#movingcity - Reclaiming public space

To the left and to the right, cars are parked, bumper to bumper. Between them zoom other cars, sometimes with four lanes at their disposal, heading from A to B. This is the average Dutch city street, where pedestrians and cyclists are forced to bend to the automobile’s iron rule. Yet we need to make more space, not less, for slow traffic, as well as for children at play, and for greenery and water. What would public space look like if we flipped the present hierarchy on its head?

["Dad, where can I play outside?""...On the pavement!"]


The challenge: so many spatial claims, so little room!

On Dutch city streets, 55% of space is reserved exclusively for cars, according to Milieudefensie. The environmental organisation researched the division of street space in the 20 largest cities in the Netherlands. The figure was highest in the Cruquius neighbourhood in Haarlemmermeer: there, some 77% of road space is given over to four-wheelers. Yet the space allotted to cars is geared to peak times; for a large part of the day the roadways are far from being fully used. And the automobiles that do use them are often travelling only short distances. In fact, the average car spends 95% of its time parked, Milieudefensie calculated a few years ago.

This inefficient use of space is galling when you look at the country’s often overcrowded cycle paths. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of kilometres cycled in the Netherlands increased by 18%. New means of transport such as e-scooters, which also use cycle lanes, add to the crowding. It’s even more troubling when you stop to think about the space cities badly need to accommodate the necessary transitions. Space, much of it public, must be freed up and/or transformed to enable climate adaptation and the mobility and energy transitions. Cities are also striving to provide their residents with a livable environment and safeguard their health and safety. But with so much land use under the control of private building owners, the question is, where can more space be found? Areas devoted exclusively to automobile traffic are some of the last remaining places where there is still room for negotiation. This is public land, for and belonging to us all. So how do we want to use those precious square metres?

The solution: inverting the traffic pyramid  

If the domain of the car is where space can still be found, the solution is simple: take the traffic pyramid with the car at its apex and turn it on its head. Start putting slow traffic – cyclists and pedestrians – first instead of cars. The municipality of Rotterdam is applying this principle in the Rotterdamse MobiliteitsAanpak (Rotterdam Mobility Approach). Motivated by the population growth expected in the coming years, the city is seizing on traffic-related investments to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians. Car through traffic is increasingly being routed along main roads around the city instead of through it. 

The municipality of Groningen is also moving away from cars in public space design and will henceforth think in terms of 10 dimensions, based on a plan by Felixx Landscape Architects and Planners. Mobility is just one of them; the rest range from ecology and climate to economy and social character. Delft, Leeuwarden, Maastricht, Utrecht and other cities are likewise choosing to restrict traffic.

In many places, however, cars are still taken as the starting point for infrastructural design. Planners calculate how many parking spaces will be needed in a new neighbourhood and swiftly draw them in. Calculated rush hour traffic loads determine the number of lanes and turn lanes on through roads. Pedestrians, cyclists, greenery and water fill whatever gaps remain. Reversing this order means looking first at how much room is needed for safe cycle paths and comfortable pavements, and for enough blue-green space to manage flooding. It also means prioritising space for social encounters and making sure streets are pleasant places to linger. Cars are last in line.

The same principle informs the STOMP method. The acronym stands for Stappen (walking), Trappen (pedalling, or cycling), OV (openbaar vervoer, or public transport), MaaS (Mobility as a Service, or shared mobility), and lastly, Privé (private cars). The method is guiding the development of the new Floriadewijk neighbourhood in the city of Almere. The site where visitors are currently flocking to see the latest horticultural innovations at the Floriade international exhibition will be transformed after the event into a green, health-promoting residential neighbourhood. The public transport links that have been built between the site and the centre of Almere will help future residents to opt for clean mobility and leave their cars at home.

Finally, if we wish to simultaneously clear the way for slow traffic and improve the quality of public space in Dutch cities, we will have to address the problem of bicycle parking. For the Dutch Board of Government Advisors we developed design tools to get parked bicycles and cars off crowded streets. The tools are based on a new way of thinking about outdoor space. We propose reversing the order in which things have conventionally been designed, considering green spaces, slow traffic and places to linger first of all, and car traffic only afterward. Focusing on spatial quality in every infrastructural intervention instead of sacrificing it will allow cyclability and walkability to gain priority. Efficient, smart solutions for parking cars and bicycles is part of the picture. Doing this will allow us to create more space for parks and gardens, water, social encounters, and all the other things that make our cities sustainable and livable.


More walking and cycling, fewer cars: from the driver’s perspective, this transition will inevitably cause inconvenience. The reflexive decision to drive, even when one only needs to travel a short distance, will have to give way to a conscious decision to walk or cycle when it makes more sense – as it usually does in the city. The question is, what price does society want to pay for mobility? Right now, the ones inconvenienced are walkers, cyclists, and children at play, who have too little room. Also suffering are the climate, the need for more housing, and the livability of cities, which are being given short shrift. By employing design principles that prioritise slow traffic and a pleasant, future-proof living environment, we will ensure that a critical balance is restored.