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.
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.
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.