This post has been mouldering in my drafts folder for several months as I pondered the relevance of banging on about Exhibition Road, and shared space, once again, but it’s probably worth releasing, even if much of what I say has already been said before.
It’s unlikely that a road as expensive as Exhibition Road will be proposed in the near future. At £35,000 per metre (£29 million for 820 metres), it is most definitely a very costly experiment in street design. The cost of the street may prove to be immensely valuable, however, in demonstrating some of the limits of the application of ‘shared space’ philosophy.
It is important to stress that I do not dislike, or detest, the redesign of Exhibition Road – indeed, it is better than what was there before. Nor do I argue that the environment for cyclists and pedestrians has not been improved – I think it has. I also believe that a small degree of uncertainty introduced by the new arrangement does, in general, lead to slightly more careful driving than would be the case under the previous arrangement, and also that the road might be safer.
I have already written two lengthy pieces detailing how shared space is erroneously being presented as something of a universal solution to the improvement of our streets and roads by a number of urban designers and transport planners, as well as by a good portion of the media.
A case in point is Simon Jenkins, perhaps one of the most vocal journalists in favour of shared space, whose output on the topic is fairly prodigious – two articles last year on the topic, in short succession, and media appearances in which he disparages the separation of motor vehicles from people, and overstates the advantages of shared space.
Both of his newspaper articles contained a number of canards, half-truths and outright delusions that are repeated as fact. In the first, published nearly a year ago on the 31st January, and entitled Shared Space is The Future For London’s Roads, he writes
It is 20 years since towns and cities across Europe began redesigning their streets, moving from the traffic – circulating zones festooned with railings and traffic lights beloved of British town planners. Some 400 European towns have converted thoroughfares to spaces adapted for all to use, with redesigns that respect rather than abuse the buildings facing onto them.
London has, over the years, pedestrianised some of its shopping streets, such as South Molton and Carnaby and Leicester Square. It has attempted a few, highly dangerous, bus lanes and contraflows, such as in Oxford Street and Piccadilly, the latter now abandoned. The boldest council was Tory Kensington and Chelsea, first dipping a toe in the water at Kensington High Street.
This was partly stripped of signs, railings and clutter. Bike refuges were put down the centre to encourage people to linger in the roadway and junctions were raised. Pedestrians now wander at will, slowing the traffic and rendering the neighbourhood people-friendly. There has been a 60 per cent drop in accidents and a relative pick-up in retail lettings.
Kensington High Street – the redesign that Jenkins considers the most bold of this period – has been improved, it is true. The pavements are wider, and much of the guardrailing has been removed. But it is simply incorrect to say that pedestrians ‘wander at will’ in the carriageway, ‘slowing the traffic.’ Try this – attempt to just meander about at leisure in the road on Kensington High Street – and you will be honked at, driven at, or possibly even run over.
Now of course people will be crossing the road here at places (largely) of their choosing, but to suggest that they are doing so ‘at will’, or that they are capable of slowing the traffic in doing so, is dishonest. They will be crossing when motor vehicles are not approaching – crossing, that is, in ways rather similar to how they crossed before, prior to the removal of clutter. The claims Jenkins is making for the new civility of Kensington High Street are exaggerated.
Note also the false dichotomy Jenkins presents in this passage between ‘traffic-circulating zones festooned with railings and traffic lights’ and shared space; a dichotomy that gets repeated later in the piece –
Shared space, or “naked streets”, is a concept still little understood by a British public steeped in the old religion of urban traffic. This holds that road space is for vehicles alone, their drivers being, by definition, irresponsible, stupid, selfish zombies whose safe driving can be assured only by physical barriers, lights, signs, road marks and highway codes. Potential victims – that is, other road users – must be corralled and caged along congested sidewalks in what is an iniquitous allocation of space.
That is, segregation represents the ugly, failed 1960s approach to road design, in which pedestrians and vulnerable users are ‘corralled’ and ‘caged’ away in small areas of road space, for the convenience of motor vehicles. The only alternative we have to this bankrupt approach, it seems, is that of shared space, tried and tested across the continent, which ceases to keep vulnerable users tucked out of the way, and acknowledges that our streets and roads are not just for cars.
