Saturday 29 September 2012

Langholm - An example of how British villages are blighted by traffic

The video above was forwarded to me this week. It shows how the centre of the village of Langholm in Scotland is blighted by an incredibly busy road passing through it. The description underneath the video is well worth reading:

Transport Scotland justifies the 30mph speed limit through Langholm High Street claiming it is ''...unsuitable for a 20mph limit due to the strategic classification of the road (A7 trunk road) and that it should be as free from obstruction to encourage the efficient movement of goods and vehicles....''

That Langholm's High Street is part of the route of the A7 - a major route across Scotland - is an historical accident. However, the traffic on the road has clearly grown well past the volumes which are reasonable to send through the narrow streets of a village of 2300 people.

Where it is wide, just as where it is narrow, the main street through Langholm is dedicated to the needs of those who pass through in motor vehicles in preference to those who live in the village. The narrow pavements provide no subjective safety for pedestrians, and this is a very hostile place to ride a bicycle. View Larger Map

Sadly, this is a scene repeated across the UK. Many small and pretty villages are blighted by absurd numbers of motor vehicles which pass through their centres. I am not aware of any situation where a Dutch village puts up with conditions like this. There are plenty of villages which have narrow streets, but they do not suffer the same blight of having these streets used as major thoroughfares by drivers who are just passing through and will never stop to discover the delights of the village itself.

I'm reminded of the village of Grafhorst in the Netherlands which I have cycled through on a few occasions. This has a population just half that of Langholm, but residents benefit greatly from the bypass which prevents the N760 from blighting their lives. It is safe for children from tiny Grafhorst to cycle to other villages in order to attend school. There are some images below:

Approaching Grafhorst from the South, the N760 is diverted to the East. Cyclists take the original route through the streets in the centre of the village. Drivers who wish to visit Grafhorst turn left here (as the blue car is doing) View Larger Map

The main street in the village is therefore free of through traffic. Even the Google Maps car went no further than this. A cobbled road surface, raised platforms and strategically planted trees help to persuade people not to drive quickly. View Larger Map

On leaving the other side of Grafhorst there is a cycle-path to the next village, much used by children and adults alike. View Larger Map

Note that the N760 is not so busy as the A7 and that speed limits outside the villages are restricted to 80 km/h maximum, and often 60 km/h rather than the 60 mph / 100 km/h normal across the UK.

The signs look similar, but they are not. In Langholm the speed limit is 30 mph / 48 km/h while in Grafhorst the speed limit is 18 mph / 30 km/h. That is the normal speed limit in the Netherlands for roads in villages. However, it is the removal of through traffic that makes the village streets pleasant.

Residents of Langholm are campaigning for little more than a lowering of speed limits through their village to 20 mph (32 km/h). It's a start, but they're not asking for remotely enough. While such volumes of traffic are allowed, even at a lower speed, they will continue to dominate the village and continue to affect the lives of those who live there. This village needs a bypass, and by bypass I mean something which keeps through traffic completely away from the centre rather than the British concept of a bypass which sadly often serves only to provide a parallel alternative route.

A bypass would of course be expensive. However, at this time the money is available. Billions have been set aside in the UK for infrastructure spending in order to stimulate the economyy. It can be spent on pointlessly increasing the capacity of roads between the places where people live or on improving the conditions of those who currently are blighted by roads which are already too busy. It is for British voters, councillors and politicians to decide on the most sensible way to spend that money, in Langholm and every other afflicted city, town and village.
Streets just as narrow as those in Langholm abound in the Netherlands. Because they are never used as through routes for motor vehicles, they are pleasant places for people.
These changes need to be made not only for adult drivers passing through or for those rare adult cyclists who "brave" the conditions, but in particular for the most vulnerable members of our society, children, older people and those with disabilities.

If we're not interested in improving the lives of the next generation then who are we campaigning for ?

