t stop them.

      • fonant says:

        You’re quite correct, although West Sussex County Council are so institutionally motorist that they’d never block the road to through traffic, whatever the residents or other local groups request. In this case they’d use the Highways Agency’s request to keep the rat-run as sufficient reason to not even consider any changes.

        It’s a classic example how our transport systems are so horribly biased towards motor vehicles that even when motor vehicles cause problems it’s considered a Good Thing.

  3. Tim says:

    This reminds me again of the route Google actually suggests from one side of London to the other.

    Admittedly there is the congestion charge. Admittedly London is a bit of a special case. And admittedly we added to the problem – since we were keen to see the sights and had the kids this didn’t seem a bad idea. And not only did we get to see them changing guard but I don’t think it really took us any longer to go this way.

    But we felt very sorry for all the tourists who had chosen to see the sights on foot (and worse, on bikes, diving out of the way of traffic down the Mall). We felt sorry for those who discovered only too late that even the most interesting bits of central London are set up to be best viewed from the comfort of one’s private motor car.

    Total madness.

  4. D. says:

    In Bristol there’s a street called the Horsefair. It has shops and wide pavements on both sides, and is one-way, going around the shopping area called Broadmead. At one long section (where there have been fatal incidents) it is a long straight running between Broadmead and a newer shopping-mall type area called Cabot Circus.

    This road can only be entered at one point, then runs around Broadmead and splits in two beyond the shops. One takes you round the ‘back’ of Broadmead and ultimately to a multi storey car park and into the old city. One takes you up to a large roundabout which is a major junction with a major four-lane roadway. The same four-lane roadway you could have stayed on and not passed around on the Horsefair.

    The only entry point has a big sign on it saying “No cars, no motorcycles, except for buses, taxis, disabled, and FOR ACCESS.” And that “FOR ACCESS” is the problem: everyone and their granny takes it to mean, “No entry, unless you really want to”.

    So that ‘FOR ACCESS’ means that to cross a single-lane carriageway between shops on one side and shops on the other, can mean (quite literally) a five minute wait as buses, lorries, taxis, obese people in cars, all parade past…

    How does this relate to the blog post? Permeability.

    It wouldn’t be a great difficulty to put in a bus gate to stop entry. Entry/access isn’t actually needed, except arguably for loading/unloading – so put in a bus gate at the end, effective from 9-5 or some such.

    I raised this with our city council, and they said its only for access but went on to explain that they haven’t the resources to enforce it.

    • fonant says:

      They have plenty of resources, they just choose to spend their resources on other things. It’s all a matter of priority.

  5. fonant says:

    Interesting how the 1962 film shows Maidstone, blissfully motor traffic free with the new bypass. Compare and contrast with today’s Maidstone, still horribly dominated by motor traffic.

    • Notak says:

      I don’t know Maidstone, but I was struck by the almost complete lack of traffic – and not just motor traffic but cyclists and foot traffic too – in all those small towns after their bypasses were built. Apart from High Wycombe, for some reason – maybe just because it’s bigger. Whatever the reasons, it was impressive indeed.

  6. Jim Moore says:

    Great post. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.
    Having myself only travelled to Assen by train to cycle in and around the busy but quiet city centre on a Hembrow Study Tour it’s quite amazing to see that not far outside of town there’s a massive motorway full of speeding cars and heavy trucks just like nearly every other country. In addition to keeping through motorised traffic out of the city centre the Dutch then ice the cake by doing what they can to keep the humming of the motorway contained within it instead of letting it permeate through the adjoining countryside.

  7. Gareth says:

    What a short-sighted article this is.

    Tens of thousands of independent businesses in these towns and villages have folded since the 2nd half of the 20th century, largely as a result of the lost custom brought about by the fact that most people now drive around them. An additional cause of course is short-sighted councils doing away with free parking in the interest of making a quick buck, disguised as ‘pedestrianisation’ – the result of which is that paying customers simply drive elsewhere instead.

    Further restricting these areas and turning them into cyclist utopias is simply going to wipe out the rest of these businesses.

    If your ideal is to cycle around deserted town centres then take your bicycles to Pripyat.

    • Paul says:

      The evidence is (sorry not inclined to look up the reference) that pedestrianisation is good for business. People in a hurry to get somewhere don’t stop to shop. To cycle round a car-free but bustling centre can I suggest Bolzano or anywhere in Bavaria.

      • Gareth says:

        Yes, I’m sure all the business owners who went out of business when the bypasses opened would agree with you.

        Or maybe not.

      • Gareth says:

        What you’d probably find is that pedestrianisation of town centres that have already been bypassed is good for business, increasing what little business there is by a given percentage – but nowhere near as good as it was before the bypasses were introduced.

        Anyone can cherry-pick research that suits their argument, but the idea behind a grown-up debate is to look at *all* the facts and reach a balanced conclusion.

        Yes, it would be lovely for everyone to be able to cycle to their heart’s content with the wind rushing through our hair and not a care in the world – but without business there’s no jobs, and without jobs no-one will be able to buy a bicycle in the first place.

        It’s the classic battle between realism and idealism.

        • You are making a very big mistake in assuming that it is bypasses that have led to a decline in British high street shopping, and not out-of-town shopping centres and online retail.

          All the evidence shows that pedestrianisation increases footfall – that is, the actual numbers of people shopping.

          • Gareth says:

            I come from a town that was bypassed in the 70s: over the next 10 years the town declined significantly, and today it’s just a shadow of its former self.

            It’s a rural town and these “out of town shopping centres” that you’re trying to blame simply don’t exist there.

            I’m afraid I’m going to believe my own observations before the claims of a pro-cyclist who is blind to reality. Thanks for trying though.

    • As we all know, there are no independent businesses in the Netherlands.

      Oh wait, no. GDP per capita is higher there than here.

  8. Mike says:

    Perhaps what aseasyasriding intended was to make nonsense of your assertion that banning cars will result in a population too poor to buy a bike. And in that, I must agree with him.

  9. Pingback: Going around in circles - Oxford Blog

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