People choose to live on quiet streets – so why is it so hard to close residential streets to through traffic?

An interview with the founder of housebuilder Redrow has been floating around in my drafts as a potential basis for a post for a while. It caught my attention because it touched upon residential streets and how they should be designed – and in particular, how we should address the issue of designing motor traffic out of residential streets (through traffic, that is – motor traffic should still be able to access residential properties).

The Dutch approach to road design – Sustainable Safety – is quite explicit that roads and streets should have a single function, with a principle of Monofunctionality. As Mark Wagenbuur explains, in a joint post on David Hembrow’s site –

To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.

  • Through Roads for high volumes of fast traffic on longer distances.
  • Local Access Roads from which end destinations can be reached.
  • Distributor Roads which connect through roads and local access roads.

All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.

It is this approach that explains why Dutch roads and streets work so well for all users. In particular, access roads are designed to have low levels of motor traffic, meaning they are safe and attractive.

Residential street in Utrecht; motor traffic can access this street, but careful arrangement of one-way flow means it cannot be used as a through route

Residential street in Utrecht; motor traffic can access this street, but careful arrangement of one-way flow means it cannot be used as a through route

Strangely enough, it is this detail that is touched upon in the interview with Steve Morgan of Redrow. I’ve highlighted the relevant passage in bold.

House builder Steve Morgan has hit out at housing designed to meet the “urbanist” principles promoted under New Labour’s now defunct Richard Rogers-inspired planning guidance.

In an interview with BD’s sister publication Building, Steve Morgan, the founder of Redrow who rejoined the business in 2009 when it hit difficulties in the credit crunch, said that the housebuilder’s adherence to PPG3-style design was one of the main problems with the firm and hailed the return of the cul-de-sac.

Redrow had been building high-rise flats available at low cost but Morgan has subsequently completely redesigned the firm’s product range around traditional homes with arts & craft movement-inspired detailing, arranged in cul-de-sacs.

Morgan told Building: “We’ve got to start producing the type of housing that people want to live in, not some theoretical designs with ‘permeability’ all over the bloody place, which actually means traffic. Who wants tarmac all over a development? I want cul de sacs, green spaces, safe spaces for children to play in – not permeability, that’s just bullshit jargon.”

PPG3 was introduced under the tenure of deputy prime minister John Prescott and was inspired by the conclusions of Rogers’ Urban Task Force. It recommended higher-density developments to make public transport viable and create street life based around “walkable” neighbourhoods. But house builders said it resulted in building a large number of developments of flats without gardens which became very hard to sell when the credit crunch hit.

Morgan added: “It seemed to take forever to convince planners that PPG3 was history and we had to get on and build traditional housing again. It probably took the best part of three years. They have got the message now. Absolutely nobody’s doing PPG3-type development anymore but it took a while to get that through.

“We had highways engineers quoting the manual for streets and all the rest of it. [I] said, ‘Bollocks, bring the cul de sacs back, bring the type of housing that people want to live in back’.”

This is, I suspect, some fairly self-serving rhetoric from a developer with an interest in building low density (and therefore more expensive) housing, rather than higher density (and therefore more affordable) flats and housing. And it also comes from the perspective of someone who it seems can only imagine people moving around by car; permeability can work (and indeed should work) in residential areas, provided it is permeability of a specific kind, for walking and cycling.

But the passage I’ve highlighted is revealing – it shows that housebuilders are more than aware that the general public don’t want to live on traffic-clogged streets. They want to live on streets where their children can play safely; where there isn’t a huge amount of tarmac required to facilitate the through-flow of motor traffic; where there is green space.

Popular streets to live on are those that are quiet and safe; unpopular ones are those that are noisy, polluted, and dominated by motor traffic.

Not such a good street to live on - a residential street in Leicester dominated by through traffic, despite a parallel main road just a few yards away.

Not such a good street to live on – a residential street in Leicester dominated by through traffic, despite a parallel main road just a few yards away.

Given all this, it is surprising why proposals to close residential streets to through traffic often meet with such vociferous opposition from the people who live on them, on the grounds that the journeys they will make by car will become marginally longer – perhaps only a few hundred metres or so.

Because, with a free choice, the vast majority of people will choose to live on a street that is (effectively) a cul de sac to motor traffic rather than a through route, even if that means their car journeys are slightly indirect. The benefits of living somewhere nice outweigh the benefits of straight-line car routes.

So what’s going on? How do we explain this discrepancy between the choices people actually make, and the difficulties in ‘converting’ a poorly-designed street into an environment people would choose to live on in the first place?

