This is a guest post from George Weeks. George is an urban designer at the Auckland Design Office. Prior to this he spent five years working in the Transport for London (TfL) urban design team. This article is written in a personal capacity.
Since 2014, the London Borough of Waltham Forest has brought Dutch highways design to the Anglosphere and delivered people-friendly streets to London. What could this mean for New Zealand?
In late 1960s San Francisco, urban design Professor Donald Appleyard conducted a study, the results of which showed that people who lived on lower-trafficked streets felt they had more social connections. This illustrated a wider principle: if a street no longer has to accommodate motorised through-traffic, it can accommodate many more people-focused functions.
Closing the street to through-traffic means opening up the streets to people. One country has followed these principles since the 1970s and it is the Netherlands.
Researchers at the University of Otago predict that two million New Zealanders could be obese in 2038. This pattern is repeated across the world…with very few exceptions.
The Netherlands, however, is the only European Union country where obesity is forecast to decline. This is remarkable, especially in a country where people like to eat chocolate sprinkles on bread for breakfast.
Walking and cycling for short trips is good for us. Dutch people certainly cycle a lot, at all ages. But Dutch cites are walkable too, with safe streets. Following a campaign against child road deaths in the 1970s, the Dutch approach to designing roads, streets and neighbourhoods has been to make it attractive and convenient to walk and cycle short trips. From 1972 to 2013, child road fatalities in the Netherlands fell by 98%. Dutch children are, according to UNICEF, the happiest children in the world. Importantly, Dutch people are also the world’s most satisfied car drivers.
NEED FOR IMPROVEMENTS IN AUCKLAND
Few motorists would assess Auckland’s rush-hour driving environment as “satisfying”, yet despite impressive cycling growth, 54 per cent of trips less than one kilometre are made by private motor vehicle. For trips of 1-2 kilometres, this rises to 83 per cent.
In addition to a propensity for driving absurdly short distances, New Zealand has the third highest OECD obesity rate, a persistently high youth suicide rate and an unenviable record on road safety. Auckland Council has declared a climate emergency: the greatest share of CO2 emissions in Auckland comes from road transport.
This begs the question: can we redesign roads and streets in existing urban areas to increase our quality of life? Can we enable significant modal shift and deliver liveable neighbourhoods? In summary, can we go Dutch?
CAN WE GO DUTCH?
The picture below shows a scene familiar to anyone who has experience the calmness of Dutch neighbourhood streets. Note the gentle bustle of street life, the brick paving, the tree planting, the people walking in the street, the children on their bicycles. What a remarkably civilised environment. What a healthy street.
What is remarkable is that this photograph wasn’t taken in Amsterdam. Nor was it taken in Almere, Amersfoort or indeed any Dutch city. It was actually taken in the London Borough of Waltham Forest in Francis Road, one of hundreds of streets transformed by its ambitious Mini-Holland programme.
Despite the Dutch-looking bicycles, this is certainly not just a cycling scheme. It is part of a systematic approach to improve walkability, air quality, public health and economic viability. Follow this link to see how Francis Road looked in 2015. The street has been transformed. This video shows Francis Road now.
Five years on, has Mini-Holland worked? Take a look at the video.
After just one year, people in areas that have had Mini-Holland treatment are cycling by an extra 9 minutes per week AND walking an extra 32 minutes per week. When out in the streets, they are exposed to less air pollution. Traffic flow has fallen substantially (56% on 12 key routes; overall traffic reduction of 16% in first full year of scheme), freeing the streets for other uses. And people get to enjoy this for longer; life expectancy in Mini-Holland areas has increased by up to 9 months.
This mode shift has not happened anywhere else in the UK – it is a unique result.
The infographic below shows some of what has been achieved since 2014.
The success is also reflected in the press and the trophy cabinet. Waltham Forest Mini-Holland has won 18 major awards since 2015 and has been shortlisted for over 50. In 2018 the scheme won the “people’s choice” award at the Institute of Civil Engineers, cementing its status as London’s most popular infrastructure project. Other accolades have come from the Healthy Streets Awards, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Urban Design Group and Pineapples Award for Contribution to Place.
These achievements are reflected in how people use the streets. A primary school with over 100 bicycles parked outside it (including three cargobikes). Streets where children are free to walk, cycle, scoot and skate. Cycle infrastructure integrated with public transport. A new project – Baby Biking – to enable people carrying their children by bicycle. A quick Twitter image search for #wfminiholland will bring up many more pictures like this.
Waltham Forest Council has produced a five-minute video summarising how street transformations have improved the lives of people living and working in the area. If you do nothing else, please watch the video below. The main message is that this new approach to streets has transformed people‘s quality of life.