30 September update
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some correspondents from the UK made excuses of the usual form about how Langholm is "different" from the Netherlands and therefore a bypass would be difficult. It often seems to be assumed that everything is easy in the Netherlands simply because of the relative lack of hills, but nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, engineering here has been on a grand scale. The Dutch have built some of the world's longest dykes and the world's largest moving barrier. They also reclaimed land which forms the world's largest artificial island, and run trains though tunnels in soft ground below the water table. Just in the last few years in Assen we've seen a canal moved sideways by 2 metres to make space for a secondary cycle-path, and a bridge carrying a dual carriageway built to keep cars out of the way of cyclists. There are now plans to dig a tunnel to remove cars from the outside of the railway station. Major projects are common in the Netherlands even in small towns because they make life better. The only real difference is in the will of the people to demand decent infrastructure.

Rattenberg. Transformed into
a pleasant place to live.
Of course, people still point at the relative lack of hills as if this excuses inaction in the UK. However a correspondent sent me a helpful example of a village in Austria which is a similar position to Langholm. Rattenberg used to have a rat-run through its centre, which is now rather attractive as shown to the right.

Rattenberg was transformed by building the Rattenbergtunnel which bypasses the centre of the city by passing through a hill. Exactly the same approach could be taken in Langholm.

Grotere kaart weergeven

Finally, this blog is not just about Langholm and the problems in the centre of one small settlement. Rather, my interest is in the similar situations in hundreds of small towns and villages across the UK and in other nations, each of which are blighted in a similar way, regardless of the relative difficulty in removing their through traffic. The low aspirations of many campaigners make it easy for too little to be done to resolve problems.


Kim (@kim_harding) said...

One of the reason that there is so much heavy traffic going through Langholm is that the British Government axed the railways in the 1960's and successive governments have resisted all attempts to bring them back. Langholm is in an economically fragile area, which would truly benefit from sustainable transport & cycle tourism. However, the current Scottish Government is heavily fixated with road building projects with no regard for the damage they do to the communities that live along the route of these projects. Sadly the concept of sustainability is not one that is well understood by our political class.

Philip said...

Langholm's geography - it is at the confluence of two rivers in a very narrow valley - would make a bypass very difficult and expensive, and would be extremely detrimental to the town's appearance. You would need to cut into the hills on the west bank of the Esk, which would be very visible from right across the town, and take the road in a close curve around Langholm, threatening the Castleholm race course and the rugby ground, both very important to Langholmites. A 20mph limit and prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists in terms of street design seems a better approach (as long as it is well-designed) and would send a clear message as to who the town centre is for.

As an aside, there was a plan mooted not so long ago to move the Town Hall (straight ahead in that photo you're taken from Google Maps) brick by brick to the left to remove the constriction in the A7 to the right (where a lot of the video is filmed). Thankfully that didn't happen. Instead, you can see there is a priority system in place, as you can see from the photo, meaning one vehicle goes through at a time (so it already isn't an unrestricted A-road).

Koen said...

This is not uncommon in many other countries as well. When I drive southward from the Netherlands to Belgium and France, I'm horrified to see heavy traffic thundering through small villages. No trees, pavements 90 cms wide or less. Over here we are so used to villages being meant for living, not for (through) traffic, that it comes as a shock to see the difference. I'm afraid David, that it takes a whole different way of thinking about livable towns and cities, and about the position of traffic. On the other hand, would a government make it a priority, the change could be huge in just six years. And why not add some of these nice cycle paths in between those villages?? :)

Andrea said...


Not heard of tunnels, I guess.

I don't understand how Langholmites just don't block the road and ask for a toll from any non residents.

MattP said...

What is 'expensive'? Another dysfunction is the disconnect between decent sustainable highway designs and the cost of obesity, crime, health degradation from vehicle pollution, noise, the damage to property and so on. Who counts these costs on the balance sheets? Not the DfT.

Michael said...

