A few weeks ago, Streetfilms released an eye-catching video about the small Belgian city of Ghent, and the dramatic changes they made to traffic circulation in 2017. This video should be professional development watching for everyone involved in Auckland’s transport planning.
It seems that rather than “build it and they will come”, Ghent used the concept of “return it to the people and they will come”. When road space is at a premium – as in Ghent, or Auckland – trying to magic up new space and protection for all the neglected modes is futile, and expensive. Much more can be achieved within a limited budget by removing the ability of cars to dominate.
Ghent’s story turns out to be even more interesting than the video shows. I’ve put a list of lessons for Auckland at the bottom of the post.
Belgium is known for its car dependency, making Ghent a useful city for Auckland to watch. Although there are differences in urban form, we share many political difficulties in developing a sustainable transport network. I was inspired to find out more about how Ghent got to a point where it could make such fundamental changes. What I found reminded me of the approach that other cities have used to successfully transform their networks. Common elements are:
- comprehensive, sustainable planning,
- excellent communication and public engagement, and
- crucially, having a visionary politician or spokesperson lead the plans. In Ghent’s case, the deputy mayor stepped up with the energy needed to empower and channel the enthusiasm of the planners, and to bring the public along.
Also, instead of gold-plating and expanding slowly, Ghent used cheaper solutions over a larger area to achieve fast results. They sought the easiest way to implement key concepts, rather than roll out standard engineering templates. This means less need for hard engineering solutions and expensive streetscapes. Inspired by the Dutch cities of Utrecht and Groningen, Ghent’s transport planners sought a way to ‘catch up’ fast:
We took a shortcut… without hard and expensive infrastructure.
The City of Gent is situated in the East Flanders region of Belgium. It has a population of 243,000 – Civitas
[Ghent dates] back to the Middle Ages when it was the second most important city in northern Europe after Paris… During the 1980s, the city centre suffered the impacts of increasing car traffic, including congestion, air pollution and noise… Public transport had little or no priority and conditions for cyclists and pedestrians were deteriorating. – EC Streets for People
Gent … committed itself early to the principles of SUMP [Europe’s “Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning”] and successfully transformed from a car and traffic dominated to a people and quality of life focused city… – Civitas
In 1987, the first major plan to reduce congestion was reversed after only 5 months, because of opposition:
The City of Gent recognised that the plan was poorly planned, as there were no accompanying measures, such as bicycle policy, parking policy, public transport or refurbished streets and squares to help people access the city centre sustainably. – Civitas
But they didn’t give up. A decade later, in 1997, the plan was successfully reintroduced – this time, accompanied by other measures and better communication:
- Comprehensive bike policy to promote cycling (implemented in 1993)
- Increased public transport frequency and coverage
- The construction of underground car parks
- A dynamic parking guidance system
- The renovation of public spaces – Civitas
The 1997 plan covered 35 ha in the central city:
Further improvements in sustainable mobility continued to be made between 1997 and 2012 – which is when Ghent took things to the next level, with its boldest mobility plan yet. The plan set clear targets for mode share: halving the number of journeys by car, and doubling the use of bikes and buses. From a 2018 report:
By 2015, progress was healthy:
With the help of all the ongoing improvements and the circulation plan, the 2030 target of a 35% cycling mode share was reached 11 years early, in 2019!
we have the modeshare of 35% which was actually the target for 2030, so it seems that we have to rethink about the targets.
Here are some more results, again from the 2018 report:
Not surprisingly with these great outcomes, citizen satisfaction rose. By 2018, Cadence found that even those who weren’t yet convinced made positive changes to their mobility habits. This week, The Guardian newspaper reported on stories from residents:
The changes have made an enormous difference to people’s quality of life…
My advice would be to focus on the whole city not just a small area to not disadvantage people who are not able to afford to live in privileged areas…
If your city is planning to do the same my only advice is: don’t listen to the haters.
So what did the the 2017 “circulation plan” involve? Firstly, it happened nearly overnight, something they recommend over the sort of staged changes that Auckland is trying to do:
Watteeuw advises Birmingham’s councillors not to stagger any changes.
“In Ghent, we implemented the plan as a whole overnight,” he says. “It was technically and politically the easiest way.”
Near the city centre, Ghent’s plan included 15 ha more of pedestrianised area with limited vehicle access. In some pedestrian streets, people are required to walk their bicycles rather than cycle:
But the more substantial changes affected traffic flow over a much larger area – the 700-odd hectares within the R40 ring road. So it’s roughly 20 times the size of the 1997 plan.
To prevent cars to needlessly traverse the city center, the Circulation Plan divides the city into 6 sectors and one big carfree/pedestrian zone.
