Traffic is NOT the lifeblood of a city

There’s a convincing idea, which often lurks just below the surface of thinking in many countries, guiding what people consider will be good for our towns and cities. The idea is that roads and streets act like the circulation system of a person or animal – and that it’s important to keep building wider and wider traffic ‘arteries’ in order to enable the free flow of this traffic. It’s felt that lots of free flowing traffic indicates a strong city, and that congestion must be fixed by getting the existing traffic moving again.

We assume then that all that noise, all the fumes, all those roads, are together the price that must be paid in order to have a thriving city – that traffic is the ‘lifeblood’ of a town or city.

Now this idea is nonsense, but it’s very convincing and memorable nonsense, so here’s my attempt to disassemble it:

The bloodstream of a person or animal carries red blood cells. Movement of this blood might be part of the system, but the actual work of these red blood cells is to carry oxygen between the lungs and the capillaries. It’s this exchange of oxygen which matters, not the movement in itself. The arteries (and veins) are just the mechanism for transporting the blood from one set of tiny capillaries to the other so that it can do the important stuff it needs to do once it gets there.

The bloodstream analogy CAN be helpful in thinking of a city or town – where the people are analogous to the blood cells – where what matters is the contact and communication that can take place between these people and the city (which is made up of more people of course).

So it’s not the movement of vehicles which matters but the movement of people…. And to be more exact it’s NOT even the movement of the people which matters… it’s actually the exchange between people (of ideas, conversation, emotion, money, goods, etc) which happens at either end of the movement which is important.

But then actually even this isn’t as accurate as I’d like. This thinking assumes that exchange only takes place at either end of a journey. Of course that’s true if you’re driving a single occupancy motor vehicle – but any visitor to a walking/cycling-friendly city, or any observer on a bus or train, will note that all sorts of human exchange can easily take place while moving. That’s not to say that the person driving has no effect on the city of course (quite the opposite is true, the effects are powerful) – just that it’s not the same kind of inter-human exchange that we’re interested in here.

Before my Dutch trip this summer I spent some time looking carefully at behaviours in my own city. I specifically noticed this inter-human communication taking place between people walking past one another. It wasn’t spoken word (on the whole) – but instead manifested itself in the subtle dance of the city pedestrian. There was the very slightest and tiniest of signals to another person of an intention to walk right or left. The very slightest of pauses to allow another to pass in front. Standing a just few centimetres to one side, recognising the private space of another.

Continuing this study once in the Netherlands, one of my key observations was of how intensely human Amsterdam is at commuting time. This communication wasn’t restricted to people walking (or on buses, trains etc). In addition every commuting journey by the thousands of people on bicycles involved really quite intensive contact with others. It’s a very quiet communication – but if this were to be put into spoken words the effect would be of constant chatter. The slightest of nods or a mild lean forward on a bicycle, or a brief pause in pedalling conveys constant and crucial negotiations. “Please?” “Thanks!” “After you.” “Sorry, me first!”

This is a healthy city – one where human exchange isn’t stifled by noise and walls of metal – and where my mode of transport isn’t getting in the way of your human exchange.

Now what if we consider high blood pressure as analogous to traffic congestion? Think of the blood struggling to get around the body. What’s the solution for this? Would we try to solve this by transplanting larger arteries and veins into someone’s body? I’m (clearly) not a doctor, but I can’t imagine that this would help. We might manage to make the blood travel around some parts of the system more easily – but we’d be missing the point. High blood pressure isn’t solved by trying to progressively bypass artery after artery – it’s a whole-system problem. The solution needs to be a whole-system solution. Extending the analogy – if we’d somehow adapted our blood cells to travel around wrapped up in huge packages (equivalent to the car in the analogy), meaning that they couldn’t get into the capillaries, then we’d not gain anything by replacing the capillaries with arteries. That would kill the person or animal.

Returning to our idea that human-communication and city-life are intensely related, what does this tell us about solutions to our transport problems?

Well, for the health of a city we need to get people moving as effectively and efficiently as possible – and goods too – but not at the expense of killing off the city in the process. It’s the city life that matters, which is enabled by the movement, not the movement itself.

Large vehicles – and I’m including private cars in this category – may be useful for long distance transport in artery-like systems, but the health of the city will be measured in the small things – people carrying (many) things by hand, the noise of people chatting to one another, even individual people getting in each other’s way… and here we’re not looking for free flow, but something more precious.  Measures of the vibrancy of our city life are NOT to be found by looking at how much traffic we’re moving. Vibrancy is detectable only where people are stationary, or moving slowly, or are brought together. It’s chatter. It’s someone popping along to the local shop on foot or on a bike.

