A Manual for Streets

Manual for Streets (MfS) could be the most influential document on urban design in 50 years. It is intended to bring about a transformation in the way streets are designed in order to give priority to environmental quality and to promote sustainable and truly mixed user communities. It is a replacement for the Government’s old Design Bulletin 32 (DB32) and Places, Streets and Movement, which have now been withdrawn.

The MfS will be of key importance for the future of our towns and cities, not least Cambridge, where 50 000 houses will be built in the coming decade.

MfS focuses on lightly-trafficked residential streets, though its principles may apply to other types of streets such as high streets. It explicitly does not apply to trunk roads, whose design requirements are set out in the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges.

The document, released in March, was produced to schedule, and has not been heavily watered down since the extremely promising draft released in 2006 for comment. The finalised version differs textually from the draft in that it has been condensed down, which in many respects is positive (given the many pressures on Local Authority development control staff around the country) and reorganised. The key principles and focus remain in place.

Urban design focus

The new guidance is written very much from a strong urban design perspective which tries to encourage human-scale interaction with the surrounding ‘place’, thus designing streets as ‘social spaces’. It argues that many new developments are lacking identity, and a sense of place, undermining the aims of the sustainable communities agenda.

It heavily discourages so-called ‘DB32-style layouts’, which can generally be characterised as having busy distributor roads that link relatively small cells of housing, leading to cul-de-sac style developments which are generally rather unconnected and which are rather meandering and impermeable to cyclists. As such, walking and cycling in such areas has naturally become the exception, because the car is simply the most efficient way to get about.

‘For too long the focus has been on the movement function of residential streets. The result has often been places that are dominated by motor vehicles to the extent that they fail to make a positive contribution to the quality of life. MfS demonstrates the benefits that flow from good design and assigns a higher priority to pedestrians and cyclists, setting out an approach to residential streets that recognises their role in creating places that work for all members of the community. MfS refocuses on the place function of residential streets, giving clear guidance on how to achieve well-designed streets and spaces that serve the community in a range of ways.’

In many respects, the document argues for a return to rather more traditional urban design forms which ‘are easier to assimilate into existing built-up areas and which have been proven to stand the test of time in many ways.’ The sort of terraced housing seen in areas of Cambridge like Romsey or Petersfield, and which remain popular amongst house buyers, as well as relatively successful from a sustainability perspective, would be much in favour according to principles in the MfS.

The principles of urban design

  • Character – a place with its own identity.
  • Continuity and enclosure – a place where public and private spaces are clearly distinguished.
  • Quality of the public realm – a place with attractive and successful outdoor areas.
  • Ease of movement – a place that is easy to get to and move through.
  • Legibility – a place that has a clear image and is easy to understand.
  • Adaptability – a place that can change easily.
  • Diversity – a place with variety and choice.

Cycling?

The Manual for Streets is explicitly not a cycling design guide – but instead a document focusing on housing developments of the sort that genuinely makes walking and cycling the natural, attractive option.

Cycling is mentioned often in the document but there is only limited reference to cycle facilities. Many would argue that this is how it should be, for the emphasis is on developing street environments which are inherently suitable for cycling without the need for bolt-on extras. Indeed, the main thrust of the document is about recreating communities, quality environments and ‘streetscapes.’ Cycling is but a means (although an important one) towards this end rather than something to be accommodated in the abstract.

Hierarchy of users

The document sets out a clear hierarchy of users, putting cyclists well above motorists.

Key goals are providing for movement choices and encouraging appropriate driver behaviour. A hierarchy of users is promoted, with people on foot and with disabilities first, cyclists second, then public transport, cars and other motorised vehicles:

This hierarchy will be familiar to anyone who has read Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure, another piece of guidance which is due to be updated soon.

It will also be recognised by those of us familiar with Cambridgeshire County Council’s Local Transport Plan. However, it would be hard to argue that the County have done anything except ignore that hierarchy in the vast majority of cases, with pedestrian and cycle provision fitted in only after the road design for cars, pedestrians given little time at crossings, or motor vehicles given priority at side road junctions, for instance. Perhaps having this hierarchy at last stated in a formal piece of government guidance will encourage decision-makers to take it more seriously.

