Civilised Streets

What Needs to be Done

British cities have become dominated by motor traffic because of political will, not due to some law of economic development. The process can be reversed by political will. Many cities, including now a few in Britain, illustrate that applying known measures can reduce the amount of motor traffic, and increase levels of walking and cycling. Quality of life, road safety, public health; all improve. The range of travel options is expanded, most notably for children.

Experience shows that no single measure, in isolation, is likely to achieve much. For instance, simply building cycle routes will not necessarily have much impact. There are towns in Britain with good cycling infrastructure, but little cycling (Stevenage being the notorious, sad example). Cities that achieved substantial growth in cycling applied a range of measures over many years. These measures encouraged cycling, and restricted car use.

To encourage cycling

The most influential measures are (in no particular order):

  • Bike route networks i.e. cycling routes separate from the road system, linking up areas of traffic calmed roads or bicycle priority streets
  • On-road cycle lanes and shared bus lanes
  • Traffic calmed areas. On the Continent these have 30 km/h or lower speed limits. The British equivalent would be 20 mph zones. Some Continental cities have bicycle-priority streets, where motor traffic must be deferent to both pedestrian and cyclists (similar to “home zones” in Britain).
  • Integration of cycling with public transport, through on-board carriage and secure parking at stations
  • Good signage of cycle routes, ideally branded to distinguish local routes from long-distance routes
  • Online route planning
  • Bike sharing schemes
  • Bike parking
  • Promotion and education: cycle proficiency training for school children and adults

To restrict car use:

  • At the national level, taxation of fuel and car sales reduce demand by increasing cost (although not in a socially equitable way)
  • At the regional level, city authorities can restrict car use in various ways:
    • Pedestrian-only zones that exclude car traffic and all but essential commercial traffic
    • Traffic calmed zones slow motor traffic, increasing journey times. Journeys over speed restrictors are less comfortable
    • Street closures to limit motor traffic to access only
    • Reduced supply, and increased costs of car parking, coordinated across entire conurbations
    • Provision of circumferential arterial roads to divert traffic around the city
    • Limited arterial road capacity within city to restrict physical access by motor traffic

Land Use and Urban Development

The demand for cycle trips longer than about five miles is limited. Typical cycle trips are 2 – 3 miles in length. This means that suburbs and cities have to be planned so that most daily trips of life can to be walked or cycled. Efficient development plans specifically encourage mixed-use, compact development focused around public transport lines and well supplied with walking and cycling facilities.

The general failure to do this in Britain has been fundamental to the problem of excessive car use and congestion. Cycling development is challenged by an installed base of relatively low-density suburbia, served by distant retail centres with ample car parking. There is no short-term solution. Regeneration, redevelopment and new development should be in line with good practice on the Continent.

How It Happens: Social and Political Conditions

Notwithstanding success stories here and there in Britain, inaction is the norm, reflecting a general public apathy regarding car dependency. Indeed, proposals to limit car use and invest in active travel may incite at least scepticism, if not outright hostility from some. This reaction is not peculiar to Britain. It has been encountered, and won over, in other countries. Once better conditions for walking and cycling are created, the wider advantages are appreciated, to generate desire for more investment.

What is essential is strong city council/local authority leadership to break through the initial apathy. Successful programmes have always been led at the city/local authority level. Another key aspect is a focus on improving the quality of life – addressing congestion, pollution, perceived danger and safety. This means that individuals quickly perceive benefits. Financial support from central government may encourage local authorities to go ahead with plans that would otherwise be seen as too ambitious.


There is nothing about British cities that makes them intrinsically unsuitable for large shifts towards active travel and public transport and away from car use. The essential ingredients are sustained, determined leadership at the city council/local authority level, supported by central government funding and policy targets. A range of measures have to be applied over many years to alter travel habits towards safer, healthier choices. Provided these measures are aimed at improving the general quality of life, experience shows that public reservations can be overcome, and support for further investment grows.

Main Sources

Warren J. “Civilising the Streets – how strong leadership can deliver high quality of life and vibrant public places.” Transform Scotland Trust with Sustrans, 2010.

Buehler R et al. “Reducing car dependence in the heart of Europe: lessons from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland”.  Transport Reviews, 37:1, 4-28, DOI: 10.1080/01441647.2016.1177799