City vibrancy is intensely human.

See also…


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  1. Robert I just love reading your articles! They take me back to my time in Amsterdam and at the university. I start reading your article and I just can’t stop. Keep doing this, keep writing, keep pondering.

    PS: we were at Planning the Cycling City together.


  2. Interesting reading, Robert. And I’ve thought of another analogy! The best way to reduce your high blood pressure is to take regular exercise and eat fresh food. And the best way ease your city’s congestion “pressure”? Promote exercise (in the form of cycling and walking to replace those car journeys!). These modes make it more convenient to call at local shops to by your fresh, locally produced food, too.
    A win – win change, what?
    Keep ’em coming


  3. I’m still not on Twitter (and don’t intend to) so this is my answer to your question of January 10th about the cycle crossing of a narrow but fast country road.
    I’m just an ordinary Dutch person, not a traffic engineer, but these are the sorts of possibilities I might see around here, within your stated limitations.
    1) A raised table over the full width of the road, like an extra-wide speed bump, so cycles cross on the level but cars are slowed down slightly to make the crossing safer. Keep the cycle path at its original raised height to meet the crossing table instead of lowering it to street level.
    2) “Elephant’s footprint” markings or dotted lines delineating the cycle crossing, making clear for the drivers that they can expect people to be crossing there. This is the bare minimum.
    3) A “beg button” crossing light for the cyclists, so it only goes red if someone wants to cross.
    4) If there’s a lot of speeding there, and you want to slow the vehicular traffic down to the posted maximum to increase safety, but don’t want to put in a raised table to do so (maybe there’s heavy forestry or agricultural machinery traffic that won’t deal well with a speedbump), a stoplight controlled by radar and paired with a traffic camera will do the job. The light only turns red if the vehicle exceeds the posted speed limit. If the car ignores the red light it gets photographed and automatically ticketed. This would be an alternative to 1, that also combines well with 3, that I’ve seen used rarely, mostly on distributor roads where there are residential streets and more people around. In a really rural setting there might be too high a chance for the camera to be sabotaged.
    5) Putting a raised center line in (for a fair distance), even if there isn’t room for a central reservation, would help to ensure that traffic won’t try to overtake a car stopping for people wanting to cross. A “Do not overtake” sign could be placed instead, but the Dutch prefer to use less signs and more physical guidance for the preferred behaviour.

    The bollard in the middle of the cycle lane leaving the crossing would never be used in that spot in Holland, but then we’d never put in the solid white line lane markings on a cycle path either. Our bi-directional paths have a very lightly dotted center line. I understand you want cyclists to swing wide for that turn so they meet the road at a 90 degree angle and can see the traffic in both directions. I can’t come up with a simple solution that would be better, except removing the center line for that last bit, and then making the wide curve an integral part of the way the lane is built. I’m not sure that would be any better, as a (removable) bollard is probably easier for the narrow footpath sweeper-machinery to deal with – you wouldn’t want to let the curve-approach get slippery or full of debris because it can’t be swept.

    Did you see my recent remark on you “What nobody told me” article?


    1. An example of nr.4 can be found in Heerhugowaard (Noord-Holland) on the Westtangent (50 km/hour distributor road), at the cycle crossing where the Stationsweg used to cross the Westtangent. There’s no crossing for cars there now, only cycles and pedestrians. They have a beg-button, but the light also goes to red if you drive at it too fast.
      I’m not sure if it works by radar or detection loops in the road or what else it might be, but it clearly reacts to one’s approach speed (unless there are people wanting to cross – in that case the car light always goes to red).

      From what I’ve heard, Switzerland has these red lights with cameras against speeding too, but they are not cheap.


  4. Vondellaan Heerhugowaard (50 km/h)has three examples, a minimal zebra crossing for pedestrians, a very minimal cycle crossing (no warnings at all, but good sight lines, as it’s not much used), and at the crossing with Basiusstraat there’s an idea that might work here, in conjunction with a raised center line: a small speed bump only on the approaching side. Each side of the road has their own half-width speed bump, on opposite sides of the crossing.
    This saves money for a wide raised table for the whole crossing (as you said on Twitter that costs too much for the budget), while having the same effect.
    As the whole street has a raised center line anyway to stop people overtaking (while not obstructing the fire engines that used to be stationed on the Beukenlaan*), such a half-width speed bump works well.
    I’ve never made a Maps link before, so I hope this one works:

    *That’s also the reason for the concrete center reservation on the Westtangent in the previous link: the town wanted to turn the 2 lanes in each direction into 1 in each direction with a clear separation to stop overtaking and speeding, but they did want to leave the fire engines room to pass the rush hour congestion. The fire engines can easily run onto the raised concrete, but for cars it’s an effective deterrent.


