The importance of road classification under Sustainable Safety

There was interesting detail buried in Bicycle Dutch’s (as usual, excellent) explanation of the evolution of a street in Utrecht, the Mariaplaats.

[Before the 1980s] much of the street’s width was allocated to the private car. Lateral parking on both sides of the street and enough space for higher speeds for motor traffic. In those days the speed limit in cities was 50km/h everywhere. In the late 1980s the city tried to improve the situation by building a cycle track. This was even improved in the early 1990s with a surface of smooth red asphalt. But the cycle track was gone again early in the 21st century. Under the Sustainable Safety policies all streets in the country had to be categorised and this street was to be place and not for traffic flow. That meant the speed had to go down to 30km/h and separated cycling infrastructure became unnecessary, unwanted even, so the cycle track was removed. [My emphasis]

We can see two of the stages described here in the photographs Mark provides.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 10.26.07In 1965, what is really a very wide street is dominated by car parking, and the flow of motor traffic. By 1990 a cycleway has been added.

But as Mark explains, Sustainable Safety – which is actually a relatively recent policy in the Netherlands, only beginning in the late 1990s – means that every road and street in the Netherlands has to be classified by function, with every road and street only having a single function. This principle is called ‘Monofunctionality’. Roads should either be access roads, distributor roads, or through roads. Access roads are just that; roads only designed for access to the functions on it, be they residential properties, retail, schools, or work. They should not carry motor traffic travelling elsewhere.

Quite clearly under this system the only proper function for the Mariaplaats is an access road. It is very close the city centre, and should not be carrying through traffic. So the road has been changed accordingly, ever since it was classified as an access road. The situation today is very different from both 1965, and from 1990.

Sustainable safety has – quite properly – led to the removal of cycling infrastructure.

My picture of Mariaplaats

My photograph of Mariaplaats, this month.

As you can see from the photograph above (taken, funnily enough, just after I had stopped for a drink with Mark himself on this very street!) there is now no cycling infrastructure to speak of here. It is not necessary, because motor traffic has largely been removed. The road does still serve an access function for motor traffic – in particular, it is the access route to a pretty ugly concrete multi-storey car park – but levels of traffic are very low, low enough to make sharing the carriageway perfectly acceptable. The great majority of the parking has also been removed.

That means that carriageway itself is quite narrow, as Mark explains, and also that much more space can be allocated to people, and the activities on the street. The difference with 1965 and indeed with 1990 is remarkable. Properly applied, Sustainable Safety makes cycle tracks unnecessary on the majority of streets in urban areas; these are streets that are designed, instead, to remove motor traffic. The flipside, of course, is that Sustainable Safety makes cycling infrastructure very necessary on distributor and through roads.

I think this is a vivid demonstration of the importance of these kind of road classification principles, a policy that we should adopt in Great Britain. In particular, it makes the development of a high-quality cycling environment, suitable for anyone to use, almost a by-product of the higher principles of Sustainable Safety. Access roads should by definition be safe to cycle on; distributor roads and through roads should automatically have cycling infrastructure alongside them.

But more broadly a policy of compulsory classification would remove the fudging over what our roads and streets are actually for – a fudging that I have called ‘placefaking’, that all too often squeezes out the necessary improvements for cycling, and indeed for people in general. ‘Placefaking’ has two fundamental problems –

  • it argues against the implementation of cycling infrastructure on what remain very busy roads, on the ridiculous grounds that to do so would interfere with ‘place function’. (We can see one of these ludicrous arguments being made about main roads in London in this regurgitation of a Vincent Stops’ blogpost by Dave Hill).
  • it allows roads and streets that should properly be classified as access roads, with greatly reduced motor traffic levels, to remain open to through traffic, with some design tinkering around the edges that allegedly make them ‘places’.

Changes to Britain’s roads and streets under a policy of Monofunctionality would obviously not have to be immediate; we can see from the Netherlands that it has taken decades to finally arrive at the finished article. But classifying road types is a fundamentally important starting point; councils would have to set out how they think their road network should work, and all planning and highway improvement decisions made after that decision should tend towards that end point.

This entry was posted in placefaking, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The importance of road classification under Sustainable Safety

  1. D. says:

    “Roads should either be access roads, distributor roads, or through roads. Access roads are just that; roads only designed for access to the functions on it, be they residential properties, retail, schools, or work. They should not carry motor traffic travelling elsewhere.” – what a brilliant idea. I wish that we had the political will to try it in the UK, where any road goes and there are no such distinctions.

  2. Andy R says:

    The problem is, we have road hierarchys/classification already in the UK. They’ve existed for at least the 20 years I’ve been in the industry and I assume a lot longer. See pretty much any local highway authority design guide, e.g.

