This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 120.
There are proposals for a new housing development in Cambridge with a difference: at the centre of the development will be a car-free street.
Proposers say, ‘We’ve opted to have a completely car-free street on our site as we feel that this will help to foster a stronger community by preventing the “split” of an actual road. It will give us a communal space between our houses that can be utilised in many ways and which won’t be dominated by the car, as many streets are now. This means children can play out, adults can get together and we can use the space productively.’
The development in Orchard Park, known as K1 (www.cambridge-k1.co.uk), is proposed as a local example of cohousing. A cohousing community has features of communal living, such as the possibility of shared meals, gardening and workshops, while each household still has its own private space. Shared resources reduce environmental impact, and houses will be built to Passivhaus standards*, where natural light and heat are used to minimise energy bills. Walking, cycling and public transport are also key parts of the proposals. It is a planned community, where participants have decided that they want to live more closely with neighbours.
K1’s car-free street is central to supporting the community. As long ago as 1969, Donald Appleyard was studying the effect of traffic on quality of life. The resulting work, Livable Streets, showed how streets with higher levels of motor traffic result in fewer people knowing and interacting with their neighbours, especially those on opposite sides of a busy road. The work has been replicated in different places since then.
Recently Nigel Farage bemoaned that children no longer play football in the streets, blaming social and racial divides for this change. It seems more obvious that an increase in car use means parents no longer let their children play outside. When Bristol resident Alice Ferguson wanted to encourage children to play in her street she got the council to close it to through-traffic for three hours. The idea was so successful it resulted in the creation of not-for-profit group Playing Out (playingout.net), which supports communities around the country to help create an environment where children can play safely where they live. They say:
The place of the car
The idea is not to remove the car from urban life. K1 will still have car parking for residents, and access for refuse collection, deliveries and removals will still be necessary. But it is essential to realise that roads can have either a major transport function, or a community function: they cannot have both.
There is a trend in modern British urban planning to think that attractive paving and street features are the tools of regeneration for busy urban spaces. But as Appleyard suggests, people do not take pride in a place they don’t want to be in. The noise, pollution and danger of through-traffic prevent engagement with public space: it is somewhere to move through quickly, not to linger in.
In Houten in the Netherlands it is common to find streets where walking and cycling take place at the front of the house, with access for cars at the back, or parking at a little distance in shared residents’ car parks. Dutch car ownership per head of population is slightly higher than the UK, and they need to store their cars somewhere. But the convenience of cycle access, and the design of low-traffic residential streets, along with segregated cycle tracks on main roads, make cycling the safe and obvious choice for local travel, even when you need a car for other journeys.
But the example of Houten hints at why individual developments can only go so far in Cambridge. Until integration of high-quality pedestrian and cycle infrastructure is city wide, ideas like this can fail as soon as people realise that while they can step outside their front door in safety, they can’t complete their journey safely without a car. Front doors get ignored in favour of back doors which go directly to parking. Footways get parked on because no one is using them.
Orchard Park does at least have good connections along the Busway and to the new train station. But crossing multiple lanes on King’s Hedges Road is a different matter, and Histon Road’s narrow painted cycle lanes are next to useless. King’s Hedges itself, designed in the ’60s, has common park area between front doors for neighbourly interaction, play, off-road walking and cycling connections, but is bounded by major roads without good cycle routes.
It is a pattern across all new developments in Cambridge that, even where internal road layouts are designed to be cycle-friendly, high-quality connections to the rest of Cambridge are absent. Multi-lane, high-capacity junctions suggest that developers aren’t really convinced people will walk or cycle. Multi-stage crossings with sharp turns put walking and cycling at the back of the queue for access, as at the North- West Cambridge development (see Newsletter 116).
A wider vision for the city is required: one which puts people at its heart, and in doing so encourages those modes of travel which support community rather than sever it, and which encourages interaction with our neighbours and play on the doorstep rather than isolated pockets of houses and designated and remote play space.
* For standard see: www. passivhaus.org.uk/standard.jsp?id=122