Monday 12 December 2011

Boston's strange "pedestrian" zone. How a British town has made even a pedestrian zone serve motoring

We visited Britain a few weeks ago. Small British towns are very similar to small Dutch towns, except with regard to what has happened in them over the last forty years. I've picked one as an example, though much of what is written could be applied to nearly any British town in comparison with a similar Dutch town:

Boston in Lincolnshire is a small town with a population of 35000. That's just over half the population of Assen where we live. While Assen was originally a monastery in 1258, Boston claims to date back to a monastery as long ago as AD 654. Both places certainly share a long history, and many changes over the years. Both are now regional centres to which people travel from out of town in order to shop, to study or to work. For many centuries, Boston had significant trade with continental Europe and the town was influenced by European ideas. Boston has a particularly fine windmill sited next to a canal (the Maud Foster Drain).

Boston is so similar to a Dutch town that Wikipedia notes that it "was used by film makers during the Second World War to represent the Netherlands when the real thing was not available for filming."

There are a few pedestrianized streets in the centre of Boston which look like this:
"Pedestrianization" in Boston.
By way of contrast, this is what the pedestrianized streets in the centre of Assen look like:
"Pedestrianization" in Assen (see before and after photos).
In Boston, bicycles are banned
It's a very similar layout. In both cases, the "road" has been narrowed so that pavements (sidewalks) can be made wider. In both cases, different paving has been used than usual in order to make the difference between this and a normal street more obvious.

In Assen there are many bikes and
cycling is encouraged.
However, there is one big difference. In Boston you are banned from cycling through these streets while in Assen you are encouraged to do so.

Of course, any place which bans motor vehicles has the potential to be a quieter place for people to enjoy. But Boston actually runs scheduled bus services through the "pedestrianized" area every few minutes, and when they come through they generate a remarkably irritating warning sound which you can hear from the video:

Note that this video has explanatory captions which do not appear on a mobile device. You must watch on a computer to understand the video. Afterwards, watch another video which shows how the similar looking streets in Assen work very differently in practice.

This "pedestrian" zone seems somewhat a misunderstanding of what a pedestrian zone is. It also is somewhat a missed opportunity to make cycling more attractive.

Of course, the centre isn't the only difference these days between Assen and Boston. Boston still looks in other ways like a typical British town with, despite its small population, quite remarkable amounts of motor traffic using roads which are surprisingly large, surprisingly busy, and which direct this traffic right through the centre of the town.

Cycling to the centre of Boston requires using the same roads. Pedestrians walk behind barriers and have to cross those roads using multi-stage crossings with huge delays.

View Larger Map

I've cycled along this road (I sometimes cycled to my in-laws from Cambridge when we lived there), and I can tell you that it's no more pleasant than it looks. While people who live in the suburbs of Assen cycle with very small children on their own bikes to the centre of the city, that's not what people do in Boston. People who cycle in Boston do so despite the conditions, not because of them. In Boston, like other British towns, cycling resembles an extreme sport. Roads like this, without any cycling facilities, do not encourage mass cycling. It's not the same as cycling to the centre of a Dutch town like Assen.

Overwhelmingly, what Bostonians do to get about is to drive their cars. It's an easy choice to make. People may get stuck in traffic jams, which can be a problem even in small towns like Boston, they may have to pay to park (which is about as expensive as in Assen) as well as for petrol and the upkeep of their cars, and they may well complain about these costs. However, when the infrastructure looks as it does in towns like Boston, and good alternatives are not provided, then people will carry on driving anyway almost regardless of the cost as this is still seen as the least bad option.

The huge amount of car parking provided even very close to the start of the "pedestrian" zone also means that anyone who tries to cycle here will have to take on a large number of motor vehicles as they do so:

View Larger Map

To me, this is an interesting contrast. Boston used to be part of Holland in Lincolnshire. I wrote before about how similar this area is to the Netherlands. None of the usual excuses about hills and other nonsense apply at all. The people are the same, the landscape is the same, their transport habits were once the same. The only real difference now between a British town like Boston and a Dutch town like Assen is the infrastructure. That is what explains the very different patterns of transport seen now between what were once very similar towns. Forty years ago, Assen and other Dutch towns looked a lot like Boston, but in Dutch towns, a civilizing second revolution took place.

Boston encourages driving, as well as some public transport usage. The town makes walking and cycling relatively unpleasant. The result is that people overwhelmingly drive. On the other hand, Assen encourages cycling, due to offering direct and pleasant routes for cycling. The result is that people cycle for 40% of their journeys.

