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Using traffic calming to reclaim the city

By Platform

In order to tackle climate change and improve quality of life, cities across Europe are aiming to increase the use of active modes of transport, reduce carbon emissions and improve citizen safety. Traffic calming – using physical infrastructure and other measures to reduce vehicle speed and number – is widely used as a method of limiting the impact of motor vehicles, but implementation can be challenging and can often face resistance.

As a result of project demand, the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform organised an online discussion on the topic of traffic calming measures, bringing together participants from the  e-SMARTEC, INTENSIFY, MATCH-UP, OptiTrans, REFORM and TRAM projects to discuss good practices and lessons for rolling out effective measures.

Good practices for traffic calming

The discussion began with presentation of three good practices, from Spain, Portugal and Ireland:

  • The city of Vitoria-Gasteiz (Basque Country, Spain), has implemented the superblock concept (most famously used in Barcelona) in its historic city centre, closing off roads to cars and investing in public transport. The internal space in the superblocks is pedestrianised, except for emergency vehicles, inhabitants and some logistics vehicles. As the concept rolls out further, the city is using traffic calming as an interim measure, using road paint and furniture to slow drivers and reclaim space for cyclists and pedestrians. More than fifty streets around the superblock area have been changed, with the intention of them becoming the internal streets of superblocks in future.
  • In Funchal (Madeira, Portugal), the city has developed an intelligent crosswalk for improving pedestrian safety in a touristic area. An initial audit revealed more than 1,000 pedestrians per hour in the vicinity, but with a high number of accidents and poor public lighting. A new solution was put forward that integrated public lighting, powered by renewable energy, as well as LEDs in the road surface and road signs that turn on automatically when a pedestrian approaches the crossing. A video of the concept is available here.
  • Within the context of the Green Schools Travel National Programme (Ireland), school areas have undergone traffic calming interventions based on student activities and initiatives. Schools in the programme establish a Green School Committee, which undertakes an audit of how students get to school and proposes an action plan that can be used to lobby local government for infrastructure development. Students monitor the speed of cars outside of the schools to demonstrate to the local authority that their interventions have been successful. The schools also integrate sustainable mobility into their curriculum and develop competitions and challenges that can stimulate behaviour change of both students, eventually parents, who also change how they take their children to school. 

With these practices presented for inspiration, the participants discussed their regional challenges and the potentials of traffic calming measures, as well as how to overcome resistance from politicians and citizens.

Innovative traffic calming measures

Traffic calming measures are widely used, including speed limits and cameras, parking limitations, and one way streets, but many regions are also trying new and innovative approaches, as identified by the discussion participants.

Many cities are initiating access limitation initiatives, such as Low Emission Zones (LEZs) which limit the access of highly-polluting vehicles (for example, in Brussels and London), with exemptions for low emission vehicles. Others are implementing shuttle buses in pedestrianised city centres and touristic regions, to encourage people with limited mobility to adapt to the new situation.

Others still are investigating how to tackle city logistics – movement of packages and deliveries – for example, Mechelen, which is developing a network for bicycle package delivery, within the CycleLogistics project. More information about access restriction can be found at the website of the Horizon 2020 project, 'ReVeAL', which is exploring new approaches and technologies for city centre and low emissions zones.

A number of smart crossings are also emerging across Europe. Tallinn (Estonia), is trialling a smart pedestrian crossing with a crossing sign that can communicate with arriving cars. It is only in the pilot phase, but Tallinn has installed two types and is analysing their performance to see how they perform and how drivers recognise and react to them.

Dublin will soon trial Ireland’s first smart crossroad in a busy road in the city as a result of the MATCH-UP project. As well as the practice presented, Funchal has developed another smart crossing using LED lights on the road to give instruction to pedestrians who may be distracted by their smartphones. 

Securing political and social acceptance

Implementing traffic calming measures can often lead to quite a bit of resistance, as people struggle against a need to change their behaviour. Building upon the good practice presentations, the discussion group considered how to gain acceptance from both citizens and policy-makers.

As in the Green Schools practice, participants discussed the need to include stakeholders in defining initiatives to secure their buy-in. A bottom-up approach can help to ensure that stakeholders feel ownership of the activities – where possible, always avoid imposing. The discussion also mentioned the need to make the engagement process fun, with competitions and events to change behaviour, and trials (such as car free days), to demonstrate benefits.

The importance of demonstration came up several times in the discussion, using good practices from elsewhere as examples and measuring the impact of interventions to show success. Finding a first mover in a region is vital – several participants noted that once they had a successful case up and running, others actively requested replication. It was recommended that regions identify the most enthusiastic and accepting stakeholders and work with them on the first case.

The discussion also focused on the need to have a holistic approach to traffic calming, integrated into a broader sustainability strategy. If adding restrictions to people’s behaviour, it must be clearly communicated why it is happening, and alternative solutions must be clearly presented. In the case of the superblocks, a key part of its acceptance was that the communication focus was on explaining how space was to be reclaimed for citizen activities and leisure, coupled with a focus on new public transport offers. Despite initial resistance, the measure is now popular and other neighbourhoods are actively requesting that it be replicated.

Discussions also took place on how to overcome the challenges of changing political commitment as a result of elections and new office holders. Discussions focused on a need to elevate the regional mobility strategy above the political fray. For example, the Southern Regional Assembly in Ireland has drawn up a joint twenty year Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy, built through consensus with all involved regions that cannot be changed easily by individual regional political events.

Citizen fora were also discussed as a method for engaging citizens in co-creating a regional strategy and building social acceptance. The aim from this being that ensuing social pressure means politicians find it difficult to back away from commitments.

Are you interested in learning from other policy makers? Contact the Policy Learning Platform through the policy helpdesk to see if we can host an online discussion for you.

Image credit: Photo by Hashim Rogers from Pexels
European Union