Little England or Mini-Holland?

The Urban Idiot questions the permeability of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

If this column has a message it is that in the world of planning, and probably in other worlds, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. This is particularly true when emotions run high and when the ideas being proposed are difficult to argue against. Such is the case with mini-Hollands, or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods as they are officially known.

The level of heat and controversy this has created in the last six months has been so extraordinary that even the Idiot worries about the backlash.  In a recent Guardian article, ‘Tom’, a father taking his kids to football practice on his bike actually asked for his real name to be withheld for fear of repercussions from his neighbours! 

But who could possibly be against the removal of unnecessary cars from local neighbourhoods thereby making them safer, quieter and less polluted, while encouraging walking and cycling? Only reactionary, petrol heads, outraged that anyone should interfere with their God-given right to pop down the shops in a two-ton hunk of metal with an empty armchair beside them and an empty sofa in the back (to paraphrase Jeremy Vine).  And thus the people who object are written-off as extremists and Little Englanders, and reasonable people like The Idiot keep their mouth shut for fear of being pigeonholed as closet Jeremy Clarksons. Proposals go unscrutinised, and if not idiocy, then unforeseen consequences occur.        

We have been here before, indeed traffic is a theme running through much urban idiocy. The first-ever Urban Idiot column was about Clarence Stein’s plan in the 1930s for the Radburn neighbourhood in New Jersey –  hailed as the garden city for the motor age. The layout involved roads around the edge of each superblock, with short cul-de-sacs running towards the centre. Homes could then face onto these cul-de-sacs with pedestrian access from their rear, giving traffic-free pedestrian access to schools, shops etc… It all made a reasonable amount of sense until it got into the hands of architecture schools and UK council housing departments of the 1960s where the disastrous notion of the Radburn estate took hold. 

In a later column the Idiot wrote about the ‘Neighbourhood Unit’, an idea that emerged from the carnage caused by the growing number of private cars in 1920s New York. Another planner called Clarence (this time Perry) proposed the ‘neighbourhood unit’ as a solution. The idea was to define a series of neighbourhoods around the playground and to exclude all through traffic. Again this idea only really came into its own in the hands of the new UK town planners of the 60s and 70s with their pedestrianised shopping precincts at the heart of neighbourhoods bounded by distributor roads.   

Then in the 1980s, we had the cul-de-sac suburb, driven (that being the operative word) by a very different ideology. Thatchers’s suburbs were shaped by the infamous Design Bulletin 32 (first published in 1977) that was based on data that showed that only 10% of all accidents took place on minor streets with no through traffic and yet half of all road accidents involving children took place within 100m of the home. The obvious conclusion was to make all local streets into cul-de-sacs hence the birth of the Brookside estate.

We urbanists have been arguing against Radburn layouts, Neighbourhood Units and cul-de-sacs for years. We have put forward the notion of ‘permeability’ as an important element of lively, walkable urban areas and we have spent many difficult hours arguing that no, we are not trying to get children killed!  So the question is, how are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods any different?

Their proponents would argue very. The key point that they would make is that permeability should relate to pedestrians and cyclists but not to cars, which, to be fair, is a point that urbanists have also debated. A walkable neighbourhood of short distances is what Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are all about. Ensuring that walking and cycling are safer and more pleasant while making car use a pain in the arse is the whole point if we are to change people’s travel behaviour. But then again Radburn layouts and Neighbourhood units were based on the same idea and were both fully permeable for pedestrians.

DB32 cul-de-sac layouts can also be pedestrian permeable if there are footpaths linking the end of each cul-de-sac. The problem is that the data shows that the level of car use in DB32 suburbs is huge. Once you have jumped in your car, you don’t really mind having to travel a little further – in any case you are off to the supermarket because no local parade of shops can survive in such environments.

This is the key point, because if people don’t leave their car at home, then the results of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods will be the same number of cars on the road, with their red-faced occupants being forced to drive much further and getting snarled up in traffic on the few remaining roads that they are allowed to use. This may work for Tom (not his real name) and his middle-class cycling neighbours whose streets will become much pleasanter. But there are externalities to consider, particularly the traffic, noise pollution and danger that is displaced into the surrounding areas or that causes gridlock on the high street.

The irony is that this has only become a really big issue because of the sat nav and that the problem mainly affects London because it has remained permeable. People now drive around following their sat nav even in places that they know well because the traffic function supposedly allows them to avoid congestion. This has caused a 70% increase in traffic on local streets as sat navs seek out the back routes to avoid the congestion. This, in turn, has fulled the calls for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which have then created more congestion and so cause sat navs to find other routes.

The solution is surely not to rip up thirty years of urbanist orthodoxy on permeability but to change the algorithm! OK, I realise that’s not as easy as it sounds but that’s what laws are for.

Anyway, the Idiot has been to Holland, the land of Shared Space and the Woonerd. The name Mini-Holland is a complete misnomer because this is not how the Dutch do things, they tame the car and intimidate drivers with to the sheer volume of their cyclists, but they don’t turn existing urban neighbourhoods into a maze of cul-de-sacs and neither should we!

The Urban Idiot explores brilliant but flawed ideas for our cities 

Featured image: Low Traffic Neighbourhood In Kingston upon Thames © Jack Fifield

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