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How bin lorries are trashing our nation's health

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

‘Everything is connected’ said Dirk Gently, as written by the late, great Douglas Adams. Everything being connected is something that the physical activity sector has been grappling with for a while now. Its often called a ‘Whole Systems Approach’ or ‘Systems Change’ and its part of the picture behind Sport England’s Local Delivery Pilots. And it’s the reason, I can say with some confidence that the way in which we collect our rubbish has a direct impact on the physical activity levels of the most vulnerable in our society.

In 2007, the UK government published Manual for Streets, to explain ‘how to design, construct, adopt and maintain new and existing residential streets.’ The guide insists ‘the propensity to walk is influenced not only by distance, but also by the quality of the walking experience. This will depend on how stimulating and attractive the environment is, together with how safe and secure people feel within it. Design that accommodates the needs of children and disabled people is likely to suit most, if not all, user types.’

To achieve this, it recommends that the design of our streets should prioritise their most vulnerable users; pedestrians first, before cyclists, public transport, specialist vehicles such as emergency services and waste, before other motorised traffic. (fig.1 Manual for Streets )

Therefore it must follow junctions must be framed as interruptions to the road network, not to the pedestrian. One way to support this is through the implementation of continuous pavements, another more basic issue is the curved sweep you’ll find in many roads.

Shorter, tighter turns (fig.2 SF Better Streets) increase pedestrian safety by shortening crossing distances and therefore the amount of time a vulnerable pedestrian is on the road, increasing pedestrian visibility, and decreasing vehicle turning speed.

There are many examples of ways this can be done with a ‘test and learn’ approach using simple, cheap infrastructure that allows broader community feedback to support and inform more permanent changes to our built environment. (fig.3 Tactical Urbanist’s Guide)

The problem is that although most municipalities local street design guidance accepts the principals of Manual for Streets, in practice streets are still required to provide street designs that cater for access by service vehicles of varying types, something Create Streets call the ‘bin lorry effect’.

There are other options, York’s smaller bin lorries ordered for narrow streets, or the communal underground bins seen on the continent and more recently in Cambridge – an idea with the additional benefit of removing the wheelie bins that litter the pavement on collection day.

The question that remains? Do we want to design a waste collection system that fits around a healthier, active, people-first environment or do we want to build our environment around the size of our bin lorries?

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