Finding a balance Part 1 – How much space do we have, and what do we use it for?

This is the first post in a series looking at the question of ‘finding a balance’ between low-impact, active travel – walking, cycling, scooting, using a wheelchair or other mobility aid etc – and what is, for want of a better term, ‘high-impact travel’. That is to say, travel by motor vehicle.

The need for a balance comes from a pragmatic need to make decisions when we only have so much space and money available at a given moment with which to accommodate different types of traffic (foot, pedal, mobility scooter, wheelchair, car, van etc) and needs (commuting, shopping, accessing healthcare, education, leisure, tourism etc). But whilst the call to find such a balance between these ways of getting about (and reasons for doing so) has come up a lot recently, it’s tended to involve people opposing new local active travel schemes on the basis that these need to be balanced against the needs of motor traffic. This argument rather assumes that the status quo is itself balanced, and that new active travel schemes are upsetting this existing balance. But is that the case? Or is the status quo actually already massively out of balance, and skewed almost entirely towards the use of motor vehicles to the exclusion of all other ways of getting about?

With recent developments such as the Covid-19 Emergency Active Travel Fund and Transforming Cities Fund, there’s suddenly been a bit more money available to build the schemes that will provide safe and convenient conditions for cycling (which includes using tricycles, hand-cycles, and other adapted cycles) and walking (which encompasses all pavement users, including wheelchair users, mobility scooter users, children in pushchairs etc), in places around BCP where previously conditions were lacking. At the same time, we have seen that money is not enough; opposition to schemes is often rooted in a perceived loss of provision for motor vehicles. Much of this comes down to a perceived ‘loss’ of space – space to park, and space to drive – so that the question of balance becomes a question of how much space we have and what we should use it for. And it’s this question of the availability of space for low-impact active travel modes and high-impact travel modes that this first post is about.


Space is not infinite

Firstly, lets look at the basics of where we are. The universe might be infinite, but the space we have to live in is not. And in somewhere like BCP, this limit to space is actually even more acute than in a lot of other towns. Just take a look at a map.

The BCP Area – sea to the south, Stour to the north

We have the sea to the south. We also have the River Stour creating a boundary across a substantial arc to the north. With natural harbours on the eastern and western edges. Looked at in this way, the BCP area is pretty hemmed in by water.

So what do we use this space for?

Well, obviously a lot of it is used by buildings: people’s homes, places of work, shops, schools, healthcare, hospitality etc. Some of it is kept aside as ‘greenspace’: parks like Poole Park and Meyrick Park, some woodland like Talbot Woods, the upper and lower gardens, Hengistbury Head. BCP also has the beaches of course. And then there are roads and parking.

In fact, road transport takes up a huge amount of space in our towns and cities. And that’s not just the bit of the road you drive on; because most of the transport on the roads is by private motor car, we also end up using a huge amount of space for storing all those cars during the 95% of the time that they’re not actually going anywhere.


Priorities – what do we want to do?

If the amount of space we have is limited, we have to make decisions about what we do with it. How much of it do we use for homes and businesses and facilities and leisure space – space for living in? How much do we use for roads and parking? How do we balance these different uses?

We might begin by looking at where we are now, today. Our current ‘balance’ of the different uses for space in BCP is the product of years of previous decision making. And over the last 60-plus years, most of those decisions have lent towards giving over more space to motor vehicles at the expense of other uses. Look at the below maps for example. The left-most map shows Springbourne in the early 1960s. Lots of housing and residential streets, some larger buildings for businesses and facilitates, a highstreet and the railway line to the south. Then look at the same location in the middle map, which is from the end of the 1960s/early 1970s. It looks like some kind of tornado has ripped through the heart of Springbourne and obliterated a swathe of people’s homes. What did this? If you hadn’t already guessed, the answer is in the right-most map from the 1980s: it’s the Wessex Way.

The building of the Wessex Way meant a huge swathe of buildings in Bournemouth – mostly housing – was swept away

This is an example of a decision to prioritise space for a high-speed road above the existing use for people’s homes and places of work. I’m too young to know what the general public opinion was at the time, although I would imagine it was at the very least unpopular with those people whose houses were compulsory purchased and torn-down to make way for the Wessex Way. That road scheme also effectively blocked any kind of access along most of the residential streets it cut through; you can now only cross the resulting barrier of the Wessex Way itself at specific locations, and not all of those are accessible to all users…

Crossing the barrier created by the Wessex Way is inconvenient, and in some cases not even possible for all users: this bridge is unsuitable for wheelchair and mobility scooter users, and extremely difficult for those with pushchairs or reduced agility.