My guess is that the benefits of a street being closed to through traffic can’t easily be appreciated – residents can only imagine their street as it is now, but with a bit of extra inconvenience for motoring trips, rather than imagining a safer, quieter and more pleasant street, one they easily would have chosen to live on, given a blank slate.

An interesting way of tackling this issue might be come at it from the opposite direction – to conduct a survey of streets that (by accident or design) only serve an access function in a given British town or city. My idea would be to ask the residents on these streets whether they would prefer their street to be opened up as a through route – ‘filtered permeability in reverse’. To ask them whether they would be prepared to trade off the attractiveness of their street for more direct car journeys, but with a (potentially large) increase in motor traffic on their street.

Maybe there aren’t any easy answers though – human beings are fundamentally conservative, and dislike change, even if the benefits can be presented in an attractive and easily understandable way, and even if the benefits come to be appreciated by residents who were initially opposed. I suspect the only concrete way of making progress is councils taking bold decisions, in the form of trial closures of a suitably long duration for the benefits to appear.

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29 Responses to People choose to live on quiet streets – so why is it so hard to close residential streets to through traffic?

  1. Paul M says:

    I would have thought trials were the best way forward – stick a couple of heavy planters in the street with a gap wide enough to walk/cycle through. Most of the New York City schemes were – possibly still are – constructed as temporary measures for trial purposes, although most also seem to have become permanent, the current Di Blasio fluff notwithstanding.

    Of course, it helps if, once you start a trial, you finish it properly, something Croydon might take note of.

    • Fred says:

      I agree – we has some issues with trials in Walthamstow Village, but after a short period of vocal opposition and outrage, the majority realised it was very nice & getting from A-B was still fine. One thing which wasn’t so good was the fact that they didn’t trial run the full final scheme and some streets became temporary rat runs (which wasn’t great) and then unfortunately some of the closures got dropped from the final scheme. I think they would manage that differently in future but the end result is a big success.

      The thing Andrew Gilligan has considered is using data from temporary closures due to roadworks to prove that if a road is closed the impact is not disastrous. Kingsway & Aldwych are a case in point – it wasn’t great for traffic but it also wasn’t the end of the world (although streets near Covent Garden are much busier). I would be interested to know what TfL would have predicted for the impact before they had any data.

      If we can pick up on real data from temporary closures we can easily dispel some of the myths which often circulate when schemes are consulted on.

      P.s. Kingsway:

      I think a strong case should be made for blocking all the rat running through the Covent Garden area once the road is reopened, especially Bow Street which is very busy with poor crossing facilities for shoppers (the zebras don’t seem to work well given heavy traffic and many hesitant foreign tourists). I would also close Drury Lane, or at least provide lights at the Long Acre/Great Queen Street junction – there is too much fast traffic and there aren’t even crossings on all the sides of the junction. This is a premium shopping area and the significant through traffic, speed and poor crossing facilities are negatively impacting on the area.

      • Kie says:

        TFL have models which they swear by but time and time again they’ve been shown to be wrong. Traffic density is not a road design issue it’s a patience issue – most people will only put up with a certain level of traffic before using alternatives – this leads the the traffic levels staying the same regardless. The real solution to bring down traffic levels is to make cycling much more appealing, TFL are a thousand miles from understanding that.

  2. Paul says:

    Councillors would need to be sitting of a very large majority to be happy to put planters in the middle of their constituents “normal” driving routes even on a trial basis. Credit to those who do take the risk.

  3. RichCyclist says:

    Excellent article, as always. As a planner / urban designer, I went along with the PPG3 and Urban Renaissance principles, since connected places are indeed more sustainable, and could be more popular, too. Density is important, but accessibility is more important, meaning people can reach public transport, or walk, or cycle easily and safely–my main motivation for supporting such a layout.

    The diagrams that always get rolled out are those which, quite correctly, show the difference in distance a pedestrian has to travel in a disconnected cul-de-sac layout compared with a grid street layout to reach a destination such as a school. However, your question, effectively, “why should cars enjoy the same connectivity as pedestrians, bus users and bikes”, confirms my long-held thought that a halfway house between popular culs-de-sac and grid streets is required.

    Indeed, on a University field trip in which, as a student, I was expected to find fault with cul-de-sac layouts compared with grids, I caused great consternation among my lecturers by only finding opportunity for positive change in the cul-de-sacs: not suggesting that the particular layout at that site was correct, but finding that with a little more thought a better and popular solution could be found that would result in more walked and cycled journeys. In contrast to their expectations, though I appreciated the connectivity and journey choice, the opportunities I saw with grid layouts were to convert them to culs-de-sac via filtering!