Consider first Pedestrians
Cyclists
Public transport users
Specialist service vehicles (e.g. emergency services, waste, etc.)
Consider last Other motor traffic

Hierarchy of solutions

This, too, says the right things.

‘In the past, road design hierarchies have been based almost exclusively on the importance attributed to vehicular movement. This has led to the marginalisation of pedestrians and cyclists in the upper tiers where vehicular capacity requirements predominate.’

The positive solution against this traditional approach, is then expressed through the hierarchy of solutions, again familiar to readers of Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure:

‘If road safety problems for pedestrians or cyclists are identified, conditions should be reviewed to see if they can be addressed, rather than segregating these users from motorised traffic.’

Pedestrians Cyclists
Consider first Traffic volume reduction Traffic volume reduction
Reallocation of road space to pedestrians Junction treatment, hazard site treatment, traffic management
Provision of direct at-grade crossings, improved pedestrian routes on existing desire lines Cycle tracks away from roads
Consider last New pedestrian alignment or grade separation Conversion of footways/footpaths to adjacent-use* or shared-use routes for pedestrians and cyclists

* Adjacent-use routes are those where the cyclists are segregated from pedestrians.

In keeping with a minimal facility approach to cycle planning, the authors stress the value of ‘invisible infrastructure’ such as 20 mph zones and bus lanes, which are both popular with cyclists and good for safety, as well as naturally permeable street designs rather than ones which require excessive deviation.

Naturally-permeable street design

Manual for Streets image showing good and bad examples of naturally-permeable street design

The MfS promotes the notion of a ‘walkable neighbourhood’ where facilities are locally-based (under 800 m away): mixed-use neighbourhoods, having interconnected street patterns.

‘Internal permeability is important but the area also needs to be properly connected with adjacent street networks. A development with poor links to the surrounding area creates an enclave which encourages movement to and from it by car rather than by other modes’

There is also discussion about the way that surrounding roads should not act as a barrier to the development, which is exactly the problem that has happened at Arbury Park and King’s Hedges Road.

Sharing space with vehicles, not segregated from them

It also argues against segregated areas, again with a focus on permeable infrastructure:

‘Pedestrians and cyclists should generally share streets with motor vehicles. There will be situations where it is appropriate to include routes for pedestrians and cyclists segregated from motor traffic, but they should be short, well overlooked and relatively wide to avoid any sense of confinement.’

‘Pedestrians and cyclists should generally be accommodated on streets rather than routes segregated from motor traffic. Being seen by drivers, residents and other users affords a greater sense of security. However, short pedestrian and cycle-only links are generally acceptable if designed well. Regardless of length, all such routes in built-up areas, away from the carriageway, should be barrier-free and overlooked by buildings.’

‘Conflict among various user groups can be minimised or avoided by reducing the speed and flow of motor vehicles. Ideally, designers should aim to create streets that control vehicle speeds naturally rather than having to rely on unsympathetic traffic-calming measures. In general, providing a separate pedestrian and/or cycle route away from motor traffic should only be considered as a last resort (see the hierarchy of provision).’

One-way streets are also discouraged on the grounds of permeability, something which our councillors should bear in mind for areas of Cambridge like Newtown or Romsey.

Risk and innovation

The Manual for Streets clearly states that ‘cyclists should generally be accommodated on the carriageway’ and that off-road facilities should not be required for new developments because the road environment itself should be safe and low-speed.

The document recognises a key potential problem faced by many street practitioners, namely that of risk of being sued in the event of a collision.

Firstly, it reminds the reader that the vast majority of claims are for maintenance defects, rather than design faults. It goes on to outline how the existence of procedures that encourage rational decision-making and the use of a more rounded ‘quality audit’ approach, lead to a robust defence against negligence claims. This, it argues, should enable practitioners to move towards more innovative designs, away from an over-cautious, excessively standards-based approach.

Design issues

Having dealt in the first half of the book with many of the principles discussed above with regard to urban design and permeable infrastructure, the latter half covers actual design issues in detail.