Creating the sectors was achieved in many ways depending on the location, including
- signs, paint markings and cameras, allowing certain types of vehicles to pass,
- simple barriers that rendered streets closed to vehicles, but open to walking and cycling.
Lowering traffic speeds was, of course, important. The 1997 plan had already introduced lower speeds:
speed limits in the pedestrianised area have been reduced to 5 km/hour for those with permitted motorised access. – EC Streets for People
And the 2017 plan introduced survivable speeds across the larger swath of the city inside the ring road.
The speed limit is 30 km/hr here… it is quite safe and you don’t always need separate bike lanes…
Lowering traffic volumes was equally important – something Auckland’s planners need to be designing into our plans:
If you set up a cycling street, you really need a low intensity of cars. – Streetfilms video
Here are some more of the changes made in 2017 listed on the official information page in anticipation of the plan:
- Transit traffic [i.e. through-traffic, rat-running] on important roads will be prevented by closing streets for motorized vehicles.
- There is a change of travel direction in various streets.
- The inner ring (R40) will get you from section to section.
- The main ring road (R4) will get you from municipality to municipality.
There was also a full parking plan with tiered pricing, streets where cars can’t overtake bicycles, and cameras to help with enforcement.
If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics, you can zoom in on this interactive map. The following gif indicates the sort of information layers available, including the cycle routes, tram and bus routes, sectors, filters, parking lots, and changes to one-way and two-way streets.
The communications material for residents and visitors was very good. Here’s the app Ghent produced to help people understand how to get where they wanted to go. In particular, it shows what the route would have been before the plan (thinner lines), and after the plan (thicker lines).
Here’s one example. The walking route hasn’t changed.
The cycling route has changed, to avoid a no-cycling street:
And the driving route has changed:
Seeing this, many people – including some traffic engineers who haven’t kept abreast of new research – might assume the traffic would increase because “everyone would have to drive further.” Yet in practice, traffic volumes reduced considerably as people chose different ways to reach their destinations. And less traffic meant nicer spaces, cleaner air and a more active population. Above all, Ghent offers a brilliant illustration of traffic evaporation and mode shift.
Public transport ridership and car-share rose, and an economic report suggests retailers have mostly benefited from the changes.
Other cities, like Birmingham are taking the lead from Ghent. And yet Ghent is still aiming higher:
Where the car traffic has not been reduced and where cyclists and car drivers can’t share the space, the City knows a plan must still be conducted to improve the standard of cycling infrastructure. During the next six years, the City is going to improve cycling conditions beyond the ring-road. – Cadence
There are lots of lessons here for Auckland:
- Car-dependent cities can change radically – but it requires steady work.
- Many of the changes can be cheap, quick and reversible, and implementing them quickly is better than staging them.
- Transformational change is often led by a visionary politician, or a visionary transport planner enabled by a politician. In Ghent’s case, it was the Vice Mayor, Filip Watteeuw, whose steadfast, cheerful and evidence-backed promotion of the plan and its benefits helped steer the city through the process.
- Success seems to result from having a comprehensive Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP). One way SUMP plans differ from what Auckland is currently doing is in setting significant mode shift targets, and using significant reduction of traffic volumes as input to the travel demand management.
- Adding cycling infrastructure alone isn’t enough; cycling mode share rises as traffic volumes (and speeds) are reduced. So it’s not just about adding bike lanes where you can; it’s about reducing the threat level overall. This works to encourage more walking, too, especially for kids, the less physically able, and the elderly.
- More progress is made, and faster, when you work with a larger area – and when the traffic circulation is designed more comprehensively.
- One-way streets are not something to fear if they are part of an entire circulation plan. They can be a good solution when the road corridor doesn’t otherwise provide enough width for all modes and goals.
- While it may seem like driving will become “harder” if routes are more circuitous, in fact the lower traffic volumes mean driving can be less stressful.
- Communication, public engagement, and public access to quality information are absolutely critical.
- Every city has vocal naysayers, whether private citizens or political parties – but they shouldn’t prevent demonstrable progress for the planet and the population.
If there is political will to make really good changes towards more walking and cycling and really making the city more pleasant and happy… on a political level, people get rewarded for it. – Streetfilms video
Not gold-plated – but sunny yellow, and effective. C
Edit on January 24: The Dutch Cycling Embassy has tweeted:
First it was Ghent. Then Birmingham. And now Auckland…
Pioneered in the Dutch city of Groningen 40 years ago, 2020 just might be the year of the Traffic Circulation Plan.
— Dutch Cycling Embassy (@Cycling_Embassy) January 23, 2020