    1. The examples on Vondellaan Heerhugowaard are interesting. This makes me determined to return to the Netherlands again soon. I’ve not been north from Amsterdam yet – perhaps I should do so next visit.

      In many ways this discussion highlights how different some parts of the UK are to so much of the Netherlands. I wonder if you have some good examples of rural crossings in the Netherlands. I’ve seen a few – but I’m more familiar with the urban landscape than the more rural areas of the country.

      I strongly believe that Dutch *urban* design can be copied for the UK. I’m not always so sure about how likely it is that we can support rural cycling so effectively.

      There are many roads in Scotland like this one [ ] – where there is not even a footway. The traffic here travels fast – and there are buses and trucks. It seems very unsafe and basic compared to Dutch design. There is very little chance that a separate cycleway would be built here. Because of the landscape character, and the distances between settlements, there will always be a reliance on motor vehicles – and providing for the support of cycling would cost money which is better spent on improving city streets.

      Sometimes there may be a footway beside the road – like this one [ ]. This is not very good for cycling on – and it may even be dangerous – but it may be better than nothing – making it possible for people to do some important journeys, perhaps a shorter distance into a larger village.

      The situation I was talking about on Twitter is one of these situations where the cycleway is immediately beside the road. There is a long section of path suitable for cycling – which is away from the road. But at this location there is a section of the route which uses the footway beside the road. This is not nice to cycle on – but it is effective – and it makes possible a longer journey away from the road. The road is already narrow here – and the footway is squeezed into a narrow area beside the road. This isn’t going to change. And because of the large volume of traffic, and the speed and weight of the traffic, it is unlikely that anything will happen to slow the traffic. Work to separate the two lanes of traffic (as would be common in the Netherlands) would be very expensive – and it might also cause some big dangers to those driving at speed.

      It would be better if there were not these limits – but it is unrealistic to expect anything better here at the moment… the location I was discussing will remain as a poor quality crossing of a major road. But what interests me is the question about what can be done to make the situation as good as it can be. What can be seen in the photograph is silly. The markings on the cycleway are very badly designed. There is ‘tactile paving’ at a place where I don’t think any blind person would ever safely cross the road. There is a bollard in the middle of the small space where people can cycle. These things CAN change. What I’d like to see is that the crossing is designed to make it as good as possible. Even if it will always be poor quality it makes no sense to make it even worse than it needs to be by making such bad mistakes.


      1. Your first example of a road in Scotland reminds me of some of the roads in Switzerland that I’ve seen occasional racing-bike riders cycle on. It’s not something I’d ever cycle on, and not within my Dutch experience. I have heard that cycling is doing comparatively well in Switzerland (compared to Great Britain), and Sweden too has these long stretches of rural roads without specific cycle provisions but a better track record on cycling, so maybe for those kinds of roads it would be better to look at Swiss or Swedish experience.
        In a Dutch context, that would be the train bit in the middle of a bike-train-bike journey, or similar combinations with public transport.

        The second example would be cycleable in a pinch, but still not something I’d like to send a child to school on every day. Adding a crash fence between the road and the path would make it feel safer, and probably be a bit safer objectively too because drivers don’t want to scrape their paint, and so keep a bit better distance from a barrier than they do from an empty but tarmacked verge they can wander into. That would be enough to make it a cycle-to-(high)school path; but for those long distances where crashes seldom occur crash fencing might be considered too expensive.

        I’ll keep my eyes open for examples of simple rural crossings, and treatments of narrow paths alongside fast roads.


      2. Okay, one more reply, based on your examples of rural Scottish highways.
        The N242 in North-Holland, running from Alkmaar to the motorway near the Afsluitdijk, has been improved in recent years towards what we now want these rural highways to look like. It’s used for a lot of commuting as well as heavy goods traffic from the area northwest of Amsterdam in the direction of Groningen and Denmark.
        It runs through mostly farming areas, has sections of 80 km/h and of 100 km/h, and several level crossings.
        Cyclists and slow agricultural machinery aren’t allowed on roads with speed limits of 100 km/h and up (on those, you have to be able to achieve a minimum speed of 60 km/h to keep speed differentials within bounds). On busy 80 km/h roads like this they need alternatives or separate provisions too.

