The future of Bedford town centre: transforming traffic on Bedford High Street

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High Street improvements
The planned improvements

In our three-part series on the redevelopment of Bedford town centre, we have spoken to residents, traffic experts and urban planners to find out how our town can adapt and thrive in the future, a future less reliant on town centre retail and cars.

Firstly, we’re looking at the reasons behind the changes taking place to reduce traffic on Bedford High Street.

If you want to stir up public opinion in Bedford, making changes to the traffic layout is a dead cert.

Bedford Borough Council’s Transporting Bedford 2020 project aims to solve the decades of historic transport problems that have plagued the town centre.

Batts Ford Bridge was first proposed in the 1950s and the High Street has long been ear-marked for reduction of traffic lanes to retain access but improve the pedestrian environment.

The High Street and St Paul’s Square redevelopment project has an £18m budget which includes £13.5m investment from the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP).

Work was scheduled to begin in mid-July, but due to the need for social distancing, a temporary narrowing of the carriageway has been installed in advance of the permanent scheme.

Anyone attempting to take their normal route along the High Street, heading south towards the river, will have discovered that it is restricted to one lane of traffic, with temporary bollards in place.

The short-term aim is to give pedestrians greater freedom to maintain two metres distance to reduce the spread of covid-19.

A statement from the Council said: “This work was already planned via the Transporting Bedford project this summer and, while permanent works have had to be put on hold due to the outbreak, these changes will deliver wider pavements and a more pleasant shopping experience, supporting our town centre at this difficult time.”

The implementation will see semi-permanent bollards to identify the walking areas, partially funded by £121,000 from the Government emergency active travel fund.

Read: Bedford welcomes customers with wider pavements, cycle lanes and Debenhams to re-open

The long-term aim is to enhance the town centre experience, enabling a more pleasant pedestrian environment with wider pavements, less ‘clutter’, more seating and more planting.

Traffic will be restricted to 20mph with speed enforcement and there will also be short-term parking and loading bays at intervals along the road.

As with any drastic town planning decision, it is not without its detractors.

One such critic is Mark Gray, who told the Bedford Independent he’d worked in Bedford town centre for 30 years and observed a lot of traffic and behaviours.

Mark said: “At peak times the queues will delay people by upwards of 15 minutes more due to this created bottleneck.

“With very light traffic it’s already causing long delays, I’ve personally witnessed emergency vehicles held up on two of the three times I’ve visited.

“You can look at Google maps and see the congestion caused.

“Over 400 people have stated negative feedback on two posts on Facebook.  Everyone I and others have spoken to can see this as a nightmare and unwanted.”

A change.org petition entitled ‘Bedford high street and mayors disaster’ (sic) has attracted 67 signatures over the last four weeks.

“I’ve also witnessed a cyclist being harassed along here by a following car, they eventually pulled over and walked as they were intimidated that much, and this was with very little traffic,” added Mark.

“Often posts on Facebook get little attention, but this has really got people angry, frustrated and wanting to express themselves with their feelings towards this and the Mayor.”

Bedford resident, Kate Kinns, has lived in the town since the early 1970s and has over 30 years’ experience in road and bridge design. She’s worked in road safety management, traffic reduction schemes and urban design.

For the last 23 years she’s worked in safety governance, using intelligence and evidence-based research to inform her work.

Kate has nationwide experience of traffic solutions from Scotland to Devon and is in favour of the changes being made to the town centre.

“The outrage over the changes being made to Bedford High Street are based on people’s personal views, which is understandable, but [the] High Street needs to change and good innovation is about using better solutions that have been proven in comparable places.”

“The fact is, the changes being made to Bedford town centre, narrowing two lanes to one for example, have been made to numerous other places, with significant benefits for the area,” said Kate.

“In busy urban areas, congestion is generated by junctions and poor lane arrangements, for example people who have got in the wrong lane or are trying to get ahead of others.

“The traffic volume in High Street seems to only require one lane and single lanes often flow better than two-lane alternatives.

“This seems counter-intuitive, but we see similar effects on roundabouts where fewer entry lanes can have better flow, or motorways where reduced speeds in congestion increase traffic throughout because it reduces stop-start behaviour.”

Kate suggests we should look at other places that have addressed similar problems to our High Street to see what works, as intuition is a poor guide to what will work.

“Many measures like removing pedestrian guardrail or rural street lighting are perceived as ‘obviously’ dangerous – and that was my initial view – but when implemented they reduced collisions because drivers use more care,” continued Kate.

“Long term detailed extensive monitoring has shown the benefits are sustained but it hasn’t stopped councils installing a new guardrail because they’re using out of date practice.”

