Today’s Sustainable Safety policies demand a type of street design that is completely different from what was actually built in the 1960s, also in the Netherlands. So can you re-design streets that were built in a time when the car got all the space it needed, and more? Can you change those streets to meet the objectives of today’s safety and traffic management policies? And can it be done within reasonable budgets? Well, yes, Utrecht proves that it is possible!
As part of a much larger plan to redevelop a 1960s housing estate in Utrecht, the street grid in this neighbourhood called ‘Overvecht’ will be completely updated to the 21st century Dutch standards. The new street grid will make the area safer, more attractive and more liveable. The city achieves this by concentrating the main motor traffic flow better and in fewer designated streets and by changing many other streets into 30km/h (19mph) zones to give more and a safer space to people walking and cycling. The plans are currently executed and a number of former main streets was already narrowed to exactly half their original 1960s width.
In the publication “Looking at Overvecht” the Utrecht alderman explains:
“With its spacious layout with predominantly high-rise buildings and generous amounts of green space, Overvecht is a characteristic product of 1960s urban planning. The estate has approximately 40,000 residents, many of them in the social-housing sector. In response to Overvecht’s problems since the beginning of the 21st century, the city council and housing corporations have been working together with residents, contractors and professional partners to improve the neighbourhood both physically and socially.”
In this post I zoom in on the north-west quadrant of the neighbourhood that houses about 10,000 people.
In the original 1960s street grid for this area, motor traffic was able to use all streets to get from one end to the other. Some streets were even wider than others and served as through street. Most streets were purely residential, but all streets had the same speed limit of 50km/h (31mph). To channel the traffic flow better, the city designated a so-called ‘neighbourhood ring’. This is the street that is designed to give quick access from the city’s arterial roads to the purely residential streets. The latter type of streets have all become 30km/h (19mph) streets. This means that no 30km/h street has a direct access to an arterial road, but that traffic is forced to use the neighbourhood ring to get to the main arteries via only very few access points.
The neighbourhood ring is not for through traffic, it will only be used by motor traffic that has to be in the area. That means the traffic volume is still relatively low and the streets forming the ring do not have to be widened to handle the traffic that previously used other streets in the area. On the contrary: the 1960s design was so wide that the ring has to be optically narrowed. This will be done by removing the centre line and by implementing cycle lanes. Since the ring is not for through traffic and the speed limit is 50km/h, separated cycle tracks are not necessary. But the ring is also a bus route, so there are a number of bus stops. For safety reasons separated cycle tracks will be built around all bus stops in the ring. The street is still wide enough for lorries that need to be in the area to transport goods to the shops for instance. Under Dutch regulations lorries up to 17.27 metres long should be able to enter the area and they can. Emergency services are not restricted to the few access points, they can also use the cycle short-cuts in case of an emergency.
Safety for cyclists and pedestrians improves in the area because motor traffic will be concentrated in a street designed to handle that traffic. All the other streets will become less busy and the speeds in residential streets were already lowered to 30km/h. This eliminates most of the speed differences. The area has always had a high number of short cuts for cyclists. You can enter the neighbourhood in 20 places if you cycle and the (future) through routes for cycling are now even further from the main motor traffic flow. The cycle routes are almost always shorter than the routes for motor traffic.
Not all the residents were in favour of every aspect of this plan. Some feared that forcing motor traffic to use the neighbourhood ring would lead to longer routes and so more exhaust fumes. But the city said that investigations show that the relocation of motor traffic does not lead to more environmental problems. The longer routes for some residents are evened out by the reduction of through traffic that now will stay out of the neighbourhood completely.
The original main streets that were to become small residential streets were literally cut in half. The old asphalt remained and the centre line was scraped off. The removed half was redesigned with mostly widened pavements (side walks) and a green area. To get through motor traffic out of these streets the street itself has to signal the message that it is no longer a through street. Only putting up a sign that the speed limit was lowered would not have been enough. Just asking people to be nice and drive slower is pretty much pointless. So apart from narrowing many streets, some strategically chosen streets were also blocked, so they could not physically be used for through traffic any longer either.
Finally, all the priority signs and indications were removed. In a 30km/h zone there are no main streets that have priority over side streets. All streets are equal and the basic priority rule is valid: traffic from the right has the right of way. This forces motor traffic to approach every side street with care and in a low speed.
In one of the former main streets that was supposed to be blocked, the residents were against the closure in such a large majority that the city decided to reverse that decision. The street did become a 30km/h zone, but with a direct access to a main arterial road (number 4 on the map above). This is in conflict with the rule that no 30km/h street has access to a main artery, but these exceptions to plans will always be there in reality.
There is still debate to close the access to the city ring road (number 5 on the map above). This provincial road may be changed to a state motor way and the city really wants to close this (half) access. The final decision will depend on what that road will look like in the future.
With these modifications to the original 1960s design the streets in this part of the city are again up to the latest standards of road safety and design and they are ready for their next 50 years.
Video explaining the modernisation of this neighbourhood’s street grid.