For Boston to reduce its car dependency and be more welcoming to cyclists requires the same kind of transformation to be made as was made in the Netherlands. It is time that British streets started to look like modern Dutch streets. Boston people could cycle just as Dutch people can. In fact, archive footage shows that before the roads across the whole country were dominated by cars, when people cycled more than they drove all across Britain, Boston's population cycled in huge numbers.

See also pedestrianization in the centre of Hoogeveen, another town of a similar size to Boston, and how pedestrianization is handled in a suburb of Assen. It's of interest that the idea of running buses through the pedestrian zone was pushed through by the council in Boston even though it unpopular with many of the people. I think sometimes the public transport companies in Britain have far too much influence. I'm reminded of a council meeting which I was part of in Cambridge a few years ago at which a councillor stood up and talked about how "cyclists undermine the bus service" and that this was a reason not to provide good cycle access to a proposed Park and Ride site.


lee said...

Another important diffrence you have not mentioned is that Assen has an Autosnelweg bypass. Boston has no bypass atall meaning alot of the traffic you see on the A16 is through traffic going from towns north of boston getting to places to the south and visa versa. There has been alot of campigning for a bypass but nothing has come of it yet, most likley as it would cost too much for our cash strapped, indebted state.
The A16 effectivly devides the town in two and if you want to cycle from west to east or visa versa you have to cross the A16 at grade.

David Hembrow said...

Indeed so Lee. Boston needs a bypass.

However, it needs to be a real bypass. i.e. something that takes vehicles out of the centre of the town without the aim of increasing capacity overall.

Unfortunately, British "bypasses" are often nothing of the sort. They simply provide an extra route with extra capacity for motor vehicles. A route which is quicker for some journeys and slower for others. This combination of extending the de-facto motorway network for long distance journeys at the same time as still allowing as many vehicles as possible to go through the centre of the town does nothing to decrease in town traffic or to make the town that is "bypassed" more attractive for cycling or walking.

David Arditti said...

The sound the bus makes is indeed remarkably irritating, particularly if you know Mendelssohn's overture for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Perhaps, however, it is a good reminder of the "asses" in the town council who put it there.

Martin said...

I remember a few High street areas in Britain when I was there and the one in Slough had a similar issue with Buses sneaking through from time to time. The best Pedestrian zone would have to be in Canterbury but that was twenty years ago.
Many high streets have been struggling with Shopping malls being built all across the country. The ultimate car culture accessory.
Pedestrian organisations are not so keen to have cyclists in a pedestrian or a shared zone as we call it here in Aus. Probably because we have cyclists who ride way to fast and just don't have the same respect as they do in Holland.

Anonymous said...

This is similar to Philadelphia's Chestnut Street pedestrian mall in the 1970s. It quickly failed, leaving planners with the conviction that pedestrian zones don't work.

David Hembrow said...

Martin: The problem in Sydney isn't that your cyclists are particularly fast. How could that possibly be true ? Do you think every Dutchman is less fit than every Australian ?

Rather, the problem is that you have inadequate facilities which push people into conflicts. The cyclists are "too fast" according to the pedestrian group because they're riding on shared pedestrian / bike paths.

Shared pedestrian / bike paths should never be built in busy areas such as the centre of cities.

You'll note that in the city centre in Assen there is a very clear distinction between the pedestrian space and the cycling space. Indeed, the cycling space looks like a road.

Where the area is less distinct (as in this example) it's not a useful through route by bike. Rather, the main route by bike looks like this.

This is a problem. Such ideas are "lost in translation" between the Netherlands and other countries, leading to all sorts of bad design, and all sorts of conflict between cyclists and other groups.

Slow Factory said...

David, perhaps Martin means "selfish" or "reckless" rather than "too fast". There are lots of examples like this in my neighbourhood in Berlin, yes, also where the centre of the road is actually free of barriers like bollards or walking people. People just cycle where they want to.

I agree that design is a great or even main influence on behaviour of cyclists and other road/street users but it is certainly not the only one. I have mentioned before in comments on your blog that driving is much more dangerous in the Czech Republic than in the Netherlands, and this cannot be blamed on road design by itself.

People are different, especially in groups or where their is strong peer pressure or even solidarity to be good. There is less of that in the Czech Republic than in NL and less in Berlin than in Assen, also because the German capital is very diverse and relatively poor.