But as I have said before, this is a false choice, in that it presents shared space as the only alternative to the pedestrian- and cyclist-hostile segregation of the 1960s and 70s. It glosses over – indeed ignores outright – the potential we have to improve our streetscape for vulnerable users, by methods different to those employed by shared space; namely by segregation itself. The concept of ‘segregation’ – so evidently detested by shared space devotees like Jenkins – can be used to ameliorate our urban environment for vulnerable users. Not, obviously, in the ways it has been employed in this country over the last 50 years, but in ways seen on the continent (the same continent which Jenkins seems to think is covered in shared space), in which, rather than segregating the vulnerable user away from the car, the car is segregated away from the vulnerable user.
Segregation, in other words, works for the convenience of pedestrians and bicycle users, rather than for the convenience of the motor vehicle. The streets and roads are designed preferentially for people on foot and on bicycle. This could mean, for instance, roads closed to motor vehicles, entirely; it could, elsewhere, mean a drastic reduction in the amount of space given to motor vehicles. But in all cases ‘sharing’ between motor vehicle and pedestrians is not assumed; the streets are physically given over to bicycles and walkers.
This approach – what you might call ‘benign segregation’ – gives over more space to vulnerable users, just like shared space is supposed to do – but, crucially, without that extra space being shared with motor vehicles. Most Dutch towns and cities are now benignly segregated, with motor vehicle journeys in their centres being made either impossible, or inconvenient by comparison with other modes.
To lump in that kind of segregation, achieved over the last 40 years, with the horrible UK forms of segregation – a genuine surrender to the motor vehicle – would be intellectually dishonest; yet this kind of benign segregation features nowhere in Jenkins’ analysis, or indeed in the analyses of Daniel Moylan (no longer Deputy Chair of Transport for London, having been appointed to lead Boris Johnson’s airport review), or of Ben Hamilton-Baillie. Reading what they write, you would form the impression that segregation is simply bad, no matter what form it takes. (As I have noted before, Moylan thinks shared space is appropriate on the vast majority of London’s roads, even those that carry large volumes of motor traffic.)
This is the essence of Jenkins’ second piece, which lays into the Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign (then just launched) on the basis that it overstated the danger on London’s roads, which Jenkins argued was declining all the time (a trend that has gone into reverse, even at the time Jenkins was writing), and also because it failed to mention or take into account the way shared space is transforming London, and making it safer for all. He writes
Nothing in the [Times’] campaign indicates familiarity with new traffic theory as applied to cyclists, which is strange when its best exemplar, Exhibition Road, has just opened in South Kensington. The theory holds that the safety of lesser urban streets lies not in traffic segregation but in its opposite, sharing, since that is most effective in reducing speed. The much-vaunted Dutch approach to cycling relies on drivers getting used to negotiating with other road users through eye contact, especially at natural speed calmers such as crossroads.
Jenkins plainly has no idea what the ‘much-vaunted Dutch approach to cycling’ actually involves – namely, sustainable safety, and separation of bicycle traffic as much as is possible from motor traffic. He instead prefers to pontificate about ‘new traffic theory’, completely ignorant, it seems, of the fact that ‘shared space’ is disliked by Dutch cyclists and their representative bodies, and forms only a miniscule part of the Dutch urban realm. As Cycalogical wrote in response to this piece
If Jenkins had bothered to read the shared space literature, he would know that space only gets shared where motor traffic volumes are low enough. And if he knew anything about the Dutch experience, it’s not about less control. On the contrary, there are lots of controls both to keep motor vehicles away from cycles, and to keep motor vehicles out of residential areas – the shared spaces that he seems to think are free-for-alls. In fact, as I write this I’m realising it will simply take too long to refute and correct all the nonsense in this article – it’s like trying to review an article about brain surgery written by Katie Price.
Quite. The most striking bit of nonsense comes towards the end of Jenkins’ article –
The ability of road engineering and regulating to make London cycling less dangerous must be exhausted. Cycling on traffic-filled streets is inherently risky.
A passage in which Jenkins, in the second sentence, accidentally grasps the real safety problem, while in the first sentence amazingly assumes that all solutions to that problem, other than shared space, have already been ‘exhausted’.
The issue is motor traffic; if your streets remain ‘traffic-filled’ then of course cycling will remain inherently risky, simply by virtue of a greater number of interactions. The solution is to separate; not by pushing cyclists and pedestrians into underpasses, or behind barriers, or making them wait together on pavements using toucan crossings, but to reclaim urban space for both these groups.
