Originally published: November 2016 edition of the Ontario Planning Journal. In interview with Dick van Veen, senior consultant at Mobycon, a Dutch-Canadian transportation consulting firm headquartered in Delft, NL with a Canadian office in Ottawa.
Streets do not need to be designed for cars in order to accommodate cars.
Mode-oriented street design is the focus of a new report (English/Dutch) released by the Royal Dutch Touring Club ANWB, an association for automobile and bicycle users that serves as an important stakeholder in Dutch transport system. Mobycon is a Dutch-Canadian transportation consulting firm that was retained by ANWB to author this report.
“This report replaces the old view with a new perspective, in which cars are not automatically the dominant user group.”, said Mobycon senior consultant Dick van Veen in an interview. “The main reason why this study is interesting in in the Canadian context is because engineers have become complacent to the idea that infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians must be on the ‘edges’ of the roadway. Even in places where they are the dominant mode and outnumber cars, still they are still visually on the brink.”
In Ontario traffic engineering, cars are assumed to be the main users of road space. Everywhere, this is the implicit statement made by our design of streets, even where speed limits are low. Street design of incorrect scale have the effect of dwarfing pedestrians and cyclists while subconsciously promoting automobiles as the dominant design vehicle.
"If people need a speed limit sign to guide their behaviour, then this is a failure in design”
-Dick van Veen
Image credit: Hamilton-Baillie, B. (2008). Towards shared space. URBAN DESIGN International, 13(2), 130–138. https://doi.org/10.1057/udi.2008.13
“If people need a speed limit sign to guide their behaviour, then this is a failure in design,” said van Veen. The report gives examples of traffic environments that are immediately recognizable to the users of public space. Drivers are more likely to behave appropriately if urban design elements along a roadway clearly signify the speed and type of traffic that is expected within an environment. Just as expressway signs and light masts would be monstrously proportioned if used in city traffic, the signs and design elements in low-speed environments should be tailored to the human scale.
“The general focus in the Netherlands is to mix traffic, and stay away from separation. Only when speeds are higher than 30 km/h is it mandatory to separate bicycle traffic from automobile traffic,” said van Veen. For example, a 50 km/h street is not considered safe for the mixing of modes, so a 50 km/h street must have a separated bicycle and pedestrian pathways. This way, the safety of vulnerable road users is always prioritized.
Planners must carefully consider the trade-off between the quality of public space versus provisions for the automobile. “There are always two worlds in a street environment. The world of flow, and the world of place. Speed limits alone is not enough. If you don't redesign the environment, then you don't change spatial quality and you don't change people’s behaviour.” Hence, van Veen argues that quality public spaces that are inviting to people who walk and bike should also contain measures to calm automobile traffic by giving drivers an intuitive awareness that they are guests within that environment.
A common concern for retailers is the need for goods delivery to their business. A potential solution is to allow larger vehicles as guests in spaces designed for lighter modes of transport, so each traffic environment is not exclusionary to heavier modes of transport. For example, a garbage truck may need to access a street designed for people walking as its primary user, the garbage truck must be driven at walking speed in a manner that respects the safety and comfort of the other users of public space.
Traffic safety is improved by grouping modalities of similar mass into “traffic families”. Mass is a constant, while speed is a design variable. Hence, consideration of both the speed and mass of vehicles in relation to their environment forms the basis of categorization. The figure below illustrates the optional and mandatory physical separation of traffic families in a 30 km/h zone. In this environment, light motor vehicles, such as scooters and mopeds, are the design vehicle. Cars are only allowed as guests.
But vehicle categorization is not always clear. For example, motorcycles are capable of tremendous speeds but have low mass and offer no protection for the rider. Cars are at least ten times the mass of motorcycles so even small differences in speed results in disastrous consequences for the motorcycle rider. Should motorcycles share the road fast cars or slow down to match the speed of similarly sized scooters? Should racing cyclists, with high travel speeds share the cycle path with normal cyclists? And what is the place on the road for often forgotten modes like skateboards, e-bikes, or segways?
Often, the structural classification of a street may conflict with the design of the environment. For example, a structural conflict may be the desire to move large amounts of automobile traffic through a pedestrian-oriented main street. This is the case with many rural cities that started as a few storefronts on a highway. As the growth of a city invites more people to walk in its urban centre, the street should change its form, transforming towards a place where pedestrians and cyclists are more dominant.
For cars on a main street, this would mean a downgrade in comfort and an increase in travel time, which has to be accepted in a pedestrian oriented environment. If car flow is still important, a detour route should be considered for through traffic. van Veen argues that, “this rebalance is more than just a traffic engineering question; by enabling pedestrians and cyclists to come back into the street, opportunities for placemaking and good public space become apparent, raising the overall economic vitality and liveability of the street.”
In the case of the dilemma above, the report presents a few possible outcomes:
- Re-routing the main traffic route (black line) around the urban area (dark brown);
- Keep the main traffic route through the residential area and accept that the preferred spatial quality and traffic safety will not be realised; or
- Keep the main traffic route through the residential area, but at a greatly reduced speed, and accepting a lower automobile throughput.
Future transportation options evolves over time in step with technology. In Ontario, bicycles are starting to gain space in our cities, but e-bikes remain a contentious topic. This ANWB report recognizes that emergent technology has the potential to improve transport options within the city. History may prove cars in the city to be a temporary phenomenon, and new modes are constantly emerging. An advantage of mode-oriented street design is the flexible classification of vehicles to include transportation options such as e-bikes, scooters, and even microcars. Mobility options of the future may not fit easily into pedestrian, cycling, and automobile distinctions, so we should design environments that guide the appropriate behaviour that is expected of all road users, regardless of the type of vehicle they are using.