Exhibition Road – a vision of paradise
Our urban planners seem to be collectively labouring under a rather strange delusion; a delusion that removing pavements and tarmac road surfaces and replacing them with an expanse of granite blocks will automatically result in an environment that is ‘civilized’, one in which all road users, be they behind the wheel of an HGV, or sucking a dummy in a pushchair, harmoniously integrate in some Elysian nirvana.
Exhibition Road in South Kensington (which will apparently look something like the picture above) is the latest – and perhaps the most significant – in a long line of ‘conversions’ that have taken place across London. The planners boast that
The crowded, narrow pavements and heavy traffic will go. In their place we will make an elegant kerb-free surface across the length and width of the road. Pedestrians will have more space and vehicles will be limited to 20mph. We’re changing Exhibition Road from an area dominated by cars to one that puts people first.
A lower speed limit is obviously an improvement, as is the notion that pedestrians will have ‘more space’. But I am not so sure that the ‘heavy traffic will go’, and consequently, as we will discover below, it is not at all clear that pedestrians will get that extra space. There are, it is true, some changes to the road layout - vehicles will no longer be able to make left turns onto Exhibition Road from Cromwell Road, and there also appears to be a proposed closure at the end of Thurloe Street. But to me this does not seem to be sufficient. Kensington and Chelsea’s Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) notes that
Stage 1 of the Project would remove virtually all turning movements at the junction of Exhibition Road with Cromwell Road, with the following benefits: (i) introduction of direct, straight across, pedestrian crossing facilities, instead of the existing ‘sheep pen’ crossings which are difficult for wheelchair users, (ii) simplifying traffic movements at the junction should improve safety – the junction has a poor accident record, (iii) reduction in traffic flow in Exhibition Road – this is forecast to reduce from the current 1,100 vehicles per hour during peak periods, to around 600 – 700 vehicles per hour.
Getting rid of the pedestrian pens and making it easier to cross the road is fantastic, but note that there is still going to be a significant amount of traffic passing down Exhibition Road. Now I think that the Assessment’s figures of 600-700 vehicles per hour are decidedly optimistic, given that this amounts to only 10 vehicles a minute passing along the road at peak hours, which I find hard to believe. For instance, this streetview picture shows plenty of vehicles heading south on Exhibition Road – as there are no changes planned for southbound traffic entering Exhibition Road, we can expect to see precisely this volume of traffic southbound on the new street layout, which will therefore, in all probability, be far in excess of a mere 10 vehicles a minute.
Indeed this source suggests, more realistically, that the changes will only lower traffic volume by 15% – that is, to around 1000 vehicles per hour.
So where are these vehicles in the picture at the top of this post?
Even if we accept the lower 600-700 vehicles per hour figure, the very same Assessment notes that
if vehicle flows are greater than 100 per hour, pedestrians will not use the vehicle zone as a shared space
So at peak hours – and indeed probably at nearly all times outside of the dead of night – Exhibition Road will not be a shared space at all. It will just be… a road, exactly as it was before.
The findings of Kensington and Chelsea’s EIA tally closely with research on shared space carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory. The report, Public Transport in Pedestrian Priority Areas, TRL PR/T/136/03, Crowthorne 2003, is apparently unpublished, but the relevant findings are included in the Department of Transport’s 2009 Appraisal of Shared Space document -
There is some evidence that pedestrian freedom of movement is restricted by traffic flow and speed. York [the TRL report author] identifies a series of thresholds with combinations of vehicle flow and speed above which pedestrians tended to walk along what would have been the footway area rather than walking along the central street space:
- traffic (other than bus) flow exceeds 50 vehicles per hour with speeds not exceeding 30mph
- traffic (other than bus) flow exceeds 100 vehicles per hour with speeds not exceeding 25mph, or
- traffic (other than bus) flow exceeds 200 vehicles per hour with speeds not exceeding 20mph.
So, assuming that the 20 mph speed limit is at least moderately adhered to by drivers, this research suggests that pedestrians will simply stay away from what they perceive to be ‘the vehicle space’ once flows exceed 100-200 vehicles per hour – well below the projected figures for Exhibition Road.