Needs of people walking taken seriously

This commences with excellent and extensive coverage on the needs of pedestrians (section 6.3). Key recommendations are:

  • that streets should be designed in a way which makes vehicle speeds naturally below 20 mph;
  • that the pedestrian desire line be strongly adhered to when laying out roads and pavements;
  • for an environment which is unimpeded by street furniture, footway parking and other obstructions/barriers;
  • the need for ‘legible’ permeable design so that wayfinding is easy and direct;
  • that footbridges and subways should be avoided in favour of surface-level crossings;
  • that the corner radius of turns into sideroads be tight to force cars to slow down at a turning, so that people can walk in a straight line and so that vehicles do not swerve into the path of cyclists;
  • the use of raised tables at junction crossing points;
  • that paths are kept level rather than undulating when vehicles need to cross over
  • that a minimum 2 m pavement space should be provided

Image from Manual for Streets, showing optimal corner design at T-junctions with implications for pedestrians

Cyclists on the carriageway

The section on cyclists (section 6.4) starts with a clear, headline recommendation, that ‘cyclists should generally be accommodated on the carriageway.’ This is highly sensible advice given the focus on residential streets which, if well-designed, should automatically promote lower-speeds and natural interaction with (minimal amounts of) traffic. This theme is echoed through the entire Manual for Streets, which is why the section specifically on cycling is only a few pages.

Many aspects of the Manual describe how design affects behaviour, for instance at junctions.

MfS acknowledges that there is occasionally a need for specific infrastructure for specific groups, for instance a safe cycling route to school. However, it makes clear that such infrastructure would usually be inappropriate for commuters and so such provision should merely be an additional alternative which does not affect on-road cyclists; thus there is a recognition of different types of cyclists.

Many aspects of MfS describe how design affects behaviour:

‘The design of junctions affects the way motorists interact with cyclists. It is recommended that junctions are designed to promote slow motor-vehicle speeds. This may include short corner radii as well as vertical deflections’

Image from Manual for Streets, showing optimal corner design at T-junctions with implications for cyclists

And in many places elsewhere the document reminds us that ‘the design speed [should] be 20 mph or less in residential areas,’ which again would naturally foster increased levels of cycling.

‘The design speed [should] be 20 mph or less in residential areas’

Roundabouts are considered ‘not generally appropriate for residential developments … they can have a negative impact on vulnerable road users.’

For those of a more technical bent, new guidance on ‘visibility splays’ is also given.

Cycle parking and car parking

Another area where MfS raises the profile of cycling relates to cycle parking. Indeed, residential cycle parking is treated first (before car parking), in keeping with the manual’s hierarchy of users.

The sort of on-street covered cycle parking common on the continent and occasionally found here, as at UEA in Norwich above, would be ideal.
Image as described adjacent

However, the section on parking is overall arguably the least successful section of the Manual for Streets, as its conclusions are somewhat vague and do not really give a good steer in areas where conflict over the levels of car parking are likely to arise. For instance, it shies away from the debate over whether lower amounts of parking provision result in lower ownership or just vehicles parked haphazardly wherever space can be found.

There is also a notable absence of best-practice examples of cycle parking, which would have inspired developers rather than making them approach cycle parking as a problem to be overcome or avoided. For instance, the sort of on-street covered cycle parking common on the continent would have been an ideal accompaniment to text which effectively naturally argues for this.

The text on cycle parking, contains many sensible principles. It argues that:

  • in residential developments, ‘designers should aim to make access to cycle storage at least as convenient as access to car parking’;
  • outdoor cycle parking should be covered, preferably using bespoke storage;
  • Sheffield stands are simple and effective and should be the norm;
  • 1 m is the preferred spacing between stands, with 0.8 m being the absolute minimum, and 0.55 m clear space between the end of a stand and any wall; a clear diagram is provided to enhance these points
  • cycle parking should be installed in places having good, natural surveillance;
  • garages are not normally designed for cycle parking and that garage provision is declining anyway.
  • cycle parking is recommended at bus stops that have ‘significant catchment areas’.

