Making a pop-up active travel network

A letter from the Department for Transport (page 1, page 2) sent out this week makes it clear that the government is expecting councils to quickly implement safe and meaningful active travel routes by using techniques such as modal filters (a.k.a. ‘point closures’) and physical segregation as far as possible. The letter makes it clear that half-measures will not be funded, only changes that make a significant difference.

The quickest and cheapest way of achieving [road space reallocation] will normally be [modal filters]. These can be of certain main roads (with exceptions for buses, access and disabled people, and with other main roads kept free for through motor traffic); or of parallel side streets, if sufficiently direct to provide alternatives to the main road.

Modal filtering is well-known in cities and some towns as one of the ways to help create safe, low-traffic, quiet residential neighbourhoods.

A road with planters meant to filter out motor traffic
Highworth Avenue modal filter

It’s also useful in rural areas. I’ll let you in on the real secret behind the extensive Dutch rural cycle network: it’s mostly country roads, where traffic has been sharply reduced using techniques such as modal filtering. In most places, they’ve gone through their road network and reduced motor traffic on many of the small country lanes, diverting it to the main road network instead. This leaves behind a large network of safe active travel routes throughout the countryside and also helps to ensure that village streets are quiet and peaceful places.

A rural road with bollards to filter out motor traffic
Dutch rural road with modal filter (courtesy of Hackney Cyclist)

Modal filters can be implemented very quickly (within weeks) and cheaply (just paperwork, low-cost materials and labour). What are the advantages?

  • The volume of motor traffic on the road reduces dramatically, because the only people driving there are people with homes, businesses or deliveries to make along it.
  • Of course, all motor vehicle access to properties along the roads would be fully available. Through-traffic, however, would need to use main roads instead.
  • Therefore, the road becomes a safe and quiet route for active travel, usable by people of all abilities if they so choose.
  • Residents on the road enjoy more peace and better air quality.
  • Businesses on the road can spread out more and even use some of the highway for things like open-air markets, or setting out tables and chairs, which may be useful along village high streets.
  • The modal filter can be designed in such a way that it allows tractors and other large vehicles to pass through, so it would not affect farmers using heavy equipment like that. It could even be designed with a key and a gate, in case there is a need for other limited exceptions.
  • Where bus priority is also desired, another form of modal filter may be used: a bus gate.

And, what are the disadvantages?

  • A small percentage of motorised journeys take a few minutes longer. A driving trip from a site immediately adjacent to the filter to one immediately the other side would require going around the alternative route, but thoughtful filter placement can reduce the likelihood that this becomes an issue.
  • Another road might see some increase in motor traffic, although this may not happen because some people who are currently driving will switch their mode of transport due to the opening of a safe route (or better yet: a network of safe routes).

When done right, the neighbourhood or village gains a safe street that enables outdoor activities like street markets on high streets or cycling between villages on country roads, at the cost of a small increase in journey time for some car trips. For an improvement that can be rolled out within a week or two, with such a strong benefit to cost ratio, that seems like a major win for everyone.

Road in Barrington with road works signs
Cycling became temporarily much safer on a road in Barrington, due to bridge works that coincidentally had the same effect as a modal filter.

Of course, the placement of the modal filter is crucial, as is its design. Both can be determined through consultation with local stakeholders as well as emergency services. Another great thing is that because modal filters can created so cheaply, they can also be modified very cheaply, and moved around too. Therefore, they make a perfect way to experiment with road changes. If something isn’t working out, it can be quickly fixed.

Where is a good location for a modal filter? Look at smaller roads that could really use help, such as narrow streets with homes or shops, or potential active travel links between villages. Expanding our view to the network level, there is often another nearby road that could also be used for driving between the same set of places. This other road is often already a bypass, designed for the explicit purpose of carrying motor traffic away from built-up areas.

Then you consider where you might place a filter along the smaller road that needs help: be sure to prevent any inadvertent rat-running on other streets. It might make sense to put more than one filter down in some cases.

Some filters need to be bus gates, because there is a bus route on that road. Other filters might be designed with a low profile that allows tractors or fire engines to pass easily. An unlockable gate or bollard is another common feature, with a key used by emergency services or highway maintenance when necessary. That key could also be shared with nearby stakeholders with a particular issue. Of course, the fancier schemes could use ANPR for the same purpose, but this is less suitable for pop-up routes at this moment, due to regulatory complications.

Implementation of modal filtering requires traffic regulation orders. The DfT has made it clear that they expect councils to use temporary and experimental orders to make safe routes using techniques such as modal filtering. Such orders can be deployed in as little as seven days.

A filtered country road outside of King’s Lynn: peaceful and safe, and now part of National Cycle Route 1

Ultimately, modal filtering is one of the more useful ways to help make a road safe for active travel. Putting these pieces together creates routes, and eventually a network. Working together, an entire pop-up active travel network could be assembled within weeks.

Please let us know if you think modal filtering would help in your neighbourhood or village.