Transport for London have also had work commissioned by the Transport Research Laboratory. The findings are virtually identical.
A study undertaken by TRL in 2003 for TfL’s Bus Priority Team indicted the limits to which pedestrians in London may be prepared to share a surface with traffic. This study found that below flows of 90 vehicles per hour pedestrians were prepared to mingle with traffic. When flows reached 110 vehicles per hour pedestrians used the width between frontages as if it were a traditional road, that is the majority of pedestrians remained on the equivalent of the footway and left the carriageway clear for vehicles.
All this research clearly shows that Exhibition Road will not be ‘shared’ – it will be a road along which motor vehicles travel, and pedestrians will keep to the margins. Consequently I fail to see how this will change ‘Exhibition Road from an area dominated by cars to one that puts people first’, as the proponents enthusiastically suggest. The pedestrians and motor vehicles will stay in exactly the same places they were before the work was carried out; this is a ‘shared space’ only in the sense that pedestrians and vehicles will ‘share’ a uniform surface of expensive granite setts (and why is it always granite that is the material of choice for these schemes?).
Despite all the bold talk of ‘shared space’, this is something that Kensington and Chelsea have apparently been forced to concede -
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea don’t believe the scheme is actually shared space. A spokesman said: ‘We don’t really class Exhibition Road as a ‘shared space’ though there is no definition for what shared space actually means. In Exhibition Road there is no traditional kerb upstand separating the pedestrian space from the vehicular traffic, but there are distinct zones.’
Well this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, because quite obviously Exhibition Road, with the expected vehicle volume, could never have been a ‘shared space’ – pedestrians will not be prepared to risk their lives sharing it with the projected flow of vehicles. So this is a fudge. An expensive fudge – costing over £27 million.
All that was really needed was a narrowing of the road itself, and the creation of a much larger explicit pedestrianized area (with, dare I say it, cycle tracks included within it), with plenty of pedestrian crossings along the street – you can see the width available in the streetview picture above. Or, even more boldly, close the street to motor vehicles entirely.
But these kinds of solutions don’t appear to fit in with the fashionable thinking of ‘shared space’ gurus, who seem to be remarkably persuasive in getting councils to implement their visions of utopia. For them, it appears, the aesthetics of the design come first – the emphasis in this case seems to be on ‘elegance’ – while concerns about motor vehicle flow seem to get pushed into the distant background.
Now I can agree that a street free from clutter such as pedestrian barriers is more aesthetically attractive than your typical urban street. The problem, however, is that the mere attractiveness of a street, in architectural terms, is not enough to create a pleasant street. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. But ‘shared space’ proponents have an unfortunate propensity to gloss over one important factor that impinges upon the quality of a street – motor traffic itself.
Their argument – their sole argument on this matter, as far as I can tell – is that the apparent ‘good chaos’ created by a lack of clarity in these kinds of street layouts is a sufficient means of taming the motor traffic. This is the position of Ben Hamilton-Bailie, a prominent shared-space advocate who happens to be involved in the Exhibition Road scheme -
Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an urban designer who has helped to draw up the plans for Exhibition Road, said that motorists would still have full access to the road, but it would be like driving through a campsite. “You don’t need signs everywhere on a campsite telling you to give way or stop or slow down, because its blindingly obvious what you need to do,” he said.
This is all very well, but there is a difference between ‘a campsite’, as we understand it in everyday language, and a campsite that has a major road running through it. All the evidence cited above, about pedestrian behaviour in the face of major traffic flow, suggests that there will be rather too much chaos, of an organized vehicular kind, for this type of ’solution’ to work. There is too much motor traffic, and it will dominate. No amount of smooth surfaces, lack of street signs, and general absence of clarity, will compensate for this basic fact.
This obvious conclusion is also evident from the DfT research mentioned above, which notes that
Drivers in platoons of vehicles seem inclined to follow the preceding vehicle without particular reference to pedestrians. Similarly pedestrians moving in groups seem to follow one another. In neither case is there clear communication between different types of user. Indeed it may be that where flows of pedestrians are sufficiently high an ordering effect is taking place whereby users of all types concede priority to those users already in the space at the time of their own arrival.
