When road pricing in the city was proposed by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) reaction to a fairly modest traffic management proposal was loud and clear: it is seen as ‘anti-democratic’, ‘discriminatory’ and a ‘threat to freedoms’.
How did we get here, how is use of the public highway discriminatory and just how unfair is it to seek to reduce traffic in our city?
The imbalance in mobility access is historic. The freedom we have today to move around as we do has relatively recent origins. No historic change in travel mode has had democratic support. Until the 19th cent., if you could not keep a horse, shank’s pony 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. At no point was there a consensus on how mobility modes should be adopted: society adapted to change and transport inequality was accepted as the norm. The ‘right’ to be free to travel has always been conditional on wealth and, just as the rights inherent in the use of the highway have derived from the need to control motor traffic, transport choices are not consensual but pragmatic. Such ‘rights’ have evolved from the days of the turnpike, through the Locomotive Act 1865 (known as Red Flag Act) all the way to the present hierarchy of use enshrined in the Highway Code 2022.
How fair is mobility today?
In 2012 (the most recent figures I can find) the good people of Cambridge owned just 343 cars per thousand people1. That means there is a deficit of 657 people per thousand who don’t have the same freedom as those with a car. Would a democratic mandate for universal car ownership be fair or practical? Would a vote for the dominance of public road space by the entitled minority who own a car have a majority in favour? The point here is that the current situation is discriminatory in that public roads are not equally accessible, but are managed with priority given to motor traffic above other modes without a democratic mandate. Society has accepted the benefit of motor transport and adapted (however clumsily) to enable it.
Nationally, based on the number of cars in the country, car ownership stands at 47% of the adult population with the use of a car. Provision for the transport needs of the 53% is way behind the spending to support private car use2. The cost of ownership of a car is a barrier to mobility for many and support for public transport is meagre in comparison with the highways budget.
These are crude figures but when considering ‘fairness’ in transport and mobility surely we should include the whole population not just those with car ownership?
The sustainability of mass car ownership is questionable, congestion at peak times, global resource limits, pollution and climate impacts all impinge on the viability of universal car use. Turning around transport policy that has stood for the last 50 or 60 years is not easy, Generations have aspired to, and enjoyed, car ownership and they are reluctant to change the habits of a lifetime. With the best intentions our national and local authorities have poured billions of our money into highways for motor traffic to enable mobility for those who can afford the cost of car ownership (as well as the essential freight movement we all rely on). In doing so the value of public transport and railfreight is recognised as secondary. The transport system we have developed to accommodate the car owning minority is to the detriment of other road users. The DfT budget allocated for motorised traffic schemes (2020/21 spending on highways £11.72bn ) is out of proportion with the majority of the population who don’t own a car. 2020/21 spending on public transport (including rail) stands at £3.92bn3; is this discrimination?
Traffic reduction by circulation planning: the future?
Managing traffic is seen as ‘undemocratic’ or even ‘Stalinst’ by some but the roads of the city have been managed for decades to ‘maintain flow’ or ‘predict and provide’ for traffic growth for the benefit of the private car user. Changing road function priority from car to people is simply recognising a shift toward support for active travel modes that benefit our health and well-being. Just as the new Highway Code recognises that the most vulnerable should be treated with the greatest care: our infrastucture needs to adapt.
A city where motor access is limited on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis with through routes circulating via the periphery works: changing our streets from traffic conduits to active travel routes changes the quality of city life dramatically. I have seen this.5 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, moving traffic away from the centre makes the centre a much more attractive place.
What would it be like?
It’s all about changing what we use the car for. In 2018 56% of trips by car were under 5 miles. Cambridge is only 5 and a half miles wide. Dropping the car for short journeys in the city could really change things. Imagine being able to walk down St Andrews St without having to hop on and off the crowded pavement into the path of traffic, imagine a city centre with controls on, not just cars but, at busy times bikes too, why not?
Closing through routes to motor traffic makes space for the people that live along them. We already enjoy a number of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) which pretty much kill rat running and they are desirable places to live because they are not blighted by traffic in the same way the ‘radials’ are. 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 use.
