Modal filters help make roads safer for everyone

A man riding a handcycle through a modal filter
The Highworth Avenue modal filter is easily accessible to people using handcycles or mobility scooters, among others.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the urgency of creating safe conditions for people walking, cycling, using wheelchairs and mobility scooters on our streets. In many places, pavements are narrow and people walking and cycling are squeezed into narrow spaces and unable to practise social distancing as required. There are many older or vulnerable people without cars who need more space. Fixing the infrastructure would take months or years that we don’t have, so we have to reuse what we already have. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that air pollution is linked to the spread of the virus, which means that reduction of the pollution can be a key disease prevention measure.

In late May, the Department for Transport issued instructions to all combined and local authorities, asking them to put forward schemes that would help people walk and cycle safely during the pandemic and the recovery. They explicitly stated that the schemes had to ‘reallocate road space’ and that one way to do so would be to use ‘modal filters’.

What’s a modal filter?
A bus gate with a rising bollard.
The Bridge Street bus gate, when it was a rising bollard. Now it is just a camera.

A modal filter is any measure, at a single point in a road, that allows the passage of some modes of transport but not others. One common type of modal filter allows walking, cycling and emergency vehicles to pass through, but stops other types of motor traffic at that point. Another common type of modal filter also allows buses and taxis to pass through, and is known as a ‘bus gate’. A time-limited ‘school street’ is a modal filter intended to create safe conditions outside a school during the times when children are congregating, in order to help families walk and cycle to school. It may be implemented using temporary barriers that are rolled out at the appropriate times by school employees and then put away afterwards, but it does nothing at other times.

Children on a school street.
Children arriving at a school street.

In general, modal filters are placed in such a way that all types of motor vehicles can access properties along a road, but through-traffic is prevented. This immediately makes the road much safer for walking and cycling. A good example of where this could help a lot is Arbury Road in Cambridge. People will be able to walk in the road and keep 2m apart without worrying about being run over by a driver. People using mobility scooters and wheelchairs will be able to use the carriageway safely instead of narrow and treacherous pavements. Pollution levels will be reduced and overall traffic levels will drop as more local journeys are made by foot or bike.

Some car journeys need to be diverted to avoid the modal filter. For longer journeys, the difference in route will be minimal in the context of the overall trip. In some cases, drivers may see an improvement because they will not have to wait in a queue on their own street. Some local journeys by car may take a few minutes more in a way that is noticeable. It is a small inconvenience, but it has to be balanced against the massive safety and health improvements offered to the community by the modal filter. Now, because of the pandemic, those safety and health benefits are needed more than ever.

How do emergency responders benefit from modal filters?
A modal filter with a gate usable by emergency services
The Gwydir Street modal filter can be opened by emergency services when necessary.

The council always consults with emergency responders before installing a modal filter. They are generally quite supportive for several reasons. First, safer conditions on a street mean that there are fewer road traffic crashes requiring a response. Second, the reduction in motor traffic on filtered roads means that they are much emptier when the emergency vehicle arrives, making it easy to drive through. Finally, modal filters are often built in a way that permits emergency vehicles to pass through when needed.

Emergency vehicle drivers follow fast routes that are calculated in advance for each address, or some form of satellite navigation, therefore all that is needed is to ensure that the modal filter is registered in their computer database so they can follow the best route either way.

Where is the car traffic going to go?
A modal filter built with two planters, a bollard, and with two blue badge spaces.
A modal filter in Waltham Forest along with two blue badge parking spaces.

Car journeys will largely take place on main roads, and ideally should use residential side streets only for access to properties. Decades of experience have shown that removing rat-runs and road space for cars leads to a reduction in car usage in those areas. This will also result in a reduction of pollution and an increase in active travel. Evidence from Waltham Forest in London shows that cycling and especially walking journeys increased substantially after car traffic was removed from residential streets. The public health benefits are enormous and  needed now more than ever during the pandemic, with a disease that appears to spread more readily in polluted air.

Can these benefits be realised quickly?

Yes, it is possible to install a modal filter with seven days’ notice using an experimental traffic regulation order. The Department for Transport has instructed councils to use this type of traffic order to make roads safe for social distancing during the pandemic.

What is an experimental scheme?
Modal filter made from planters
An experimental modal filter in Bethnal Green, quickly assembled from planters (@bowbetter).