I love this "argument by definition" which I have had problems with locally. They can't slow it down because it's an A road . As if that is the answer to anything! The real question is why is a one-way track through an village an A road


PS: Great blog David -- one of my regular weekend reads.

Frits B said...

Living in the houses along the road must be hell. Has noone ever suggested to tear them down and rebuild them in a more suitable location? That would make room for a proper road plus bike tracks and pavements. It would also increase the gap between the two parts of town but there is a divide right now so there wouldn't be much difference.

Koen said...

I was thinking that lowering the speed would even make things much worse for some residents. You would need to install speed bumps to enforce it. The folks living in the houses right next to those would be shaken out of their homes, and could stand and watch their house fall to pieces because of the heavy traffic. No half-baked solutions possible here!

Matt Nicholas said...

I'm a little surprised that you say 'It can be spent on pointlessly increasing the capacity of roads between the places where people live or on improving the conditions of those who currently are blighted by roads which are already too busy.' As I'm sure you know, massive sections of the Dutch motorway network have been widened in recent years and the process is still very much ongoing. Much more than has happened in the UK in recent decades. I don't think it's stopped the Netherlands from building by-passes and cycle paths etc.

I've never looked up the figures but it does make you think that a lot more is spent on transport in the Netherlands than the UK, and wonder how this is achieved. That said there have still been big cuts in NL lately, for instance on public transport in the large cities.

Frits, the 'tearing them down' thing was done to death in the 1960s and 70s and the idea of demolishing large swathes of any urban area for road/transport improvements is approaching taboo nowadays. Especially in such a small place as Langholm, where I think it might be a first.

Frits B said...

@Matt Nicholas: I know, David's (and my) town of Assen had its fair share when half the inner city was torn down in the 1960s. But as the houses and streets were virtually slums, and the result is rather praiseworthy, nobody is complaining and today's generation doesn't even remember. Before that time I lived in Emmen, a nice little village which has been "overhauled" so much that it's hardly recognisable even to me who left there 30 years ago. And I spent my youth in Rotterdam; need I say more? IF the A7 is indispensable, and IF there is no other way but to run it through Langholm (two very big ifs), the best solution might be to give it more space.

Frits B said...

@Matt Nicholas: another example. I live on the road next to the railway which will get a short tunnel to get cars out of the way of access to the station, as mentioned by David. This road is a main artery connecting the main motorway running around Assen with the town centre. It must be widened to accommodate the increased traffic, for which purpose several office buildings will lose "wings" protruding to the road, and a petrol station that would see a lane of the new road run across its forecourt, will be removed altogether. On the other side of the road, the two buildings shielding mine from traffic will see a new pavement plus two-way bike path running right under their windows, and a very nice thatched house a short distance away will be demolished. Plus a local landowner will give up a long stretch of his rather large backyard, thereby also having to demolish his gardener's house. It's either that, or a new road circling the town but running through a protected natural area (part of a National Park). People were given the choice, and they said "hands off the nature reserve".

Anonymous said...

I was a bit disappointed to seem numerous examples of this kind of 'planning' in Hungary this year when I rode the Danube Cycleway between Vienna and Budapest.

There were a lot of very small towns where the motorway passed right through the centre. Most of the time there were (extremely basic) facilities for cyclists and pedestrians, but I can only think it must have been pretty unpleasant for the residents of the street--there could hardly have been ten metres between the houses on opposite sides.

Matt Nicholas said...

Assen is a completely different place to Langholm. For a start it is much larger, the street along which the A7 runs in Langholm is pretty much its entire centre so any demolition would completely remove the centre for more road. A rather different proposition to those you mention in Assen.

Assen does have a fairly utilitarian if not ugly appearance architecturally, Langholm does not so those who view the through road as a problem will want it moved. They will not want the place essentially wiped off the map to accommodate more traffic and move it from people's windows (or more accurately, remove the windows from it). Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is the best term I think.

