Redesigning Bruges’ Komvest: yes, size does matter
Every coin has two sides. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic this adage still rings true, particularly in regards to urban mobility in cities. The outbreak has brought cities abruptly to halt, and then brought them back to life with new human-centric priorities. A new need burns brightly, one in which a healthy and vibrant urban fabric trumps suffocating petrol fumes.
In Europe, cities like Brussels experimented with pop-up cycling infrastructure. The people of Bruges asked if such initiatives could be explored in their city. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – the answer is no.
Bruges urban fabric is rooted in the middle ages. Even the main roads in its boroughs have a limited street design. There are no boulevards begging for a retrofit. When Baron Haussman shaped Paris, inspiring many other cities like Ostend or Brussels in Belgium, Bruges was then – to quote the famous writer Rodenbach – ‘Bruges la Morte’. Time stood still. In retrospect, this was a blessing, since the small curvy streets in the city have over time organically fostered a 30km/hour zone.
Does this mean that all is perfect in Bruges? Alas, no! After the Second World War (aka the Era of King Car) a car-oriented logic was born. For example, at the outer ramparts of the city, which are directly adjacent to the core city area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a vast concrete area in the form of ring road R30 was erected.
When it was built in the 1960s, the R30, locally known as the Komvest, had a four lane design (2 lanes going in each direction). At the dawn of the 21st century, two of those lanes (one in each direction) were reserved for bus use only.
Although this can be considered a step towards sustainable mobility, the addition of the bus lane created a bottleneck for cyclists and pedestrians – a barrier that was recognized during the development of the FR30 ‘urban cycling route’. As a result, a roadmap to overcoming this bottleneck was developed, as outlined below.
The FR30 cycling route was developed within the scope of the Handshake project.
Research began with the development of two scenarios that focused on the Komvest and Walweinstraat intersection. One scenario saw radical growth of an adjacent green belt area and reduction of the four lane road to a three lane road (2 lanes going in one direction, 1 lane going in the other direction). The other more modest scenario forgot the green belt and focused specifically on the imminent problem – pedestrians and cyclists being unable to easily cross the ring road. This second solution was considered feasible, also at the next closest intersection the road changes to a 2 x 1 design.
Next, a qualitative evaluation was made that combined both traffic and urban quality criteria. While the first scenario scored high on most criteria, both the flow of cars and buses would have been negatively impacted; so the second scenario was selected. Coincidentally, this evaluation also revealed some opportunities to optimize the design. The sketches below outline the current design (on the left) and the scenario two design (on the right).
With the second scenario now defined as the design concept, the next step of the roadmap called for the collection of public opinion and expertise. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most feasible option for engagement was a mailing campaign, in addition to a series of YouTube videos in which the Mayor, the Alderman of Public Domain and an expert of the City’s Mobility Department explained the proposed changes.
These two options for public participation resulted in the collection of 57 responses. The Mobility Department evaluated the responses which were discussed internally with the City and police, and externally, with the Flemish Road Agency and De Lijn, the public transport authority. Based on these reactions and subsequent discussions, the concept was further fine-tuned and then presented to the city council.
Although the council endorsed the proposed concept, they were concerned with the impact it would have on the flow of cars. As a result, an extra step was called for, in which it was agreed that a test scenario would be set-up so that an ex-ante (current situation) and ex-post (test set-up) evaluation could be made.
At the end of May 2021, the test set-up was implemented with the support of the local police. Mobile cones in combination with signs simulated the proposed lane reduction over several days. Immediately the spatial gain was visible.
The evaluation revealed that the flow of cars was not impacted. Another positive outcome also occurred. In the current situation there is a regular build-up of cars exiting the city, which often results in the blockage of lanes and crossing areas. The reduction of outward traffic to one lane meant that crossing areas were clearer – fewer cars crossing the same area at the same time. This allowed for an optimized flow as well as safer interactions between vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists.
The change was advantageous for cyclists and pedestrians because they had only one lane to cross instead of two, and because with a less hectic crossing area they felt more confident to take the plunge and cross the road.
Another parameter – traffic intensity in the adjacent residential streets – was evaluated positively. No indication was found that traffic flows shifted and put liveability at risk.
The test set-up concluded that size does matter. Less concrete allows for more road safety, easier usability for pedestrians and cyclists, and additional green space. The city council and the provincial commission on road safety (the decision-making body of the Flemish Road Agency, AWV) gave a green light to the proposal.
There is more! Three other activities were approved the same time.
First, a nearby street was selected as a cycling street – an action that is in line with the FR30 vision to develop a stronger cycling network throughout the city.
Second, a factory will be relocating its driveway from a nearby residential street to the Komvest, which will remove 18 trucks daily from the residential area. This is an advancement for both road safety and liveability.
Third, two additional fully-accessible transportation stops will be added to the public transport plan, resulting in easier transfers from city bus lines (which run along the Komvest), to intraregional bus lines.
In summary, the redevelopment of the Komvest has seen Bruges champion a design process that puts people first, both in terms of their safety and of their opinions. What’s next? The Komvest road redevelopment is expected to be complete by 2023 or 2024.
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Image by: Stad Brugge