Episode 2 - The problem of wrong transport planning priorities

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (on www.boulter.co.nz) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines some issues covered in chapters 2 (7 pages) and 3 (8 pages) the full text of which can be found on www.boulter.co.nz.

The problem of wrong transport planning priorities

Late 19th century ideas about ‘progress’ led onto planning for mass car use – and that walking and cycling should not be planned for (or would die out). This combined with theories on hierarchies to produce the 1920s invention of the ‘motorway’ (for motor traffic only) and the ‘road hierarchy’ concept (still central to road network planning today, the idea that some roads should be specifically designed for mass car movement and others for local property access).

The idea of ‘separated’ cycleways came from this early period. A common element of 1930s and 1950s arterial road design, the intention was to get bikes out of the way of motor traffic (not, primarily, to help cyclists).

No sooner had this ‘classic’ or ‘rational-comprehensive’ planning approach become established in the 1950s, than the fight-back began. Jane Jacobs in New York, dismissed as a ‘housewife’ by transport planners, fought big road plans with strong community support based on adverse effects on day-to-day life (much of it foot-based) and her enormously influential book 1962 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities majorly changed urban planning. After a decade or two community development, sociological insights and ‘public participation’ played a mainstream role in urban planning.

Another lay-people-led fight-back in the Netherlands, ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (‘stop children’s deaths’) led to a complete re-orientation of Netherlands transport planning through the 1960s and 1970s. This put walking and cycling central in transport planning and led to the very high cycling levels the Netherlands has been known for since then.

‘Classic’ (roads and cars-based) transport planning was based on the assumption that demand for car travel would reach a ‘saturation point’, and that if enough arterial roads were provided, traffic would flow freely. As the 1990s approached, it became increasingly clear that building roads has its own effect of stimulating further travel demand. By 1994 this had become firmly established in official and professional circles, and the hunt was on to see whether public transport could meet some of the travel demand. What was called ‘integrated’ transport planning had been born.

The Netherlands approach did not reach New Zealand. Instead, planning for cycle routes or cycleways separate from the road system was a mainstay of ‘cycling strategies’ from the 1990s onwards, added onto a largely unchanged transport planning environment. New Zealand officials only after about 2000 appreciated the value of planning for walking, or the importance of data from areas such as preventive health.

The Dutch and the Australians

In the wake of 1970s steep oil price rises and concerns oil might run out, road safety innovators in Melbourne, Australia, co-opted the new ‘green’ lobby groups into a 1977 ‘bike plan’ for the settlement of Geelong.

To the road safety ‘three E’s’ of engineering, education and enforcement was added a fourth ‘E’, encouragement. Cyclists (at that time mainly schoolchildren) were to be taught to use new cycling infrastructure; good behaviour by them was to be enforced; and use of the new cycling infrastructure promoted. The ‘bike plan’ did not cover motorist behaviour.

The ‘four E’s’, together with the concept of a network of advisory cycle routes, formed the basis for New Zealand cycling strategies through to the early 2000s.

However, in Britain, where this template was also established, little increase in cycling levels or reduction in cycling crash or injury rates led to comparisons with Netherlands success to identify the reasons. The ground-breaking conclusion was that reducing and slowing traffic, as the central feature of Dutch cycle planning, was the key to both increasing cycling levels and cutting crash and injury rates.

The Dutch approach had focused on transport, and the road system, as a whole – not on the minority of streets identified as ‘cycle routes’. The 1970s furious lay campaign to reduce child deaths, Stop de Kindermoord, led to road network design principles such as ‘filtered permeability’, which made it easier and more direct to cycle (or walk) somewhere than to drive. ‘Traffic calming’ (road designs to reduce speeds), was also invented in the ‘woonerf’ (‘living yard’) concept. Eventually in 1996, official endorsement was given in the UK to an approach based on reducing traffic volumes and speeds, and a move away what was scathingly referred to as the ‘cycling facilities approach’.

Cycling strategies based on dedicated routes, with overall road network design still based (as it always had been) around safe and efficient movement by car, delivered marginal results in Britain, and continues to deliver marginal results in even the best examples of New Zealand practice (even though the Dutch have very good cycle route networks too).

In the 1990s, another major change of thinking became established. Rather than seen cycling as ‘dangerous’, based on crash and injury data, cycling’s preventive health benefits were found to be truly massive, far more significant than the crash risk. A major finding to this effect in 1992, however, took another 10 years before it came to be recognised by New Zealand officialdom.