Should we employ children as transport planners?

Posted on November 6, 2012

Source: As Easy As Riding A Bike

In Mikael Colville-Andersen‘s talk at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Bikeminded event last month, he described how he had asked the children at the school his son attends to redesign a roundabout near the school. The results were very different from how the roundabout might have been designed by adults; the design was quite obviously informed by how the children themselves would want to negotiate the roundabout, when not in cars.

I was reminded of this anecdote about how useful it can be to seek out the opinions of children by a CBeebies programme that was recently mentioned on Twitter. Part of the series My Story, in which children find out what their grandparents did, this particular episode focused on young Leo and his grandfather Joe, who was a civil engineer in Glasgow.

We meet them addressing a traffic jam, blocking up Leo’s wooden toy road set.

Papa Jim: Uh oh, there’s a traffic jam up ahead. You’re going to have to stop. And look, this traffic jam goes all the way along here, and up over this bridge. How are we going to fix it?

Leo ponders this question, and then comes up with an obvious answer that I suspect not many adults would give.

Leo: We could take some cars off.

Take some cars off! The simple, direct approach.

Papa Jim: We could. Would you like to try and take some cars off over there? Is that where you would take them off?

Leo: Yes.

Papa Jim: Okay. You take the cars off then.

And the cars are removed. Leo has intuitively grasped that one of the simplest ways to address a traffic jam is to to get rid of the thing causing the blockage – too many cars.

But adults know better, of course, as our narrator quickly tells us.

NARRATOR: But that won’t work in real roads! So – what can be done?

Getting rid of some of the cars won’t work, apparently. So what can be done? With a sprinkling of magic dust, the answer is revealed to us.

Really wide roads!

A really, really big road, that won’t ever have a traffic jam on it. Except that this one does. Better make it wider!

NARRATOR: There are millions of cars on the roads. So how can we stop traffic jams? Look at all those cars stuck in traffic! They’re going to be late!

Footage of another really wide road, no doubt built to get rid of traffic jams, that has… a traffic jam on it.

NARRATOR: [Ignoring the implications of the footage appearing on the screen] Ah! So making more lanes would allow for more cars to travel more smoothly, and help stop traffic jams!

We are shown more really wide roads. Note that the bridge – despite having three lanes – is blocked by a traffic jam. As this is a children’s programme, I don’t think this footage is being used ironically.

PAPA JIM: I think that’s what I would have done in the first place. It’s make a big wide road, so that you can get lots of cars on it.

Papa Jim, just like the narrator, rejects Leo’s solution, plumping instead for making the roads even wider, to accommodate ‘lots of cars’; ‘lots of cars’ that will most likely create traffic jams just as dense as on the unwidened roads.

Here Leo is thinking – ‘Wouldn’t it just be better to get rid of some of the cars?’

The road that Leo’s grandfather built to ‘get rid of traffic jams’ was the M8 orbital motorway in the centre of Glasgow, an inner ring road that was abandoned, before completion, in 1980, as a result of growing public anger about the scarring of the urban landscape it necessitated. Wikipedia isn’t necessarily a reliable source, but it tells me that the M8 is

consistently jammed at rush hour

And when Leo and his grandfather take a trip to visit this ‘special road’, built to ‘get rid of traffic jams’, it looks like this –

Certainly the ‘old roads’ of Glasgow couldn’t take all these vehicles. But instead of getting rid of some of these cars, as Leo suggested, large swathes of the city were flattened to accommodate them. And more of them.

The Dutch made similar mistakes. Until the 1970s, the Catharijnesingel in Utrecht was a wide canal, with narrow roads on either side of it. Then the canal was filled in to construct a similar road to the M8 in Glasgow; a large urban motorway, right through the heart of the city.

Catharijnesingel in 2009 – courtesy of Google

But when I visited Utrecht last year, this urban motorway had gone, and the canal was in the process of being restored.

Catharijnesingel, 2011. You can see the same buildings on the right.

By 2018, the Catharijnesingel will look something like this –

Picture from Mark Wagenbuur

The motorway is completely gone, and the bridges across the canal are for buses only, along with bicycles and pedestrians. The location of this mock-up is approximately where I was standing to take the photograph of the building works (and the corresponding Google Streetview image). Turning to the right –

Courtesy of Google. The building at upper right corresponds to that seen on the left in the mock-up.

You can read more about the transformation of this area in this informative post from Mark Wagenbuur.

The Dutch have arrived, eventually, at a ‘Leo’ solution to an inner-city transport problem, having first tried out the ‘Papa Joe’ solution. Having built the big wide road to accommodate cars, vans and trucks, Utrecht has decided to remove capacity for these vehicles from its inner city, and to encourage many of those journeys to be made, instead, by public transport, bicycle, or on foot. The problem of congestion has been solved by getting rid of some of the cars – and the city has been made more pleasant as a result.

Perhaps we should start paying more attention to what children suggest.

CBeebies item via Matthew Hankins on Twitter