On car parking, it argues that:

  • car parking design should be design-led and ‘well-integrated with a high-quality public realm’
  • failure properly to consider how cars are parked will affect ‘visual quality, street activity, interaction between residents, and safety’;
  • inappropriate parking will result in ‘poor and unsafe conditions for pedestrians’ which will therefore hinder natural interaction;
  • car clubs can be an effective way to reduce car ownership;
  • footway parking should be designed out (especially given that there is no adequate legislation outside London which deals with this menace).
  • shared surface designs, as sometimes used in Home Zones, can be effective but that car parking may need different materials to mark out such spaces.

Car parking

Image from Manual for Streets showing parallel and perpendicular parking arrangements

The MfS fails adequately to recognise the problems faced continually in places like Cambridge (e.g. East Road or Lensfield Road to take two key examples), that on-street parking has the effect of forcing cyclists to make dangerous manoeuvres in and out of the traffic flow and narrows the carriageway.

Many of the photographic examples of good car parking given imply the creation of specific parking bays, outside but adjacent to the main carriageway, but designed in such a way that pavement desire lines remain straight. One solution is the use of trees to form periodic breaks between groups of parking bays.

Pavements at the same heights as the road often lead to unregulated pavement parking, of the sort that leads to visual domination of the urban scene by vehicles rather than social use of the space by people.
Image as described adjacent

It also recognises the success of basement or undercroft car parking. This has the effect of preserving the street frontage, as well as presumably dissuading people from making short car-borne trips.

In general, the message about car parking is that car parking should not result in the domination of urban space. Rustat Avenue shows how things can go wrong in this regard.

Reducing clutter

This section provides a clear steer away from heavy levels of signage:

‘Designers should start from a position of having no signs, and introduce them only where they serve a clear function. … Street layouts, geometries and networks should aim to make the environment self-explanatory to all users.’

‘Most unsignalised junctions are designed assuming a dominant flow, with priority indicated by give-way signs and markings. There is, however, no statutory requirement for junction priority to be specified.’

Amongst the recommendations for ‘quality places’ is an argument against signs, bollards and other street furniture, which it is argued clutter the streetscape, and cause problems for those with disabilities. We all know, however, that walkers and cyclists face the same problems, too.

Centre-line removal is very much on the agenda too. In fact, virtually all of the photographic examples of new developments given throughout the document feature no road markings and little, if any signage.

‘The use of centre lines is not an absolute requirement. … Centre lines are often introduced to reduce risk but, on residential roads, there is little evidence to suggest they offer any safety benefits. … There is some evidence that, in appropriate circumstances, the absence of white lines can encourage lower speeds.’

Indeed, the Manual goes on to outline an example in Norfolk where centre lines were removed, and together with complementary measures such as different surfacing colour, the result was lower speeds. A Safety Audit ironically then resulted in reinstatement of the lines with an increase in speeds!

Guard railing, curse of pedestrians and cyclists alike, and often a counter-productive intrusion into the civic environment, is presumed against:

‘Guard railing should not be provided unless a clear need for it has been identified (…). Introducing measures to reduce traffic flows and speeds may be helpful in removing the need for guard railing. In most cases, on residential streets within the scope of MfS, it is unlikely that guard railing will be required. A Local Transport Note giving further guidance on guard railing is currently in preparation.’

Summary

It should be considered mandatory reading for all Councillors on planning committees.

If the document gains widespread acceptance, it will herald a new dawn for human-centred urban design, one which would be much favoured by people walking and cycling. The document is absolutely full of sensible advice which Cambridge Cycling Campaign strongly endorses.

It should be considered mandatory reading for all Councillors on planning and transport committees, and will be of relevance to anyone with an interest in the future of our towns and cities, not least Cambridge, where 50 000 houses will be built in the coming decade.

The document is highly readable, heavily illustrated, and at 136 pages of mixed text/images can be covered in an hour or two. It can be purchased as a book or downloaded free from the internet at www.manualforstreets.org.uk .

The quotations and various diagrams are reproduced from Manual for Streets, which allows reproduction for non-commercial research and private study purposes. The material is © Queen’s Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2007, and the book is published by Thomas Telford Publishing.

Martin Lucas-Smith