The county council may issue what is called an ‘experimental traffic regulation order‘ (ETRO) in order to test out ideas about road changes in the real world. This is a kind of ‘traffic regulation order’, which is the formal way to change some rules about roads, such as the placement of yellow lines, parking bays and limitations on certain types of traffic. The council must announce the plans for an ETRO in public places and newspapers (digital or printed) seven days before installing the changes. They then must commence a consultation period that lasts up to six months, gathering comments from the public about the scheme. At the end of the consultation, the council may choose to extend the experiment for another year, but after that they must consider the evidence and public input received in order to make a decision about whether or not to keep the scheme permanently.

Modal filter with children cycling safely on the street
An experimental modal filter in Lee Green has created a safe street for children to cycle (@MakeLeeGreen).

The council has recently used an ETRO to help people on Mill Road and open up space for social distancing outside shops by installing a bus gate on the bridge.

Will I be able to drive my car wherever I need to go?

Yes, you will be able to drive your car to wherever you need to go, however you might have to change your route in some cases. Be sure to follow road signs as you go. If it is an option, we always encourage people to consider walking or cycling for shorter journeys, and you should find that it is much safer and more pleasant to do so after these changes have gone in.

Are modal filters fair?

A randomly selected cross-section of Cambridgeshire residents was brought together last year for a Citizens’ Assembly. They were presented with evidence and they considered the question of what measures would ‘reduce congestion, improve air quality and deliver better public transport’.

ANPR cameras protecting a street where two families are standing
A camera-enforced modal filter in Islington makes the street safe for families (@k9).

After consideration and discussion, the participants gave their strongest support to the option that reduced car traffic on roads by using measures such as modal filters and they even went much further than that and supported closing roads to cars entirely.

The Citizens’ Assembly agreed to several key messages, including: ‘be brave, be bold and take action’, ‘fairness is a key principle’ and ‘consider trials/pilots and phasing’.

When ordinary people get a chance to sit down and weigh the evidence, they see modal filters as a strong and fair measure to reduce congestion, improve air quality and public transport.

What about the needs of people with disabilities?

The council has a duty under the Equality Act always to make reasonable accommodation to ensure that people with disabilities do not experience any disadvantage compared to able-bodied persons, and that will continue to be the case. We are confident that council officers will take care during the detailed design to ensure that blue badge parking spaces are maintained and that access to them is fully available. Furthermore, the design of temporary cycling and walking ‘pop-up’ schemes must be fully accessible to people of all abilities. ‘Three-quarters of disabled cyclists use their cycle as a mobility aid with the same proportion finding cycling easier than walking.’ It’s very important to us that these schemes will also enable more people to walk or cycle, especially people who use handcycles, tricycles, various types of cycles adapted for disability, or mobility scooters, and that people with partial sight can safely navigate the temporary changes. Modal filters improve safety for all road users and must be built to allow passage of people using mobility scooters and wheelchairs as well as any type of cycle used as a mobility aid. People will find it much easier to walk, wheel or scoot along a road after a modal filter has been installed because of the greatly reduced amount of motor traffic.

Where do modal filters currently exist?
Bollards across Ditton Walk
A simple modal filter on Ditton Walk.

There are lots of modal filters in Cambridge and the surrounding region, as well as other cities and towns across the county, so it is difficult to assemble a comprehensive list. Many modal filters have been in place so long that they feel like they’ve always been there, and they are very popular. Very few people would want rat-running motor traffic to return to their quiet street, after all.

Here is an incomplete list of streets with permanent modal filters:

  • Argyle Street, Cambridge
  • Bridge Street, Cambridge
  • Chesterton Hall Crescent, Cambridge
  • Clarendon Street, Cambridge
  • Ditton Walk, Cambridge
  • Gwydir Street, Cambridge
  • Highworth Avenue, Cambridge
  • Hooper Street, Cambridge
  • Oak Tree Avenue, Cambridge
  • Rathmore Road, Cambridge
  • Regent Street, Cambridge
  • Riverside, Cambridge
  • Rustat Road, Cambridge
  • Silver Street, Cambridge
  • Water Street, Cambridge
  • Hill Way, Linton
  • Manor Park, Histon
  • New Road, Histon
  • School Lane, Histon
  • Longstanton Road (the old airfield), Oakington
  • Bridge Street, St Ives
  • White Hart Lane, St Ives
  • High Street, Huntingdon
  • Almond Close, Godmanchester
  • Cambridge Road, Waterbeach
  • Ship Lane, Ely
  • St John’s Road, Ely
  • The Chase, Ely
  • Cooperation Road, Wisbech
  • Exchange Square, Wisbech