None of this means that the best of Dutch design should not be a model for everywhere else, but you cannot expect people to react the same. Some lazy planners etc. say that e.g. Amsterdamization or Copenhagenization - or Assenization - is impossible in other places, but that is b.s. -- it is just good design and implementation, following a cultural directive but able to be divorced from it.

Anyway, the example you show from modern Assen is wonderful but it is not a pedestrian street. Pedestrian means pedestrian. Is it safe? I am sure it is objectively, but are you sure it is subjectively? I like to say that a "pure street" allows a toddler (!) to move from facade to facade safely without his or her parent even watching. This is not really possible on a street with anything moving faster than walking speed.

Would you allow cycle-riding on the streets in this video?

David Hembrow said...

GIF / Todd: I think I ought to invite you here for a driving study tour :-) The experience of driving in the Netherlands is actually quite interesting. The infrastructure does control your behaviour.

I'm not saying that it has nothing to do with local customs, but these can change with time.

Note also that the example street which I used in Assen is a through route for cyclists. There are others which look quite similar to those in the video that you reference which are for pedestrians only.

The problem with many "pedestrian" zones. They exist as little islands for "pedestrians" who walk a few hundred metres at the shops, but drive cars to get there and get back home again.

Allowing cyclists here enables cycling to the shops. It's the most popular means of transport to shops in Assen. If it were not allowed to cycle on this street, then probably cycling would not be the most popular mode. People would drive instead.

As for "is it safe for a toddler" - it's certainly more safe than it was before when it was dominated by cars. Actually, Dutch people aren't scared of bikes. You do see toddlers here. You see very small children riding their bikes here too.

Slow Factory said...

Hi, okay. I will visit in a hired Hummer and see what happens...

But thanks for pointing out that that street is not a "pure" ped. street. Having a through-route for bikes on an otherwise pedestrian street in a pedestrianized-center is great, so perhaps it would have been better to also show those no biking streets. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

Also, I think a lot of people make walking a bike harder that is should be. One can walk many bikes in a quite relaxed way by just keeping a light hand on the saddle -- with less weight here there is more on the front wheel which makes it steer straighter. Seriously, I see almost no one walk bikes like that.

Wolfgang said...

About toddlers:

Our local pedestrian zone in Schlebusch, a part of Leverkusen(Germany), allows cycling. At school times there are "massive walls" of schoolkids on bikes taking up the full width of the former national road.
But the street is also equiped with some playground equipment. And there are toddlers running around freely.
Something I have never spotted a few 100m away, where the small bypass ends and heavy motorized traffic uses the same street.
Nobody seems to worry and I am pretty used to some sudden breaking to avoid the occasional toddler running into my way.
As one can often spot the small bikes the toddlers have used to get there, it would be rather strange to ban them form cycling directly to their play equipment.
In Germany many pedestrian zones are banned for bikes at pedestrian rush hours and open sundays and at night. Those less crowded are open all day.

Anonymous said...

This might have a lot to do with Boston having the highest level of obesity in Britain (and Britain has the highest level of obesity in Europe).

Neil said...

I think most UK people think that Pedestrian Zone automatically means cycling is banned - even if it is not. In fact I think central government advice is that the default position should be to allow cycling unless there is a good reason for not to.

Damien Sullivan said...

8 years late but:

"The problem in Sydney isn't that your cyclists are particularly fast. How could that possibly be true ? Do you think every Dutchman is less fit than every Australian ?"

I spent 3 months in Japan and then 3 in Australia. There are in fact many differences and I suspect the Dutch are closer to Japan. Comparing Osaka to the Brisbane city center, where I paid the most attention:

* A huge proportion of the population bikes, from small children to old people. Many fewer bikers in Australia. So in fact that average Osaka biker may be less fit than the average Australian biker.

* The bikes are different: almost all the Osaka bikes are upright posture city bikes, or mountain/hybrid bikes. I saw like one road bike in three months. By contrast they were pretty common in Brisbane.

* Helmets: I saw 2 helmets in Osaka, one of them on a very small child, the other on the one road bike. In 3 months, and many many many bikers. Helmets are legally required in Australia.

* Observed speed: while getting buzzed by bikes on the sidewalks in Osaka was alarming, they did in fact seem slower than the Australian ones. Which makes sense if they're helmetless riders, upright, on heavy city/utility bikes, across the whole population, vs. helmeted athletes on road/racing bikes.