What’s wrong with place and movement hierarchies?

Local Transport Today has just published my opinion piece on place and movement hierarchies. I’m reproducing a version here. I’m very grateful to Peter Jones, Phil Jones and John Dales for offering comments on a draft version: they bear no responsibility for my opinions or errors. At under 900 words the piece necessarily lacks nuance, but I’m hoping to write up a longer version for an academic journal, to continue the debate. My piece on cycling, rationality and utility maximisation is relevant too.

Place and movement hierarchies increasingly form part of accepted thinking about the way we manage streets. For instance, they’re used in UK guidance such as Manual for Streets (MfS) 1 and 2, and Jones et al’s Link and Place (L&P).

The methods seek to balance street functions more effectively, paying more heed to ‘place-ness’ and reminding us that streets are more than conduits for motor traffic. I worry, however, that the dichotomy between ‘movement’ and ‘place’ perpetuates the dominance of motor traffic.

Why? Surely, the documents say ‘movement’ is not just about cars? Yes they do. But the movement function is defined as “[enabling] users to pass through the street as quickly and conveniently as possible” (L&P page 20 and endorsed in MfS2).

Cyclists and ‘striders’ (purposeful walkers) do want speed and directness. But my criticism is that the desire for speed and directness is equated with the movement function. This may fit motorised movement but not cycling for which safety and comfort are crucial too. Without separate space for cycling on main roads, most people don’t ride, just as in the US the lack of pavements means many people don’t walk. Even in the UK I walk a little further to the station to avoid a polluted main road.

Outside the ‘carcoon’, ambiance matters. People avoid walking and cycling if there are detours or delays but also if it’s scary or polluted. So the assumption that movement is primarily about time minimisation preserves the ‘view from the steering wheel’ seen in traditional transport models.

Moreover, separating ‘movement’ from ‘place’ is inherently problematic. Different types of movement have different impacts on ‘place’. It depends on speed and mass. In city streets mass is critical: London’s slow-moving HGVs regularly cause catastrophic injury.

Non-motorised movement has relatively benign mass-speed combinations. Although cycling and walking can have negative impacts on others, they often instead enhance place. When I walk to the high street I chat to neighbours en route; cycling, I smile at strangers while letting them pass.

So active modes can positively contribute and form part of a place. The same can’t be said for rat-running through motor traffic. So again – in casting movement and place as opposed, or at least separate – the movement/place dichotomy implicitly casts movement as motorised.

Current hierarchies within ‘movement’ and ‘place’ are also problematic. The default assumption in the ‘movement’ hierarchy is that high movement means lots of motorised traffic. MfS1 puts motorways top, with residential streets bottom; L&P’s pictorial matrices show multi-lane ‘bypasses’ and ‘boulevards’ top and ‘local streets’ bottom.

Words, images and underlying rationales reproduce motorised assumptions. If longer trips are at the top (MfS1, MfS2, L&P), this de-prioritises walking and cycling. And where policy suggests using current volumes to assess movement status (MfS1) this risks reproducing the status quo we’re trying to change.

Priority for other modes can be added later, but then they become appendages of the old motorised hierarchy, when really they’re very different. If local streets provide fast, direct walking and cycling routes, shouldn’t they have high movement status – even with low motorised movement? I’d go further and say such streets should have through motor traffic removed to improve ambiance and capacity for walking and cycling, also benefiting ‘place’.

Owen Street: a key cycle movement corridor.

Owen Street: a key cycle movement corridor.

Movement and place bibles don’t use images such as Owen Street in the London Borough of Islington to illustrate a high movement function. They’re not imagined as ‘strategic’ so risk not getting prioritised for speed and directness. (Indeed, while Owen Street is safe and popular, it’s poorly laid out and a bottleneck for walking and cycling at peak).

Unlike MfS1, L&P rightly recommends basing planning on desired movement levels. This cannot be stressed enough and should be at the start of guides alongside images of heavy cycling and walking corridors. Pictures can help that mental shift to “if we intervene, this could be a strategic cycle link, carrying 5,000+ people daily”. We need all the help we can get to plan for a transformation to cycling as mass transport. Not old-school images of arterial roads as ‘strategic’.

Place hierarchies are also problematic. At first sight the concept – encouraging dwelling – seems to promote the local, with MfS1 talking of local distinctiveness. But look at the hierarchies. Transport for London grades place functions from ‘strategic’ (high) to ‘local’ (low), while L&P’s rating runs from national (highest) to local (lowest).

As with movement, this prioritises environmentally problematic longer distance movement. It implies ‘national’ locations in the West End are more ‘placey’ than my local high street. Many more people visit, so in a sense it’s true. But can place-ness be scaled? And if it can, might higher visitor numbers mean less ‘place-ness’? Much of Central London is a chain store parade while my local high street has genuine independents.

The importance of place rightly helped Trafalgar Square lose some of its through motor traffic. But if we want to promote local distinctiveness – and protect local streets from rat-running – we may need to re-think the hierarchy.

So while place and movement hierarchies are attractive, they need more critical attention. I think two particularly urgent challenges are:
– protecting local places from motor traffic nuisance, and
– radically upgrading cycle networks so they’re safe, comfortable, attractive and direct.

Street planning concepts need to provide more support for both.

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5 Responses to What’s wrong with place and movement hierarchies?

  1. Dan says:

    Imteresting article thanks.

    I’m in your photo of Owen Street 🙂 Any future improvements planned for this route? The transition between road – footway – road is awful as it exists now.

    • admin says:

      Hi Dan
      Thanks 🙂 Re: Owen St, I’m afraid I don’t know of anything – but LCC’s Islington group might know? http://www.icag.org.uk/
      best wishes
      Rachel

    • RLewis says:

      I understand that the problem has come about because half of Owen Street is privately owned, not part of the public highway. A simple expedient might be to have the land ‘dedicated’ as public highway in which case liability for safety, improvement and repair would rest with the Council. Achieving this would require a strong campaign to persuade the council and landowner to come to the necessary (but costly perhaps) agreement.

  2. BC says:

    I had a hard time reading and understanding this. Oh, it’s for an academic journal. Never mind.

    • admin says:

      Sorry BC. I try and write comprehensibly but it doesn’t always work as well as I’d like. I did struggle in this piece to compress all I wanted to say into what (for academics) is a very low amount of words.

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