Decarbonising Transport – a role for ‘Manual for Streets’?

The Department for Transport (DfT) published “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge” as a first step toward preparing a Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) in Autumn 2020. Accelerating modal shift to public and active transport is one of six strategic priorities in the plan, and a key area of focus is to explore how this might be achieved.

In this context lies an opportunity to promote the application of the principles of Manual for Streets, and Manual for Streets 2 which, produced in 2007 and 2010 respectively, encourages local highway authorities to undertake a more place-based approach to design of streets. It is important because well designed streets have a key role to play in encouraging walking and cycling and accelerating the shift to active travel.

Over a decade on, despite widespread praise for the Manual for Streets, highway designers disappointingly continue to pursue the standards set out in the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges and continue to create hostile environments for walking and cycling in favour of maximising vehicle flows. This is often a key problem for new developments, where the main roads built to serve them prioritise motorised vehicles and as such, the focus on movement and speed lead developers to focus new neighbourhoods away from these corridors when they can, which reinforces the creation of hostile environments. At best, these corridors, often lauded as “development routes” provide a setting for so called “district centres”, surrounded by car parking and poor connections with the neighbourhoods that are meant to serve.

Some optimism was raised when Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB) was relaunched in March. The Manual celebrates a more consistent and concise set of standards and has been welcomed by highway professionals for integrating standards for good road design. Positively the Manual includes standards for providing facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders but only in a functional context. No parts of the guidance refer to the placemaking principles in Manual for Streets or the relaxed standards that could allow infrastructure that serves new development or regeneration areas to become part of the place that they serve. Not surprisingly the approach to “design” has become a critical focus for urban design, frustrated by an absence of any policies or guidance for balancing place and movement.

If people are to be encouraged to walk and cycle rather than drive, the road infrastructure that provides the key connections between homes, shops and employment needs to be transformed, with improvements that are aligned with the principles of Manual for Streets. Case studies – Maid Marion Way in Nottingham, Kensington High Street, and the downgrading of Ashford Ring Road demonstrate what can be achieved when place is higher on the agenda. In Sunderland, David Lock Associates produced an Urban Design Strategy for the City Centre in 2008. A key part of the strategy includes downgrading St Mary’s Way, which has since been transformed into St Mary’s Boulevard. It integrates an award-winning square and a wide, direct pedestrian crossing into the Vaux site, currently being redeveloped with a master plan that seeks to create active frontages to enable the boulevard to become a cohesive part of the city centre.

The current Covid-19 Pandemic is also giving us a glimpse of how our towns and cities could change if we were to create streets that better balance the needs of pedestrians and cyclists with vehicles. £250 million of Emergency Active Travel Funding has been brought forward from a longer term £2bn package of investment to be invested in temporary changes to streets to create wider pavements and ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes. The measures are intended to overcome the social distance constraints to the capacity of public transport and promote walking and cycling as more attractive alternatives to driving short distances as lockdown restrictions are eased. In pure design terms, the temporary nature of the changes may be crude, but this is understandable at a time when protecting the public from infections is of paramount importance. In time, we can learn from these experiments and begin to design such measures into more permanent attractive schemes which the £2bn package will help to support. We also have the opportunity to revise and refine the principles of Manual for Streets, to reflect the greater importance of encouraging active travel along streets that are safe and attractive to use.

The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission has recommended Manual for Streets 1 and 2, should be combined and become policy rather than guidance and be adopted by local authorities in place of DB32. As the DMRB will continue to provide standards for highway design, policy rather than guidance also needs to provide clarity for when Manual for Streets should be applied in place of the DMRB. Improved clarity will be key for ensuring that new or improved highway infrastructure can be designed as streets to form an integral part of the places they serve and further support measures to support the shift to active forms of travel that we are seeking to achieve.