I don't know much about Emmen but I believe it is a new town constructed around a small original settlement? Not sure what was done to the original settlement in the process but again a rather different scenario.

As is Rotterdam, a massive city who's reconstruction was largely necessitated by an outside force blasting it to smithereens.

Basically, if we take a step back, you are suggesting that an attractive rural settlement demolishes its entire centre to make way for more traffic and some cycle paths, in an area with virtually no cycling whatsoever either now or in living memory. It is often said on this blog and others that the general public need to be won to the cause if a 'cycling revolution' is to take place; I can't see your suggestions doing much to achieve this.

Frits B said...

"Basically you are suggesting that an attractive rural settlement demolishes its entire centre to make way for more traffic and some cycle paths, in an area with virtually no cycling whatsoever either now or in living memory."
No, I'm not. All I'm saying that if there is absolutely no other way to accommodate traffic which for some reason must pass through Langholm, the only solution might be to "slash and burn". My preference is the usual Dutch way: run a road around the settlement, as far removed as possible.

As for Rotterdam, the general consensus after the war was that the city planners were rather grateful to the Germans. And if you knew the Rotterdam from before the war you would agree. On my way to school in the 40s and 50s I still passed the most horrible slums. All gone now, of course.

amoeba said...

MattP beat me in commenting about obesity. But through-traffic easily converts a village into a kind of hell.

Richard said...

Arriving here by a somewhat circuitous route (David Hembrow HiFi pages - I have a Sony WM-D6C I seek advice regarding its repair) I noted your love of cycling (my main form of transport) and then saw the article on the traffic problems in Langholm.
I live and work in France and can attest to similar lunacy here regarding HGVs. I recently visited La Charité sur Loire where the situation resembles Langholm. The traffic squeezes through the town and then across an old masonry bridge. The sight invoked feelings of anger and sadness.
Holland appears much enlightened wrt cycling, I find that neighbouring Switzerland and particularly Germany are also far safer places to ride bicycles.
best regards, Richard

wavemaker said...

Many people seeing the film leap to the assumption that a ''bypass'' is what we should be campaigning for, not speed reduction. In fact there has been a bypass campaign here for decades. Route options have been debated, plans drawn up long ago. But the bypass has always been deemed unviable in engineering and cost terms. This is not a flat Dutch landscape. The topology of Langholm is extremely difficult for road-building. in a valley where 3 rivers meet, and it's hard to even imagine where the road can go and what effect on the landscape/environment would be. There are many valid environmental objections to building a new road anywhere nowadays.
What we are demanding challenges the neanderthal mentality of our transport authorities, plus the carcentric mindset of our politicians.
Selkirk, 30 miles further up the A7 has a similar traffic problem (though it's easier to build there than in Langholm). Recently Selkirk folk almost believed they would get approval for their bypass plan, but hopes then dashed by the Scottish Govt.
Government strategic priority is ''the efficient movement of goods and vehicles'' between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Why should £38 million be spent on a new road round Selkirk (and probably double this for a Langholm bypass) when this only ‘’saves’’ only a few minutes of travel time between Edinburgh and Carlisle? The townspeople’s well-being is low priority. Moreover there is even an argument from some local traders that bypassing the town could adversely affect the town’s economy, even though we point out that cars en route to Edinburgh (never mind the truck drivers glued into their cabins) don’t stop and shop here!
All things considered there are demands in Langholm for a bypass but little hope for it to happen in the foreseeable future. Even if we optimistically imagine getting it really soon, say 2030, how are we supposed to live in the meantime!? So don’t knock the 20’s Plenty campaign please. The Langholm 20s Plenty For Us campaign demands 20 limits for ALL streets and roads in the town, not just the High Street. Even if a bypass magically materialized tomorrow we would still have to fight to get the 30 limit reduced to 20 in our town.
There are only 4 entrances/exits to the town via the three river valleys meeting here so practically this means we only need 4 ‘gateway’ entrance signs plus some repeater signs along the streets. The town would become the least expensive wide-area 20mph ‘zone’ imaginable!
We need all our streets as well as the High Street to slow down to a pace which is compatible with the function of a town centre. This would provide a short term solution and a huge improvement in liveability of the town.
Actually there are far more radical solutions than constructing a bypass. Eg ban heavy trucks from using this road, forcing them to divert off the A7 at the earliest possible opportunity to the M74, even if this means making them go East to West (using the Edinburgh-Glasgow M8) to connect with the M74 to Carlisle.
An even better solution is to call for investment in rail and full restoration of the Edinburgh-Carlisle Waverley line which was closed by the Beeching axe in the 60s. The Waverley line never went directly through Langholm. Instead it went through the next valley, passing just 8 miles from Langholm but we did get a wonderful eight mile branch line which served our then thriving weaving industry, (sadly now all but gone).
As a matter of interest take a look at another Youtube video ‘’A Few Impressions of Langholm Common Riding 2012’’ showing the town and High Street when the A7 is closed and we dance in the street on the last Friday in July.