        On these fast rural roads the most dangerous crashes are head-on vehicle collisions during overtaking, so overtaking is prohibited. The center line has been widened into two lines, with an extra colored line in between on the 100 km/h section, increasing the distance between oncoming traffic flows.
        On the 100 km/h section here: N242
        bikes and agricultural traffic go a different route, along the line of farms you see flanking the road at a distance.

        On the busy 80 km/h section here: N242
        there is a separate bi-directional cycle path on one side of the road, and a parallel narrow service road for acces to the flanking farms and use by tractors and biking to the neighbors etc. on the other side.

        We’re still working on achieving this elsewhere, there are still a lot of rural Dutch highways that haven’t been improved in this way (and look a lot like your Scottish example, except for cyclists never being expected to cycle on them but always having some alternative, even if that is going round the houses, in our much denser little country), but where there isn’t room (or money to buy extra space) for a wider separation of the two oncoming traffic flows, this is what the Dutch have decided to try to aim for.


      3. The interesting thing is how far ahead you (in the Netherlands) are in terms of thinking about safety. The whole ‘sustainable safety’/’duurzaam veilig’ thinking is very far in advance of thinking here.

        We never prevent people from overtaking for long distances. We would prefer to put freedom (and the ability to overtake) above safety. And almost all traffic is allowed on almost all roads – really the only exception is ‘motorway’. Rural roads, even very major roads in areas where there are many alternatives, can be used by anyone (horses, farm traffic, bicycles). At the same time any rural road, even in places with many roads, is used for people who want to travel through the area as fast as possible. There is no attempt to separate traffic by size, weight, speed, etc.

        The result of this is that almost all roads – even the tiny ones – are for heavy/fast traffic. 40 years ago it was possible to find quiet roads where you could cycle and walk – but now these are very very rare. The 12 km cycle trip which I did often with my friend as a teenager – now would be unsafe, and unpleasant in places even for an adult.

        Even on a tiny road like this one [ ] the speed limit is 60mph/95kph. The idea is that people will be responsible and careful – but the result in reality is that people gamble… assuming that they will probably not meet anyone travelling in the other direction.

        Mark Treasure talks about how badly broken this system is in this post:

        When I see the careful thinking which has gone into improving things in the Netherlands, and then I compare it to the situation here, I despair. I see hope for improving things slowly in urban areas here – where people can see that these urban areas have been taken over by motor vehicles. In rural areas I think that people haven’t noticed. they assume that we *must* have a system like it is now, that there is no alternative.

        Everyone knows that the Netherlands is amazing for cycling in its cities – what they don’t necessarily appreciate is that much of your landscape is still genuinely rural in character. Here in Scotland even the quietest villages, many miles from the city, are defined by the road through the middle. To find somewhere in Scotland which is as quiet as this [ ] – around 30 minutes outside Amsterdam by bike – I would need to travel from our main cities to somewhere like this [ ] which is 4 or 5 hours by car from our main cities.

        Thanks for your input. I’ve been learning about the Netherlands for many years now, but there’s always more that I can learn from a native.


      4. Yeah, I like reading Mark Treasure’s tweets and blogs, as well as Mark Wagenbuur (BicycleDutch)’s. They’ve taught me to look at my environment with new eyes.

        We too have these narrow country lanes with the excessive but standard rural speed limit of 80 km/h, where people are expected to share and be sensible. This one, Kortestraat Heerhugowaard, used to be like that when I biked it 5 days a week, 25 years ago. There was a large haulage firm who had their headquarters in the neighborhood; if one of their trucks took that road after dark I always got off my bike into the verge to let it pass. After the neighboring town it leads to (Obdam) built a bunch of new houses, and those people started to use it as a short-cut, it was changed. The limit becsme 60 km/h, the access to Obdam was changed, and the haulage firm was bought out and moved to an industrial estate near the highway. So this one’s been improved, but there are still plenty remaining. I guess as long as very few cars use it (maybe no more than 6-10 an hour?), only those who live there, it’s possible to share and expect some sense. You still need good sightlines, though not too long straight stretches where people will accellerate.