That is, pedestrians won’t get a look-in if the traffic stream is too dense. Here’s an illustration, a video I took of interactions outside Sloane Square tube station, another recent ‘shared space’ conversion -
When there aren’t vehicles about, people cross normally. When vehicles are approaching, however, people give way to them (usually because, as in one instance in my video – the silver Golf at around the 2:05 mark – the cars just barge through regardless). And once there is a stream of motor vehicles flowing past the tube station, subsequent to this belligerent Golf, pedestrians are halted. There is none of the usual give-and-take you would get when pedestrians are interacting with each other. In other words, the smooth granite setts do not mask the fact that this is simply a road. Pedestrians are not going to step into a road in front of motor vehicles, let alone into a stream of motor vehicles. In fact, the only measure that seems to make it easy to cross, in this scheme, is the severe speed bump that slows vehicles as they enter it. I would say that without it, this area would be positively dangerous for pedestrians.
The conclusion is obvious – it is the speed hump, not the shared space, that makes it easy for pedestrians to cross. Indeed, if we genuinely cared about pedestrian movements, we would see a wide pedestrian crossing here, which would explicitly give priority to pedestrians. That has not happened – presumably because it would ‘interfere’ with the flow of vehicles into the suburban streets that lie to the south of the tube station. And, I would guess, because a pedestrian crossing is anathema to the ‘naked streets’ tenet of the ‘shared space’ philosophy.
And this brings us to the crux of my argument. ‘Shared space’ advocates seem reluctant to address, head-on, this vexed issue of motor vehicle flow, which is baffling, given that all the evidence suggests that excessive motor vehicle flows actually hole their schemes below the waterline. Their only response seems to be to stick their heads in the sand and wish the issue away, a response so odd that it leads me to the conclusion that they are primarily concerned with making a street look attractive, rather than making it attractive.
Another example. Hamilton-Bailie, as well as being responsible for the Exhibition Road scheme, is also behind the recent conversion of a large swathe of Ashford in Kent into shared space. To counter local concerns, Kent Council produced this rather intriguing didactic video, giving residents helpful advice about how to be safe in a ‘shared space.’
It starts with some ‘shared space’ in action, at Seven Dials, where we see how wonderful these schemes are for pedestrians -
At this point we have to remind ourselves that this is a promotional video, apparently showing the benefits of shared space; we also have to remind ourselves that proponents of shared space are always keen to talk about the ‘civility’ of these designs, that are simultaneously ‘capable of handling traffic flow.’ There is no contradiction, it seems, between ‘civility’ and ‘traffic flow.’ What was I just saying about the priorities of ‘shared space’ advocates?
We then meet Hamilton-Bailie himself.
Note how much ‘sharing’ is going on in the ‘shared space’ behind him.
I cannot escape the impression that this is, again, just a road, but one without kerbs. (And, presumably, a very expensive road.)
The impression is further confirmed when we see our presenter using this -
Yes, it’s a pedestrian crossing.
If the streets are truly ‘shared’, then why do pedestrians need a special place to cross it? The apparent contradiction is not addressed.
Just like Exhibition Road, therefore, we have a new environment that purports to be ‘shared’ but in fact is pretty much exactly the same as the previous environment, except the surface has changed, and some signs have been removed – all, presumably, at great expense.
Another theoretical ‘shared space’ in Ashford, that looks very pretty, but which in practical terms isn’t shared at all. Again it is impossible to avoid questioning the priorities of the designers.
Finally, we come to the example that provoked this rather long and rambling piece – the new ‘shared space’ in Byng Place, Bloomsbury, which forms the heart of this excellent piece by David Arditti, which much of the logic of my argument here borrows from substantially. He writes
In 2006 Terry Farrell, the most influential architect in London, and an adviser to Boris Johnson, was commissioned by Camden Council to write a document called Bloomsbury: A Strategic Vision. This, far from being strategic, just proposed a cosmetic revamping of a few streets, some of them in Shared Space style. In the artists’ pictures in the report, pedestrians were shown skipping in carefree manner on the roads of Bloomsbury, or enjoying a continental café culture there. But, strangely, there was no mention of how all the through-traffic would be removed from the streets. There was also no recognition of the fact that a strategic, high-use cycle route ran through here, the Seven Stations Link, or LCN Route 0, as I described in my last post.
