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Would you guess walking and cycling are top of the urban transport hierarchy?

Opinion | By Edward Leigh, Smarter Cambridge Transport

Smarter Cambridge Transport- Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell. (9741423)
Smarter Cambridge Transport- Edward Leigh. Picture: Keith Heppell. (9741423)

The urban transport hierarchy is a generally agreed aspiration to prioritise walking over cycling over public transport over private cars. How closely do you think highway planners and engineers adhere to this?

Space has to be apportioned between carriageways, cycle lanes, pavements and verges. Time has to be apportioned between modes, e.g. to motor vehicles and pedestrians at crossings. These apportionments are determined by one factor above all: keeping the ratio of traffic volume to road capacity below about 85 per cent. Safety improvements that threaten this are ruled out (until enough people die or suffer serious injury). A pedestrian crossing? Advanced green phase for cycles? Convert a vehicle lane to cycle lanes? Forget it.

But isn’t walking and cycling meant to be at the top of the hierarchy?

Then there’s the challenge of prioritising buses over private cars. One solution is to assign a lane exclusively to buses (and, typically, taxis). But space is scarce in towns and cities that pre-date the motor car, so a bus lane typically takes space from cycling and walking. Bus users gain a small time-advantage relative to car drivers; people walking or cycling lose out on safety and ambience.

But isn’t walking and cycling meant to be at the top of the hierarchy?

We can give buses priority in other ways, by allocating space on the edges of the city and using smart signalling within the city. Smarter Cambridge Transport has proposed several ways to do this, including opening a bus-only link from Milton Park and Ride via the ‘spare’ A14 underpass behind Cambridge Regional College.

We need to treat the urban transport hierarchy more seriously and genuinely prioritise allocation of space within towns and cities to walking and cycling.

There’s an important omission though: space for trees, hedges, ditches, flowerbeds and grass that make a street more attractive and safer for walking and cycling. Ditches help prevent drains being overwhelmed in heavy rains. Trees keep places cool in summer and absorb pollutants. More than ever, for environmental, ecological and health reasons, these also need to be included in the urban transport hierarchy.

Read Smarter Cambridge Transport's column every week in the Cambridge Independent.

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