Hey everyone, I’ve seen the future of transportation in cities and it has nothing to do with driverless cars, connected vehicles or other unproven technology. Instead, it consists of streets that are great places to live, cycle, and walk. The transportation future we want looks like Utrecht. Like most Dutch cities, Utrecht is a generation or more ahead of New Zealand when it comes to multi-modal transportation systems and street design.
Here is a remarkable street re-design project in Utrecht that shows both how far behind we are, and some simple things we could do to improve things. ‘t Goylann is located Utrecht’s city centre. The re-design incorporates many features that are common to big street retrofits in the Netherlands.
Before describing these features, it’s worth considering the context for the change. Utrecht’s population is growing rapidly along with its reputation as a great place to live and do business. Increasingly, access to and through the city centre is being strained by lack of space and competing and conflicting use of road space, including space to store bikes. The city recognises the competition that transport/mobility places on urban space and has committed to key projects that both improve connections between key destinations as well as release space for public use and improved walking and cycling conditions.
This is all outlined in the city’s “Utrecht Attractive & Accessible” plan.
The Utrecht Attractive & Accessible plan declares that streets with more than one lane of traffic in each direction do not belong in the city centre because they sever city neighbourhoods and make residential living unpleasant. A key component of the plan is to re-direct traffic further around the city using the outer ring road. Meanwhile, the inner ring road has been “demoted” and re-designed for better amenity and residential living quality, and to ensure that it is easy for people walking and cycling to cross. This is the ‘City Boulevard’ project.
As mentioned above one of the design attributes of the new street was the reduction of lanes from two to one in each direction. This “demotion” of ’t Goylaan from a big road to city boulevard is based on a wider network goal of removing through traffic in this area and instead directing it around via the existing ring road. This traffic planning approach of prescribing traffic along specific routes, moderating the impacts of traffic, and restricting traffic in places is a common feature of Dutch urban transportation planning. I discussed it here in Delft as well.
This is one of the things that we haven’t figure out yet. In our anglo traffic engineering dominated countries, traffic remains largely unregulated and accommodated everywhere, regardless of alternative network routes, adjacent land use activities, or safety considerations.
In addition to re-routing traffic, the remaining lanes of traffic were designed to achieve good traffic flow by removing a traffic signal. Removing signals is also a design feature of many new street design projects in the Netherlands. The traffic capacity of urban lanes is regulated at the intersection. Instead of two lanes that are moving less than half of the time because of a signal, there is now one lane that is moving most of the time. So the change is not that big of a capacity difference.
The traffic signal was replaced by a Priority Square. The Priority Square is similar to a roundabout, but the cars turning inside the roundabout don’t have the right-of-way, instead they wait for gaps in traffic to turn.
Bi-directional cycleways are provided on both sides of the street and intersections have classic protective islands. Along the corridor, cyclists have priority at (along) the intersection. Cyclists crossing the boulevard give way to cars. This is all clearly demarcated using asphalt colouring, painted markings, and universal give way rules.
Another key design feature is that cyclists and pedestrians only cross one lane of traffic at a time. Narrow, confining lanes make crossing each lane of traffic easy and safe. This approach is also used for cars entering and exiting the boulevard. Queue spaces are provided for cyclists and drivers to cross one stream of traffic at a time.
Because of the wide planted central medians, cars can’t turn across the street in many places. Limiting cars turning across traffic is a standard feature to reduce conflicts with pedestrians and cyclists and generally improves traffic flow. Cars instead turn across traffic at the intersections, or at mid-block gaps – both are designed for u-turns. Traffic turning on and off the boulevard is also minimised by one-way side roads, and local traffic restrictions that limit wider through traffic.
While these design improve traffic flow, safety, livability, conditions for walking and cycling, it makes driving short distances everywhere-to-everywhere difficult. People driving have to use specific routes, and circle back to destinations. It would probably melt NZ traffic models.
The central planted median includes closely spaced street trees that are already a substantial size with less than a year in the ground. In places, parking is provided in raised bays between the kerbside trees which proves a good trade-off for space and overall public realm quality.
The City Boulevard is one of five or more incredible new street design projects that I saw in Utrecht. The City Boulevard in particular has many design features that I observed across the Netherlands. None of these designs are standard, but all are designed to achieve the same results: improve traffic flow, improve ped and cycle crossings, save space, minimise turning conflicts, and slow traffic.
As cities explode again with popularity, figuring out how to make city streets better places to live and get around without a car is the most promising future transportation “technology”.
For more information about this project and Utrecht’s plan, check out Mark Wagenbuur’s great Bicycle Dutch website.