The Farrell report recommended destroying the highly-popular segregated cycle track through Torrington Place, Byng Place, Gordon Square and Tavistock Square, built only 4 years before at great expense, and replacing it all with Shared Space. Worryingly, the case put forward was purely an aesthetic one, … not one based on safety or on promoting cycling. The cycle track was in fact an irrelevance to Farrells. They hadn’t even understood what it was for. And nothing in their plan actually took motor traffic away.
Leaving aside the strange irony of a man responsible for foisting this fantastical monstrosity onto London dealing in ‘aesthetics’,
the case presented is indeed a curious one.
Again we see an odd blind spot when it comes to dealing with motor traffic. How is to be addressed in the scheme, given that, crucially, too much motor traffic, as we have seen, negates the very concept of ‘sharing’ that these projects are built on?
Well, in a section entitled, with some chutzpah, ‘BYNG PLACE: Taming the Trafﬁc‘, Farrells write
It is proposed that the segregated cycle ways and road surface [in Byng Place] be replaced by a shared surface consisting of granite setts. A number of options for doing this are illustrated below. Each approach would encourage vehicular trafﬁc to move at less than 20mph.
I’m not seeing it myself, Terry. How does simply changing the road surface from tarmac to granite encourage drivers to travel at 20 mph, instead of 30 mph?
But that’s all that is proposed in the document! There is no ‘taming’ at all, beyond the notion that deliberately creating a lack of clarity encourages more responsible driving; lower traffic volumes simply do not follow from this premise.
And so this is what Byng Place looks like today -
Notice how the ‘shared surface’ is encouraging drivers to travel ‘at less than 20 mph.’ In your dreams.
Notice also how no pedestrians, at all, are choosing to share this space with motor vehicles, which is unsurprising, giving that we have large lorries and vans thundering through here, along with plenty of taxis and other motor vehicles. We have a lady dashing desperately across this ‘shared space’ at around the 0:30 mark as an ambulance bears down on her. I also encountered this destroyed street sign, evidence of just how carefully vehicles are being driven through here. (I do concede that if the street was truly ‘naked’, then this sign would not have been here to be knocked over in the first place. But I leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether driving would be of a higher standard in the absence of these signs.)
Contrast this reality, then, with this mythical image of Byng Place, taken from the same ‘Strategic Vision’ document -
in which, incredibly, all the motor vehicles that use this road have vanished into thin air. The sleight of hand is remarkable, because there are no concrete proposals anywhere in the Farrells document to actually reduce traffic volume.
So what has been achieved at Byng Place? As far as I can tell, the road has merely been resurfaced, and needless confusion has been created between pedestrians and cyclists, where none existed before.
Oh, and close to a million pounds has been spunked up the wall.
David Arditti writes that ‘shared space’ is an ahistorical concept, in that it
offers no explanation of how things came to be as they are now. It therefore is unconvincing in its assertion that the problems that we have on streets, with all their modern infrastructure, can suddenly be solved merely by removing the infrastructure and leaving the street “naked”. For the infrastructure we have evolved to solve perceived problems. Why should putting policy into reverse-gear and going back to a mediaeval street not result in just all the same problems that the infrastructure developed to solve?
This ‘problem’, of course, being motor vehicles, and the way they currently dominate our urban streets. Redesignating the nature of those streets, deliberating creating confusion on them, and making them look pretty, does nothing to address this fundamental issue.
‘Shared space’ is unfortunately a classic example of style over substance, and it misses the point spectacularly.
East Street, Horsham, c.1955. A street yet to receive a helpful redesign from shared space advocates, yet strangely one in which people are happy to mingle anyway, because of the general absence of motor traffic
The same scene, today. Now a pretty ‘shared space’, created at great expense, but one that is objectively worse for pedestrians than the street was in 1955. Spot the issue.