A low-traffic Cambridge is possible

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 155.

In 2017, Mobility Mayor of Ghent Fillip Watteeuw used a traffic circulation plan to achieve traffic reduction and increase active travel uptake in his city. In Cambridge, a new road hierarchy and congestion charging have been proposed by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP).

Map of the Circulation Plan in Ghent, introduced in 2017. Drivers must use the ring road to access each of the six zones surrounding the car-free centre (shown in orange).

Meanwhile reducing carbon dependency and promotion of active travel has pushed traffic reduction up the political agenda. When these, the first proposals for traffic management since the 1980s, were announced in November 2021, the reaction from a vocal minority was clear: they were ‘anti-democratic’, ‘discriminatory’ and a ‘threat to our freedoms’.

Is public highway access discriminatory ?

Inequality in mobility is historic. Until the 19th century, if you couldn’t afford a horse, shank’s pony (walking) was your only option. By the 1840s, the railway had arrived and by 1890 the safety cycle began its promise of mobility for the masses. The ‘right’ to be free to travel is conditional on wealth and, just as the rights inherent in the use of the highway have derived from basic public safety needs, transport choices are not consensual but pragmatic. Such ‘rights’ have evolved from the days of the turnpike, through the Locomotive Act 1865 (known as the Red Flag Act) up to the present hierarchy of use in the Highway Code.

How democratic is mobility?

No change in travel modes has ever been democratically endorsed. In 2012 Cambridge had 343 cars per thousand people1. That suggests that 657 per thousand didn’t have the same freedom as those with a car. Would universal car ownership be fair or practical? Would a vote for the dominance of the public road by the private car have a majority? The current situation is discriminatory in that travel modes are not equally accessible, but are managed with priority given to motor traffic.

Nationally, 47% of the adult population have the use of a car. Provision for the 53% is way behind spending supporting private car use2. The cost of cars is a mobility barrier and support for public transport does not mitigate this. Our national and local authorities have poured billions of our money into highways to enable mobility for those who can afford car ownership. The DfT budget allocated for motor traffic (2020/21 spending on highways is £11.72bn) dwarfs spending on public transport (which, in 2020/21, including rail is £3.92bn)3; is this discrimination? Peak time congestion, global resource limits, pollution and climate impacts all impinge on the viability of universal car use. Turning around 50 or 60 years’ worth of policy direction is not easy: generations have aspired to, and enjoyed, car ownership and are reluctant to change the habits of a lifetime.

Traffic reduction by circulation planning: the future?

Martelarenlaan, Leuven. Reduction in roadway width combined with a ban on through traffic creates a quiet street with green space. Perhaps this could be an inspiration for a street like Coldham’s Lane?

Roads have been managed for decades to ‘maintain flow’ or ‘predict and provide’ for traffic growth for the benefit of the private car user. Changing priority from cars to people is a shift toward travel modes that benefit our health and environment. The new Highway Code recognises that the most vulnerable should be treated with the greatest care and our infrastructure needs to adapt. Limiting motor access neighbourhood by neighbourhood, with through motor traffic taking a peripheral path, changes streets from traffic conduits to active travel spaces with quality of life benefits. I have seen this.4 It works and it is becoming a template across Europe. Circulation planning for people priority means using the car differently; a small city like Cambridge really doesn’t need a ‘drive to buy’ model to thrive, and moving traffic away from the centre makes the centre a much more attractive place.

What would it be like?

In 2018 56% of trips by car were under 5 miles. Cambridge is only 5 and a half miles wide. Cutting out short car journeys could really change things. Imagine walking down St Andrews St without having to hop on and off the crowded pavement into the path of traffic?

Closing through routes to motor traffic makes space for the people who live along them. We already enjoy a number of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) which kill rat-running and, they are desirable places to live. What they don’t do is change the circulation across the whole city. In Ghent they made the radials ‘access only’ as a means to enter or leave a neighbourhood: if you want to cross the city by car you need to leave the neighbourhood at its outer edge and drive around the periphery leaving the inner roads for active travel.

