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lessons from Ghent

Oxfordshire Liveable Streets invited Filip Watteouw, deputy mayor of Ghent, to talk about the circulation plan they implemented in 2017 and how that has worked out. I talked briefly about how that was similar to the Connecting Oxford plans. And there were questions about different aspects of the Ghent scheme. There is a recording of that session.

I'm not going to go over the details of the Ghent circulation plan - as well as our video, for that I also recommend this Streetfilms video and a followup on the politics and pr involved.

The key lessons I came away with were:

1) In car-dominated cities, car traffic volumes have to be decreased first, before other changes will have much effect. In Ghent, decades of slow and expensive active travel initiatives such as widening footpaths, building cycle tracks and bridges, and other active improvements only achieved very slow and incremental shifts in modal share. In contrast, the entire circulation plan cost only €6 million and was largely implemented in a weekend — and has pushed cycling modal share from 20% to 35% in a couple of years.

2) A scheme like this should be pitched as an economic, social and cultural project, not narrowly as a mobility project. I've been arguing from the start that Connecting Oxford needs to be conceived of as a broad sustainable transport scheme, not narrowly as a congestion management scheme, but I think now it needs to be even more broadly envisaged.

3) Opposition to the Ghent plan was exacerbated by the long lead-time - two years - uncertainty, and politicisation. So Connecting Oxford needs wide consultation, but that needs to not run so long that that fear accumulates (and the councils lose their nerve).

As I said in the talk, Ghent is comparable to Oxford, with some differences:

  • Ghent has a population of 260,000, but has 130,000 inside its ring road, which can't be too different to Oxford (with Kidlington, etc. thrown in to reach the larger number).
  • The wider Ghent metropolitan area has a population of 560,000, but that's half the size of Oxfordshire, so comparable to the commuter belt around Oxford.
  • The Ghent ring road is only 13km around, where Oxford's is 25km, and Ghent also has an outer 28km motorway ring.
  • If the numbers here are right, Ghent has a less unbalanced commute pattern than Oxford, with inbound and outbound numbers roughly balancing (at around 40,000 per day), but it's not clear to me if that's for Ghent proper or its greater metropolitan area. Watteouw I think said they had 100,000 people commuting to work in Ghent.

Filip Watteouw follows in the footsteps of Jacques Wallage (Groningen) and Clyde Loakes (Waltham Forest) in inspiring us to change Oxford.

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