Risk is good when you cross the road

Look around you, next time you cross the road. Do you feel scared? If so, you do because you are in a stretch of road where the car is king.

Published November 11, 2007 by Telegraph UK 
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor

Look around you, next time you cross the road. Do you feel scared? If so, you do because you are in a stretch of road where the car is king.

There are probably cattle-pen railings and pelican crossings with flashing lights and red and white paint on the road, all supposedly designed for your safety but which actually make car and bus drivers think the road is theirs to roar down as fast as they can when the lights go green.

Compare this with some of the streetscapes in Britain and on the Continent where the cattle pens and pedestrian crossings have been taken away. Kensington High Street in London is one of the most prominent schemes, Seven Dials in Covent Garden is another, but there are beginning to be schemes like this all over Britain.

They are nothing new: in some Mediterranean hill towns, and a few British villages untouched by traffic engineering, pedestrians and traffic still co-exist quite happily – and safely.

The amazing paradox, says Ben Hamilton-Baillie, one of the UK's leading advocates of the "shared space" approach, is that if you remove all the traffic clutter that has been put in to make streets safer by segregating cars from pedestrians, the safer, and pleasanter, the streets get. Cars slow down because, without signs that the road is theirs, the drivers perceive risk. And, in the new thinking, risk is good.

The quiet revolution – which made it this year into the Department of Transport's new Manual for Streets, will be the subject of a conference organised by the Prince's Foundation which starts today.

"Hazards are helpful," says Hamilton-Baillie, "they help to strengthen our connection to our environment and to adapt our behaviour accordingly."

People, he says, are much more sentient and capable than traffic designers give them credit for. Look at an ice skating rink and see how people constantly manage to avoid each other. Look at pedestrians, they will always take a diagonal across a road if they can get away with it.

Some of the best examples Hamilton-Baillie flags up is the work done by Hans Monderman, a traffic engineer from Friesland, Holland, who was appointed head of road safety for the region in the late 1970s following growing national concern about rising child pedestrian casualties.

Unconvinced by conventional traffic calming measures, Monderman began with simple design measures which emphasised the distinctive history and context of each settlement, "making a village more like a village." He deliberately removed or downgraded highway measures such as road markings, signs, chicanes and road humps.

To his astonishment Monderman recorded reductions in traffic speeds of more than 40 per cent. Traditional traffic calming was achieving reductions closer to 10 per cent. Further successful calming measures followed, recording dramatic reductions in speeds and the severity of accidents.

The village of Makkinga became the first small town to remove every standard road sign, signal and road marking. Instead, the new street designs paid close attention to the particular landmarks and preferred pedestrian routes, emphasising links between school church, shop and village green.

The absence of priority signs and markings at junctions seemed to make no difference to the safe movement of traffic, cyclists and pedestrians.

These ideas of "shared space" were used at Poundbury, the extension to Dorchester pioneered by the Prince of Wales, where the streets and public spaces are not dominated by signs, markings and wide sight lines.

Shared space forms the design philosophy that underlines schemes at Ashford in Kent, Sherford in Devon, Waterlooville in Hampshire, Craigmillar in Edinburgh and Calderwood in West Lothian – and, of course, in Kensington High Street.

There, says Hamilton-Baillie, conventional pedestrian barriers, some pedestrian crossings and other street clutter were removed and the central strip used for bicycle parking to encourage the informal cross-flow of pedestrians.

The whole scheme gave the highways engineers and the health and safety people the heebie jeebies and in the end the champion of the scheme, Daniel Moylan, the deputy leader of the council, had to press it through against the officers' recommendations.

The result is that despite carrying 40,000 vehicles per day, this busy arterial route into west London appears to promote mutual consideration among all players, motorised or not. It has led the borough to draw up a plan headed "barrier free design."

"The litigation culture is a complete myth," says Hamilton-Baillie, "There is not a single case of a highway authority being sued for street design."

You will have guessed by now that there is a link between the philosophy of traditional vernacular architecture, favoured by the Prince of Wales, and the philosophy of "shared space" traditional street design, espoused by his Foundation and its head, the guru of New Urbanism, Hank Dittmar.

Shared space overturns 70 years' of assumptions behind 20th century planning. Strict separation of traffic from civic spaces was a theme taken up with enthusiasm – surprise, surprise – by the arch Modernist architect, Le Corbusier, with Walter Gropius the butt of jokes and worse from traditionalists including Tom Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus To Our House.

It stems from an era, says Hamilton-Baillie, that believed in the potential and right of the state to resolve social conflicts, clarify rights and provide certainty and order. The principle of segregation was most clearly and forcefully supported by the committee chaired by Colin Buchanan whose seminal report Traffic in Towns was published in 1963. The principle led to the familiar urban landscape of underpasses and overbridges, barriers and signals that are such a familiar feature of modern towns.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way and underpasses, cattle pen railings and overbridges are being taken out in places such as Nottingham's Maid Marion Way and replaced with Continental style boulevards with trees.

It is amazing what you notice about your surroundings when in the presence of Hamilton-Baillie, Hank Dittmar and Andy Cameron, one of the authors of the new DoT Manual for Streets.

They visited me at the Telegraph's office in Buckingham Palace Road, and were immediately struck by the fact that the street scene just outside the Telegraph's front door, was by their principles one of the most ghastly examples of dangerous, bad, street design in London.

They saw that the pavements are far too narrow for the enormous number of travellers emerging laden with luggage from Victoria station. Travellers jostle with bus queues and cyclists who can't cross the road because there are hundreds of yards of cattle pen railings down the middle of the road. Eventually people get frustrated and simply walk in the road.

They also observed that the two lanes each way of hurtling traffic are too wide. They are designed for 40 mph – an unachievable speed in a busy city centre location. There was a fatal accident on one of the wide pedestrian crossings not far away.

And there is actually a nice little square, Grosvenor Gardens, beside the station, embellished with a statue of Marshal Foch – but pedestrians can't get there because of all the cattle pen railings.

The streets are covered in red paint – bus routes and red routes and bus lane markings – giving an impression of anarchy and an unkempt public space which people then treat with disrespect. The street makes no attempt to serve as public space.

When I took up the matter of the street outside the Telegraph's door with Graham King, head of city planning at Westminster council, I found that he didn't need any convincing.

He explained that the pedestrian guard rail dates back 15 years to the introduction of red routes – designed to speed up the traffic – and that these are controlled not by the borough but by Transport for London. He'd love to take the pedestrian guard rails out and widen the pavements and make the pedestrian king – as Westminster have already done very successfully in the Strand.

But, as he explained, city improvements have be funded on the back of major private sector schemes, such as the £2.3 billion scheme for the front of Victoria for which an application has just gone in from Land Securities. Go ahead for this will depend on the acceptance of two 40 storey office blocks, which may well not go down well with the elected councillors.

Which brings us back to one of Hamilton-Baillie's points: we are seeing a revolution in street design, but it is a very slow one.

There's a lot of schemes in the system, but street schemes can take 15-20 years to get through. "It takes far longer to see changes happen than in architecture." In other words, our towns and cities will get safer and more attractive – but it is going to be a long wait.