Ok, so the Wessex Way was a Big Project, the rationale and complex outcomes of which need more space than we have here to discuss fully. Let’s look at a smaller scale example on the next two maps. The left-most map shows the Redhill one-way system at the northern end of Boundary Lane. It looks a bit odd having 15 houses isolated on a traffic island in the middle of a multi-lane gyratory. Or rather, it looks odd until you realise that the gyratory only exists because at some point a number of houses were torn down to create ‘Cherries Drive’ – the eastern arm of the system. Doing that is what isolated the remaining houses.

Several houses were demolished to create this one-way system

Again, I am too young to remember what popular opinion of this change was at the time. Essentially though this was a decision that came down on the side of enabling more motor traffic by taking space away from where people actually lived. And again, in doing so it also threw up barriers to trips by non-motorised means.

Where once were people’s homes… choosing to replace houses with this road also created barriers for non-motorised transport users.

One final example – which some of you may be familiar with from a tweet I posted a few months ago – illustrates how lots of smaller decisions about using space also add up over time. The below maps of central Bournemouth show – in red – all of the land that has was changed from space for living and working in to space for motor vehicles between the 1960s and the 1990s.

When we talk of ‘balance’, we need to remember that the current situation is a product of decades of imbalance.

In reading the above, you might well be thinking ‘ok Dave, but all this is ancient history now’. And it is…except that it also illustrates how we got to where we are today and therefore what constitutes the current ‘balance’. After decades of decisions favouring the use of space by motor vehicles over the use of space for living and working in – and which also threw up barriers to making journeys by means other than motorised vehicles – what we think of as ‘normal’ is actually a very skewed and out-of-balance use of space. And it’s important to remember this when we talk about what are really quite marginal recent reallocations of space away from motor transport and towards things like walking and cycling. We are not starting out from a ‘balanced’ status quo. In fact, the status quo is so out of balance, that it would need changes beyond what we are currently talking about with the Emergency Travel Fund and Transforming Cities Fund to begin approaching a real balance.


Making Space by Using Less Space

Of course, any future balance still needs to respect the need for people to make journeys within BCP. Yet clearly we can’t go back to removing houses to build-in more road space for motor traffic in the way we did during the second half of the last century. And neither can we just do nothing: Bournemouth alone already has some of the worst congestion in the UK, and current trends show that motor vehicles are taking up even more space than they were 10 years ago, whilst also carrying fewer people.

As the size of family cars goes up and more car trips are just carrying the driver, the amount of space being used by private cars increases further

So what is the answer? Well one part of the answer is that we need to make more efficient use of the space allocated to transport. Remember, this space is not just the bit of the road we drive on; it’s the entire width of the highway – the carriageways, the pavements, and the margin in between where large numbers of motor vehicles are stored on the road during that 95% of the time I mentioned earlier. Not to mention all those actual car parks. ‘More efficient use of space’ means making more journeys using methods that are fundamentally more spatially efficient than motor vehicles – and particular more space efficient than private cars.

Private cars are after all incredibly inefficient when it comes to the amount of space they take up compared to the amount of people they actually transport. Even fully loaded, a modern family car still takes up more space than the same number of people walking or cycling. And most of the time, private cars aren’t fully loaded. This inefficiency means that a lot of our already limited space is wasted accommodating empty upholstery and over-sized engines.

Brienner Straße, München: Nine people on bikes taking up the same length (and half the width) of two cars. Even if the cars had been full (they weren’t), the bikes are moving more people than the cars for the same amount of space.

So what this all boils down to is that with limited space and a history of wasting what space we do have on prioritising very spatially inefficient ways of moving around, we really only have two main choices. We either go back to demolishing homes and businesses in a hopeless attempt to fit in more motor vehicles – essentially allocating more space for driving on rather than living in. Or we re-work the space already given over to transport to enable more journeys to be safely and easily carried out by the more spatially efficient methods – namely active travel. And enabling people to make more of their journeys by these low-impact means, we also leave more space for those journeys that do still need to be undertaken by motor vehicles.

Updated 2nd December 2020 following feedback to better clarify the article’s focus on contrasting modes of transport – DF.

David Fevyer is a local resident who mainly gets around BCP by bike and on foot. He has also recently completed an MSc in Transport Planning and Management at the University of Westminster. Follow him @davefev.

Makes you think- Thanks to Dave for this great article, I added the photos below- what we see as normal happens slowly and subtly, we are in a time of culture change now- those designers right now working on all the Transforming Travel Schemes have plenty of work in front of them creating better use of space which is what this article is all about.