Corey said...

Could a successful 20mph campaign influence hauling companies to themselves demand a bypass? Such a restrictive speed limit would surely change their objectives.

Tim said...

That traffic in the first video is horrible.

A rather different situation, but the other day we were driving from Liverpool to Holyhead in Wales. My wife noted that while the road we were on - the A55 or North Wales Expressway - is useful for anyone passing through in a hurry, it must be horrible for the local villages and towns to be split off from their coast by this huge dual carriageway. I'm sure it's also wrecked the tourism potential for these locations. Tragic really. Check out the streetview.

Koen said...

@ Wavemaker: would part of the unwillingness to make a bypass have something to do with the local golf course that seems to be right in the middle of the most obvious course for it?? (if I interpret Google Maps rightly)

Frits B said...

@wavemaker: " This is not a flat Dutch landscape."
If only you knew what other surprises usually lie beneath. We often would love to have a solid base to work with instead of water and quicksand.

@koen: Read Philip's comment.

Anonymous said...

We were considering going to Totnes in Devon quite recently, but when I checked out the centre on Google Streetview it just looked awful, due to the number of cars squeezing down the tiny road. In some places the pavement is non-existent! Typical UK road treatment.

In the end, we didn't go, as it looked dreadful. I wonder if the shopkeepers along the High Street believe that "car parking = customers"? We can't be the only people who are put off visiting places because they're one big car park.

Unknown said...

I was quite impressed by the report in Built in Britain part 1 ( where the A3 was rebuilt in a tunnel under the Devil's Punch Bowl in Surrey. It can be done and the narrator in banging the drum for more such projects in the UK. I was disappointed however that "big" cycle infrastructure projects were not even given a second thought. The idea seems to be below the radar.

Mark Hewitt said...

It's a very common problem in the UK. Part of the issue is that bypasses are fiercely opposed everywhere they are suggested. With arguments saying that they are encouraging car use - pandering to the motorist - and even on occasion suggestion if people cycled more you wouldn't need a bypass!

Therefore we continue to have major roads passing through the middle of villages.

Gavin said...

This video of traffic going through Langholm is not a true representative of Langholm Traffic and I doubt if any traffic through Langholm gets through the town at any thing like an average of 20 mile an hour. It is almost impossible to get an uninterrupted journey through the town therefore a 20 mile an hour limit is unnecessary and a waste of time.

amoeba said...

You miss the point completely, whether deliberately or not, I do not know. You said: "It is almost impossible to get an uninterrupted journey through the town therefore a 20 mile an hour limit is unnecessary and a waste of time."
Except the video shows that what you claim to be 'almost impossible' can and does happen. Since as you admit, the 20 mph limit will have no effect, it is extremely important therefore, to impose a 20 mph limit when congestion is lessened, to reign-in traffic speeds, for the safety of vulnerable road users.