The circulation system is designed to ensure public transport, commercial and disabled access is maintained but always with a view to keeping public spaces public by use of flexible filtering. The new space freed from motor traffic meant bigger footways, more green space and, paradoxically, better neighbourhood parking. Each neighbourhood forms a pizza slice shaped zone with local car access only via the edges, the ‘spoke’ roads become a mix of one way, reduced width roads forming low traffic zones. This is not a fantasy. This is happening now and is proving cost effective and popular. In 2017 the Ghent Mobility Mayor Fillip Watteeuw showed how big budget cities like Utrecht and Copenhagen use circulation plans to achieve impressive traffic reduction and improved quality of life and how he was able to achieve similar results at lower costs in Ghent4. Ghent developed a circulation plan that could be applied to Cambridge; a city with a third of the population and about a quarter of the area.
How could it work?
To prevent cars needlessly traversing the city centre, a circulation plan could divide the city into 8 sectors and one big car-free/pedestrian zone.
The new traffic flow would take some getting used to, because:
- whoever wants to drive from one sector to the other, needs to make use of the M11, A14, A 1134 peripheral route.
- some streets will change direction or will be cut for cars (not for buses and taxis).
This will be worthwhile, since:
- the city centre will remain accessible in the Circulation Plan. Not only pedestrians, cyclists and public traffic will benefit. Also cars that absolutely need to be in the city centre, will reach their destination faster. Think of suppliers, health care providers or elderly people that will get to the city car parks easier.
- the Circulation Plan keeps the city centre liveable. Cyclists, pedestrians, taxis and buses confiscate less limited available public space than cars.
Along the zone edges the old radials could be very different to their present state. For example Mill Rd which divides N and S Romsey (yellow and purple above) could change from being a through corridor to a light traffic neighbourhood access road with more space for leisure, business and active travel. By taking the ‘through’ element out of Mill Rd visitor dwell time increases as travel modes shift from short distance ‘drive to buy’ as, with less traffic, other modes become attractive. The Mill Rd ‘catchment’ is reckoned to be around 20 thousand inhabitants within less than a mile from it, encouraging a slower approach to can only be good for trade! Coldhams Lane could change from being ‘an informal part of the ring road’ to a greenway from Cherry Hinton opening up the common and healing the fracture in the Chisholm Trail.
A change to the ‘rules of the road’ is one thing, if it means a car driver needs to wait or give way at a junction for pedestrians and cyclists this is a positive behaviour change but, achieving a shift in the primary purpose of our public spaces away from motor traffic toward a low carbon active travel oriented system needs a structural approach to circulation.
Congestion charging: will it work?
The GCP has proposed management of the road space by adopting road pricing. Road pricing may reduce congestion but does little to improve the safety of the vulnerable and the communities by the roadside and simply puts a cash premium on the convenience of short distance driving: it does not ensure a mode shift away from the car. Road pricing just adds to transport inequality.
Can a radical circulation plan be acceptable to all who live and use Cambridge? Absolutely not. Can a shift from a car centric plan achieve behavioural change for short distance travel? Yes it can and does. How can these contradictory things be resolved? In the end it comes down to political will: we elect our representatives to do the best we think they can for us. At the ballot box a vote one way or another impacts the way our city is managed. Few candidates want to get involved in the bitter attitudes personal travel modes trigger and public support for public transport is always strong on promises and weak on delivery. Our city is at the mercy of 4 tiers of administration (Cambridge & Peterborough Metro Mayor, County Council, Greater Cambridge Partnership and City Council) with conflicting interests ranging from housing development, employment opportunity, education, healthcare, rural transport and social services all competing for a slice of the shrinking public purse. No wonder ‘no change’ is the default position on how the city deals with traffic: no one wants to face the noise of the distressed motorist who might be asked to pay a little for access to the city or, even have to go the long way around to undertake a short journey that might be walked, ridden or bused for the benefit of a better city environment. In Ghent6 it took a left/green coalition to get the change they need: what would it take here?
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?