    By the way, it isn’t as if connected residential streets are all that connected anyway. It would remain the case that it’s nigh on impossible to find direct walking and cycling routes through such areas, largely due to different development masterplans causing disjointed street patterns at their boundaries. Which is why the main road network remains ‘popular’ for cycled journeys. Today, ransom strips (narrow bands of land outside the developer’s ownership which could be used to connect one built area to another) are, as the name suggests, hugely expensive to purchase, so that often new developments with grid street patterns only have a single point of access from a distributor road–effectively creating a cul-de-sac anyway.

    In traditional cul-de-sac layouts, connectivity between cul-de-sacs is often poor, or even non-existent. But what if these connections were properly specified, with minimum widths to accommodate non-car modes? If the widths were sufficient, then if a layout needed to be changed, it could, e.g a section of street could be built to connect the areas or bits of street could be turned into filters? Would the filters not contribute to the total requirement for public open space, thus creating an alternative to the barren and windswept “parks” that are often provided? And shouldn’t the planning of public open spaces be considered as being part of the transport network, facilitating direct, well-landscaped and well-lit routes for walking and cycling?

    The basis of such a layout would be a planning requirement, built into local policy, that developers must submit as part of applications a filtered permeability and open space strategy that demonstrably goes to lengths to ensure walking, cycling and public transport use are masterplanned into development. This should be no skin off a developer’s nose for the minimal cost of preparing such a plan would be offset by the value gains in popular residential areas.

    A further consideration (though I am rambling a little off-topic here, just for the heck of it), would be to move away from volume housebuilding, which often seems to result in poor quality, and follow the concept of “plot, block and lot” development promoted by Massive Small, whereby land is purchased and laid out, and individual developers and architects are invited to purchase single marked plots, or strings of plots (lots) or entire blocks. Examples exist, for example, Isjberg in Amsterdam, which have resulted in variety and interest in built form. Indeed, if you look at Victorian terraces all over London you will see that they weren’t all developed wholesale: plots and lots were sold to individual developers and within a set of clear patternbook design rules, each individual developer was able to put their stamp on the groups of 3-4 homes they built and dotted about over the place. Adding interest into new development rather than monotony is another way of encouraging people to walk and cycle, as such architecture is appreciated more at slow speed. Again, this would result in popular development that might meet less resistance.

    In the end, creating development that is of high quality, is popular and sustainable, requires education of, and leadership from, planners, politicians and indeed developers themselves who will make the reasonable effort required to achieve planning permission without going to Appeal. Developers require certainty, and good planning guidance that meets their aspirations and those of urbanists in a good middle-ground, will serve everyone and help us move away from damaging, car-requiring land-use patterns that serve absolutely no-one, least of all perhaps (due to increasing congestion) the motorist!

    • RichCyclist says:

      Find me on Twitter at @cyclisethecity
      I am also director of Witteveen+Bos UK Limited, a new company dedicated to bringing together Dutch and British town planning, urban design, bicycle masterplanning, cycle infrastructure design and civil engineering. For more information, follow me and send a private Tweet, or contact me at
      Richard Lewis

    • “follow the concept of “plot, block and lot” development promoted by Massive Small, whereby land is purchased and laid out, and individual developers and architects are invited to purchase single marked plots, or strings of plots (lots) or entire blocks”

      This is happening in Cambridge, though I suspect the idea might be for the landowner to get higher values by getting it pre-approved for housing in outline. I am currently involved in a cohousing project called K1 which has got a plot in the Orchard Park development on this basis. It’s great for doing more unusual housing models, and/or self-building.

    • Branko Collin says:

      Not Isjberg, but IJburg ( In how far does it matter for plot, block and lot that IJburg is artificial land and thus started with a single owner?

  4. Phil Jones says:

    What about the people who live at the single point of motor vehicle access to a cul de sac system?

    • andreengels says:

      That depends on the size of the cul de sac system, of course. If it’s small, there’s no issue. If it’s large, the entrance road should not have houses directly on it – either some distance (which can be used for parking, for example) or only a blind wall towards that direction.

      • RichCyclist says:

        I was seeking a good middle ground, where a form of cul de sac (or filtered connected streets) system is created that results in reduced traffic because more journeys are transferred to walking, cycling and public transport. Maybe, on reflection, the best system is one that has multiple access-only and exit-only streets and filtered permeability within, all created using one way streets for cars, served by a distributor system, or as you say short culs de sac with connectivity for walking and cycling within the block formed by distributor routes. In such a system, nobody would need to perform a three point turn, yet it would be impossible to short-cut through the residential area.