    Click to access highways_design_guide.pdf

    Click to access Highways_Design_Guide_for_New_Developments.pdf

    Click to access DesignAndConstructionOfRoadsAndAccessesToAdoptableStandardsMarch2011.pdf

    This is taken from the Newcastle design guide, but they all have some variation on;
    Principal Road / (Strategic Highway) / [Primary Distributor Roads]
    Classified Road / (Main Distributor Road) / [District Distributor Roads]
    Local Distributor Road / (Secondary Distributor Road) / [Local Distributor Roads]
    Collector Street : Residential Street (with Bus Route) / (Local Roads ) / [Access Roads]
    Residential Street / (Local Access Roads & Pedestrian Priority Streets) / [Access Roads]
    Shared Surface Street / (Pedestrian Priority Streets) / [Pedestrian Streets]
    Home Zone

    In theory we should be in, or approaching, a similar position to the Dutch. Unfortunately, having got these hierarchies defined and (initially) implemented, there follows the slow drip, drip of alteration; of allowing inappropriate uses (e.g. at-grade access to edge of town retail and business parks on what should be grade-separated primary distributors carrying only long distance through traffic) and so it works its way down the hierarchy.

  3. Notak says:

    There are several residential streets near me which once a year hold street parties (one party in each street, on different days – though people from neighbouring streets do attend!). The first thing they do is put up notices saying the party will be held on such-and-such a date and will people please avoid parking on the street on that day. On the day itself, they close the street with cones or barriers. It seems they get authorisation from the council for this. Then they have a party, people chat, dance, eat, drink, kids play, etc. I think this is an example of the need to reduce traffic volumes in order to create ‘place’.

    But these are already quiet residential streets. They do not lead anywhere and the only traffic is residential. They’re not even used for general parking, due to an RPZ. I think it’s quite likely that the reduced volume of traffic, as well perhaps as the narrowness of the streets, is one of the factors that leads to an atmosphere in which neighbours are able to consider this kind of thing in the first place.

    However, they are nowhere near as quiet as those photos of Marienplaats (as an aside, doesn’t the name indicate it’s a square rather than a street or road?). This could be for various reasons, but clearly one is that all those residents have cars which they park on the street – except for one day a year.

  4. Andrea says:

    Timely post. I have written earlier this week how the confusion in the UK kills people:
    In London the Road Task Force attempted to give a framework to classify roads, but it was a typical Botch Job: nine classifications and no clarity on how to allocate.
    What London needs is the Motoring Grid, as explained here:
    Here is our proposal for Central London:

  5. Aron says:

    @Notak ‘plaats’ means ‘place’. I think it used to mean “square”, but nowadays it mostly just means ‘place’.

  6. MysteryMachine says:

    One of the key problems with the British fudge of failing to classify roads properly is that local authorities will not take the politically challenging step of removing parking on through roads which is needed to provide the space that is required for the safe, segregated cycling infrastructure which is necessary on these roads.

    This is not even just a cycling issue – there are many roads which should be dedicated for movement of traffic where the retention of parking causes motor traffic to be unable to pass vehicles coming the other way, particularly larger vehicles such as buses and HGVs.

    Until responsible authorities can find the will to ignore the howls of local motorists desperate to avoid losing the ‘right’ to leave their personal property on the public highway, even when entirely inappropriate, then this issue will not be solved.

    • michael says:

      Something that constantly annoys me about London – including as a pedestrian and as a bus-passenger. Its just completely absurd, but its driven by drivers’ insistence on somehow having their cake and eating it too.

      Sadly, councils seem to be trying to deal with it by increasingly reappropriating pavements for use as car parking places.

  7. neil says:

    While I agree local authority need to keep to classifications if there are shops or houses surely it shouldn’t be a distributor road? Or there has to be a transition. How do you transition a road that has destinations to a distributor role? I can only think of service roads or removing the shops/houses.

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  9. It’s very important to know about the difference between through traffic and through roads. Through traffic on an access road are rat runners. Through roads however the Dutch reserve for 70 km/h very large urban roads that are designed to connect entire quadrants of cities, and for motorways and expressways, called autowegen.

    Here is a simple way to look at it.

    Through road: flow on links (ordinary stretches of roads) but also flow on junctions (meaning interchanges as much as possible).

    Distributor roads: Flow on links (about 50-70 km/h) but exchange at junctions (roundabouts are perfect for this).

    Access roads: Exchange on links (driveways for example) and on junctions.

    I found a nice article that explains this well:

    For sustainable safety as a whole, I read this:

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