Similarly, there is no evidence that banning town centre cycling reduces injuries, with many cycle-friendly towns having lower traffic flows and all the health benefits of active travel without the pedestrian injuries people predict.

“Disrespectful cyclists will ignore any laws,” added Kate. “Courteous ones should not be forced onto dangerous gyratory systems.”

Kate believes that these subjects are contentious, partly because many people have little personal experience of successful schemes, and partly because good traffic engineering and urban design can be counterintuitive.

“We don’t think owning teeth makes us a dentist, but we somehow think owning a car makes us a traffic modeller,” explained Kate.

“These ideas are no longer radical or untried; I urge people to look at successful schemes here and New Road in Brighton; B1082 Hamilton Road in Felixstowe and the regeneration of Poynton town centre (26,000 vehicles per day, twice that of Bedford) where reductions in lanes improved traffic flow, showing that it’s stop-start at junctions that constrain flow, not how many lanes there are on the approaches.

“Transport for London proved over 10 years ago that improving the quality of high streets increased the economic benefit to businesses and residents.

“Some similar schemes like Ashford Ring Road have been in place for more than 10 years, and shown that reductions in lanes make places more civilised.

“There are large benefits to be achieved for businesses and residents, whether they come by car, bus, on foot or cycle, and we have more in common than what divides us.”

Benefits of reducing traffic on Bedford High Street

  • Simplifying vehicle movement and increasing pedestrian areas helps those with additional needs (such as autism, anxiety, buggies, restricted movement); this not only creates a more inclusive town centre but could have positive implications for support costs
  • Creating an enhanced pedestrian environment increases shoppers’ experience and dwell time (the time they spend in the town centre), a key tool in increasing town centre vitality and business revenue. Studies from the UK found an increase in trading of up to 40% across a number of pedestrianised sites. Similarly, in New York, there was a 49% drop in commercial vacancies in pedestrianised areas
  • Pedestrianization can enhance property values, leading to increased investment in the High Street
  • Creating space for vehicles and pedestrians to move safely together increases natural surveillance (the use of social and highly visible spaces to deter crime) to create a safer town centre
  • Look up! The High Street has fantastic buildings which you could not appreciate in the former ‘rat run’ High Street
  • The works are part of a wider streetscape improvement project for the town centre
  • Cycling and walking has increased during lockdown and should be encouraged to help address the impacts of climate change: the High Street enhancements will support positive habit and movement change
  • Transport planning research shows that the best time to implement change is when a significant alternative has been introduced (i.e. cycling, walking, bypass)
  • Research shows that the ‘funnel’ form of the High Street concentrates air and noise pollution; reducing vehicle flow will help reduce pollutants to the benefit of all visiting, working and living there
  • The works present an opportunity to introduce greenery offering wildlife, pollution absorption and health benefits

One town planner told us, “Now is a good time to introduce the change, not simply because of the need to social distance, but also as traffic flow in general has been less allowing people to use alternative routes and develop different movement habits; it can be difficult to begin with as new habits form (all habits take practice).

“Car users should question why they use the High Street, a road that was congested with delivery lorries/waiting cars, speed restricted, interrupted by pedestrian crossings/lights.

“Once the works are carried out and the cones removed, we will see and experience the benefits.”

Local resident and property lawyer, Catherine Williams, feels that the council should be more bold in their aims.

“I am all for the measures taken on the High Street and I would say to the Council go the whole hog and pedestrianise it,” Catherine told the Bedford Independent.

“We need big, bold plans to stop the decline. Tinkering around the edges simply will not deliver the change that the town centre needs and deserves.

“Few people like change but this is one that would be for the better, no doubt. There is no real need for cars to go down the High Street when we have two other vehicular river crossings, other than habit.

“Bedford’s town centre has some beautiful buildings and deserves to be capable of being explored on foot.

“The high street currently bisects the heart of the town and is a physical divide between the thriving Mill Street/St Cuthberts area with its vibrant independent shops and cafes with very few voids [empty shops] and cohesive, attractive shop fronts and the CVA-hit, identikit Silver Street area.

“The aftermath of the COVID 19 pandemic will hasten the decline of a number of retailers that were just clinging on. Now is a once in a generation opportunity for the Council, Landowners and local stakeholders to come together to ensure that Bedford bucks the trend and becomes a trailblazer town.

“One that focuses on maintaining a mix of uses, yes to retail, but also leisure, office and crucially residential accommodation for all generations to provide the crucial daytime and night-time economies essential for a town to thrive.

“Our population of pre-COVID commuters are here in MK40 and want to spend their money locally. Let’s embrace change swiftly.”

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