        However this raises another problem, that traditional cul de sac layouts have distributor roads with high speed motor traffic and no frontage development. Again, in a hybrid layout we need to make sure that with their movement function, distributors have active frontagers along them albeit set back behind landscaping and bike tracks. We should also avoid the mistake of creating isolated unlit no-places with no activity after dark. Walking and cycling should occur in front of people’s homes.

  5. ORiordan says:

    I’ve been looking at these sorts of issues for my street in West London which suffers from rat-runners. Regarding, “why is it so hard”, the one barrier is the traffic planning group in the local council. Old school traffic engineers see their job to make things as easy as possible for motor traffic so asking them to block off streets is met by blank incomprehension.

    In fairness, a challenge with street patterns that may have been in place for a hundred years is blocking off one street may have a knock-on effect of increased traffic on other streets, so residents on those streets won’t be happy. There really needs to be an overall view of the area rather than an individual street. Then there are concerns about access for emergency service vehicles and wildly differing views from the residents themselves about what they would accept. Without a clear consensus of residents, councillors are reluctant to go into bat for a scheme.

    The irony is the street concerned is blocked off for a weekend each summer for a street party. This doesn’t seem to cause chaos in the local area and more than one resident has said to me “I wish it was like this all the time…”

    • Fred says:

      In Walthamstow during the trial (which wasn’t the full scheme) there were knock on effects for adjacent roads, which was noticeable. As you say, the solution is to look at a whole area rather than individual streets.

      The strategy here has been to take an area bounded by main roads and use closures to cut it in to four quadrants. While you can drive around each of the quadrants freely, you can only drive from one to another on main roads. Essentially this is about ensuring that local residential roads are never really a short cut between main roads so are predominantly local traffic.

      If you want to build a consensus thinking about the traffic past local parks and schools might be helpful to gain support, even if they don’t mind the traffic the effects of air pollution on kids lungs is a worry for traffic near schools.

    • Emergency access can be solved with something like this Gates can be moved to allow vehicles, but in ordinary use way is blocked to cars, but can be walked and cycled through.

  6. Kevin Love says:

    To answer the question “Why is it so hard to close residential streets to through traffic” I direct everyone’s attention to the Marxist analysis of this situation. That’s Groucho, not Karl…


  7. pm says:

    Isn’t it much the same problem that applies to all traffic-related measures? “Traffic” (like hell?) is other people.

    Its _other people’s_ cars people don’t want driving through their street. Their own car, they think should be allowed to go down every street everywhere at all times, and of course that includes parking it right in front of their front door.

  8. I think there’s one reason that cul de sacs might appeal to developers that you’ve missed, and explains why walking and cycling not allowed either: if you want to build higher value houses in a less well-off area, you want to be able to market your development as excluding access from other neighbourhoods. Gating communities without quite putting in the gates.

  9. Notak says:

    The last sentence of the post, that councils need to take bold decisions (even if unpopular), is one I agree with strongly.

  10. We’ve been having a similar discussion locally. We have some very expensive private roads that don’t allow through traffic & these have much higher property values but none of these roads are well maintained (by the owners). We’re pondering talking about this in a sense of suggesting that filtered permeability will bring a private road experience for everybody else (and will be maintained by the council not the residents).

    We also saw a road closure trial blocked – not by the residents who were very keen but by a councillor and other residents who lived elsewhere but who didn’t want to loose the rat run (and obviously didn’t care what people who lived in the street thought). In this case the road ran parallel to a busy A road and the trial was cancelled before it began.

    I also think it’s because the UK has removed all other travel options in the minds of most people, so anything that possibly restricts their “only” transport choice is scary and most people can’t conceive of a road layout like you might find in a Dutch town. With this in mind I think it’s critical to get decision makers to the Netherlands to see this approach in action so that they can be brave and let trials run for a long enough period for traffic patterns to change and for traffic to evaporate.

    Perhaps we need to be looking at neighbourhood wide trials to show people that they will be able to choose to walk or cycle safely instead with no through traffic as one road at a time is unlikely to be transformational?

  11. Brenda Puech says:

    Interesting reading this discussion. London Fields ward (in Hackney) is to have a filtered permeability scheme on the back of the East-West Quietway around Middleton Road, and the Council is starting with a trial scheme this winter. Delays in getting the scheme off the ground seem to be due to working out access for emergency services. They have unfortunately not found a solution to allowing only buses through a filter, so Lansdowne Drive will remain a rat run around London Fields.Can’t wait for the trial though.

    Good to know many schemes of this nature are in the pipeline on the back of cycling related funding.

  12. Jason s says:

    Great insights and thoughts on Residential streets.

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