        I wanted to show you another way paint is used to slow traffic, that might work for the crosding in your Twitter question, but can’t find it on Google Maps yet. I saw it today on Baan van Fectio in Bunnik, and I think I’ve also seen it on the N9 between Alkmaar and Den Helder.
        It’s used where an 80 km/h road needs to slow down abruptly to 50 km/h at the entry to a town, like in Bunnik where the crossing with Groeneweg is right after the town limit. There is a sharp speed bump there (visible in Maps), to slow the cars down before the pedestrian crossing to the bus stop; cars were scraping their bottoms on it because they hadn’t slowed down enough. They have now added painted stripes (not on Maps yet) perpendicular to the lane edge lines, reaching towards the center of the lane. The stripes start out short and far apart, and grow longer and closer together the nearer you get to the 50 km/h sign. This visually narrows tge road, as well as gibing the impresdion you’re going faster, so people dlow down before they reach the sign and the speed bump. Rather like the zigzags I’ve seen in pictures of English pedestrian crossing, but in my opinion the stripes work better.

        The N9 is a rural highway like the N242, running from Alkmaar to Den Helder, that has also been upgraded recently. It’s an 80 km/h highway with some short stretches of 50 km/h where it passes through/by some coastal villages. It’s used by the naval personnel from Den Helder (who liked to speed) and some commuters, and is seasonally crowded with tourists looking at the spring bulb fields and visiting the summer beaches. All the connections to the villages it passes through have been massively upgraded recently, and the highway itself has been improved a bit too, but not all the way to completely spatially separated lanes.
        The N9, like the N242, is forbidden to cyclists and horses and such – those use either the parallel service road (where it exists), or the much more picturesque and pleasant old road along the edge of the dunes and through the coastal villages (N502), or on the dune paths, or on the other side of the canal (Groote Sloot etc.).

        I think that is the point I was working towards, with all these different examples. You can have fast and safe highways for cars, with no overtaking, as long as the slow traffic the cars really want to overtake is not allowed on them. This is only possible and fair if the slow traffic had a good alternative, either an equivalent or better route, or a separate serviceroad/cyclepath. As you’ve already said, in Great Britain there’s often no budget for adding the separate cyclepath.
        But if you can repurpose one alternative for fast through traffic cars, and one for local traffic (using simple filtering) and slow traffic, that might work.
        This is what happened here: a long time ago the N502/N511 along the edge of the dunes was the main road from Den Helder to Beverwijk. After the N9/A9 highway/motorway was built for fast north-south car travel, the old N502/N511 could be repurposed and filtered for the slower, local traffic as well as the touristy sightseeing.

        Even in rural Scotland, there should be some examples of alternate routes between towns and villages. If one of those is set to be improved, make it a package deal: improving route A for fast car commutes includes adapting route B. Commuters who used route B get good access to route A, and route B gets filtered to improve living conditions, lessen air pollution near homes and schools, and improve active travel options (and public transport: if the bus uses route B through bus gates, while the ratrunning traffic disappears, then the bus won’t get stuck in the commuter rush-hour traffic jams and you won’t need to build a bus lane on route A).

        If you can find a few logical places to start with alternative rural routes, it would give people a chance to see how it works, before you start puzzling about the places with only one road in and out. Still, you need to remember the Dutch tend to use the bike-train-bike or bus combo (or bike-bus-walk, etc.) for any commutes longer than 10 km; sometimes it may be easier to provide that kind of chain than to provide a separate bike path. As long as kids can get to school, and people can get to the shops, the travel between towns doesn’t always have to be by bike all the way.

        Does that make sense to you?


      5. Yes, that all makes sense.

        Of course the biggest problem we have here is not a lack of technical ideas – the Netherlands, after all, is only across the water and is easy to visit. And there are many other countries which have put big changes in place. The biggest problem is actually that in many places at many levels there is a lack of vision, a lack of belief that things can be different to how they are at the moment. Fitting ideas from other countries into our system will always be complicated – but with vision, imagination, and commitment it’s possible. If there is no vision, imagination or commitment – if those responsible for managing and designing our road system can’t imagine that things could be different to how they are, then nothing very much can change.


  5. There’s a new channel on YouTube by Not Just Bikes, where they put up films about what makes Dutch cities pleasant to live in and to move around in.
    Here’s the one they made about the nearly car free (and lively!) city centers, that might be interesting for people who haven’t been to the Netherlands to see for themselves:


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