The Ghent plan is designed to ensure public transport, commercial and disabled access but always with a view to keeping public spaces public by use of flexible filtering. The new space freed from motor traffic means wider footways, more green space, reliable buses and, paradoxically, better neighbourhood parking. Each neighbourhood forms a pizza-slice-shaped zone with car access only from the edges, the ‘spoke’ roads becoming a mix of one-way, reduced-width roads. Fillip Watteeuw shows how cities like Utrecht and Copenhagen created circulation paths to reduce traffic5. Unlike Utrecht and Copenhagen, Ghent developed a circulation plan that didn’t rely on costly engineering to work.

How could it work?

Applied to Cambridge, a city with a third of the population and about a quarter of the area, the Ghent model would prevent cars traversing the city centre. I think this would divide the city into eight neighbourhoods and one big car-free/pedestrian priority zone.

Bill’s suggestion for a circulation zone for Cambridge.

This new circulation of motor traffic would mean:

  • driving from one neighbourhood to the other would use the M11, A14, A1134 peripheral route
  • some streets could change direction or be cut for cars (not for buses and taxis).

This could be worthwhile, since:

  • the city centre would remain accessible. Not only pedestrians, cyclists and public transport will benefit
  • car drivers that absolutely need to be in the city centre could reach their destination faster. Suppliers, health care providers or elderly people will get to the city car parks more easily.
  • the Circulation Plan keeps the city liveable. Cyclists, pedestrians, taxis and buses take up less of the limited available public space than cars.

The radials could be very different

Mill Road, which divides North and South Romsey, could change from being a through corridor to a light-traffic access road with more space for leisure, business and active travel. By removing the ‘through’ element time spent there could increase as ‘drive to buy’ becomes less attractive compared to other, slower, modes. Coldham’s Lane could change from ‘an informal part of the ring road’ to a green-way from Cherry Hinton opening up the common and healing the fracture in the Chisholm Trail.

It’s personal

Would a circulation plan be acceptable to all who live and use Cambridge? Absolutely not. Can a shift from a car-centric plan achieve behavioural change? Yes it can and does. How can these contradictory things be resolved? It comes down to political will. We elect our representatives to do the best we think they can for us. Candidates don’t want to get involved in bitter personal mobility disputes, and support for public transport is always strong on promises and weak on delivery. No wonder ‘no change’ is the default position: who wants to face the noise of distressed motorists who find driving to the city takes a little longer or have to go the long way around to undertake a short journey that might be walked, ridden or bussed for the benefit of a better city environment? In Ghent it took a left/green coalition to get the change they need: what would it take here?6

Why should I have to press a button and wait while the ‘more important’ people in cars pass by before I cross the road?

Why should parents be afraid to let their children ride or walk to school for fear of cars?

Bill Blake

  1. https://www.racfoundation.org/assets/rac_foundation/content/downloadables/car%20ownership%20rates%20by%20local%20authority%20-%20december%202012.pdf
  2. nimblefins.co.uk/cheap-car-insurance/number-cars-great-britain
  3. statista.com/statistics/298667/united-kingdom-uk-public-sector-expenditure-national-roads
  4. https://ecf.com/news-and-events/news/32-more-cycling-one-year-after-eliminating-through-car-traffic-centre-leuven
  5. https://stad.gent/en/mobility-ghent/circulation-plan/principles-circulation-plan
  6. https://www.cadencemag.co.uk/ghent-changing-the-whole-circulation-plan-overnight-a-strong-political-decision

Bill’s diagram shows what a whole city circulation plan might look like for Cambridge with a central core and eight low-traffic zones linked by the ‘ring’ of the A14,M11, A1134 & A1303. What do you think? Do you have other ideas? Please get involved with the GCP Road Classification consultation and help shape Camcycle’s position.