RELEVANCE TO NEW ZEALAND
We need to walk and cycle more; this requires safe, inclusive streets. In April 2019 the University of Otago published a major report on active travel: Turning the Tide – from Cars to Active Transport. Too much driving is harming us and the environment – a decisive mode shift is needed to favour public transport, walking and cycling.
The report makes NZ-specific recommendations to achieve this (see p. 11); these recommendations are very consistent with the delivery of Waltham Forest Mini-Holland. This has implications throughout New Zealand, both for existing urban areas and the design of new neighbourhoods. Think how many Mini-Hollands we could have here.
Waltham Forest’s experience has shown that Dutch street designs can be applied in other countries to increase walking and cycling. This requires stable resourcing, strong leadership and a willingness to engage meaningfully with local stakeholders.
We also have advantages in New Zealand. Gridded towns and cities, built at low-densities that make sense by bicycle. Public transport that would benefit from greater catchment. Plenty of roadspace to reallocate. And a willingness to adapt other countries’ ideas for our own benefit.
In March 2014 Waltham Forest was awarded £27m by Transport for London to transform its streets into a Mini-Holland. This was an initiative of the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London which was published in 2013 and marked a step-change in ambition levels, with funding to match.
Compared to the prevailing “fighting-for-crumbs” nature of UK cycling campaigning, the boroughs’ Mini-Holland bids had to be truly visionary. They also had to be deliverable. Bids needed to be signed by either the Head of Council or Head of Transport. Political courage was absolutely critical and continues to be so.
AIMS AND PRINCIPLES
The overall aims of Waltham Forest Mini-Holland were:
- Return streets to local people
- Improve walking environment
- Enable cycling amongst all age groups and abilities [emphasis added]
Road and street design would systematically favour public and active transport. This ambitious approach was directly based on Dutch precedents. The Mini-Holland bid document incorporated:
- Low-traffic neighbourhoods, to be created by removing motorised through-traffic
- Protected space for cycling along main roads (to provide connections through the borough and to neighbouring boroughs)
- Fully-protected cycling space junctions on main roads (a UK first)
- Cycle parking in residential streets (mainly using hangers) and secure cycle hubs at rail and London Underground stations.
As well as political support, you need technical support. Until recently, UK cycling infrastructure was not known for its design quality. Mini-Holland proposals needed to draw on international (i.e. Dutch) best practice; this approach was finally gaining credence in 2012. A Mini-Holland Design Guide was produced, directly influenced by Dutch principles and written by transport consultant Jon Little, who had developed Waltham Forest’s Mini-Holland bid. This design guide was based on first-hand experience of cycling in the Netherlands and sought to bring a similar quality and consistency to Waltham Forest (2013, p. 17)
“We want to ensure that our proposals represent a step change in design, are consistent in approach and will deliver significant improvements to cycling, not just treat this programme as an opportunity to design more business-as-usual interventions that don’t challenge conventional design and modal priority.”
UK cycling provision at junctions tended to use combinations of advanced stop lines (ASLs) and shared-use pavements. This doesn’t provide an inclusive cycling environment. Better designs were needed and were developed. One of the largest projects in the Mini Holland programme is a 4.4km protected cycleway along Lea Bridge Road. This has introduced proper Dutch-influenced junctions to the UK, as seen below. Very easy to use, as we see in this video.
“When you push the status quo, it pushes back, hard.”
Janette Sadik-Khan, 2016 Street Fight
For transformational projects like Mini-Holland, early public engagement is absolutely essential. Good designs aren’t much use on their own: if the public haven’t been engaged from the very start of the project, it is almost impossible to get anything built. A detailed engagement strategy was developed…and this become more sophisticated as the programme unfolded.
- Early engagement via open questions in a survey to find out how people felt about their neighbourhood and what issues needed tackling. No designs or even suggested interventions were included at this stage and this is important.
- Neighbourhood co-design workshops where residents added details of their local trips before being shown preliminary designs based on early engagement feedback.
- Public consultation on proposals based on all previous feedback and also the original aims of the programme During the consultation a number of public drop-in events would be held within the neighbourhoods concerned.
Successive Commonplace engagements obtained detailed public feedback on Mini-Holland. This provided clear, site-specific information and shaped the emerging street designs.
While Mini-Holland has attracted loud protests, the engagement process has succeeded because it legitimises the delivery of streets that people fundamentally want. No-one wants to live on a street with more pollution, worse safety, unhappy children and social isolation. Mini-Holland helps create streets that support better neighbourhoods.
Waltham Forest Mini-Holland has, in its design, delivery and execution, brought about a substantial mode shift towards active travel at a rate of change that is unmatched anywhere in the English-speaking world.
Why don’t we try it out in New Zealand? Set up a Mini-Holland-like competitive bidding process for long-term monies. Evaluate the bids based on the recommendations in Turning the Tide. And deliver better public spaces, safer streets and access for all.