And now, after that circuitous introduction, I can turn to the subject of this post – Exhibition Road, and what we can learn from its redesign. Setting aside the eye-watering cost, if you can, the redesign has been greatly valuable in a way that was probably unintended, because it has served to demonstrate the conditions under which shared space works quite well, and those under which it doesn’t work in anything like the way intended (or – how it functions less optimally for pedestrians and bicycle users than other possible street arrangements). This is because there are two distinct sections of Exhibition Road which, while virtually identical in design, function in completely different ways in practice.
The southern section, south of the A4 Cromwell Road is rather splendid, and works as shared space should – with plenty of actual… sharing. There is nearly always mingling across the full width of the street by pedestrians.
People are still prepared to mingle and linger even when the occasional motor vehicle approaches.
This ‘innate’ sharing is only partially a function of the design. Indeed, it has to be due to something else beyond the design, because (as we shall see) the layout of Exhibition Road north of Cromwell Road is identical, yet pedestrian behaviour is very different there.
Now it is probably true that people would be less likely to mill across the street if, instead of a uniform surface, there was clear demarcation between pavements and a tarmac road. But far more important in enabling ‘sharing’ is the fact there is actually a large degree of ‘separation’ on this section of Exhibition Road; the separation of people and motor vehicles.
There is very little motor traffic travelling through here – you can see this from the photographs above – principally because the road does not go anywhere. It only sends you around a one-way system, leaving you right back where you started – as this coach driver is finding out, as he goes into reverse.
And the scarcity of motor traffic means that when a motor vehicle does pass through here, it is most definitely on the pedestrians’ terms. A car or a van is almost always on its own, and has to abide by the behaviour of the pedestrians surrounding it.
In effect, this is a pavement, on which motor vehicles have permission to drive. But the overriding factor governing the sharing seen on this section of the road must be the small amount of motor traffic, in comparison to relatively high pedestrian footfall. We know this because people are very happy to linger in roads that look conventionally like a road, if motor traffic is sufficiently low and slow, and there are sufficient numbers of pedestrians. For instance, the very conventional Narrow Quay in Bristol –
Why? Because there are very few motor vehicles driving along here, and when they do, they are forced to share by virtue of the numbers of pedestrians. There isn’t really any need at all for a ‘shared space’ treatment here in order to encourage sharing – because it is happening naturally.
Equally, we also know that it can’t be the uniform surface that is solely responsible for encouraging pedestrians to mingle and share because on the northern section of Exhibition Road, identical in design to the southern portion, and with just as many, if not more, pedestrians on it, mingling is completely absent.
Indeed, this contrast between the southern area, and the northern section on the other side of the A4 serves to demonstrate precisely what is wrong with the application of these theories to roads that still carry high volumes of motor traffic. I wrote back in June last year that expecting pedestrians to share space on this kind of road amounts to
in effect, asking them to play chicken with fast and often heavy traffic. Nobody wants to play, and pedestrians have separated themselves, despite the ‘pattern’ of the street inviting them to do so.
This isn’t just true of pedestrians. I’ve seen people on bicycles creating their own cycle paths, away from the ‘vehicle space’ – effectively cycling on ‘the pavement’, precisely the same kind of behaviour we see on other roads where people using bikes don’t want to cycle among motor vehicles.
These are supposed to be ‘pavements’, of a sort – divided by the ridged markings to denote to blind people where the ‘road’ starts, but as this is a shared space, you can technically cycle anywhere, and some people are choosing to cycle where it feels most safe. This is a reflection of a lack of subjective safety.
And pedestrians don’t want to ‘share’, either. Unlike the mingling in evidence in the southern section of the street, the users are split very markedly, by mode, in the northern section.
Some bollards have been installed to keep motor vehicles off the ‘virtual’ pavements, but what this seems to have achieved in practice is the creation of an actual pavement, behind which pedestrians keep at all times, unless they are trying to cross the road. This ‘pavement’ is also a natural consequence of the straight guttering, the trees, and the parking at the northern end of the road.
Precisely the way that pedestrians would behave on an ordinary road, in other words.
And when you want to try to cross Exhibition Road? There were, in the very early days of the road being opened, plenty of signs informing drivers that they should give way to pedestrians –
but those have all disappeared, as has any inclination of almost every driver to yield, even if it existed in the first place.
To cross the road in a way that involves ‘sharing’ necessitates walking in front of vehicles that are bearing down on you; something that few people are willing to do. Take a look at this video of a lady trying to cross the road, while carrying her child.
For about 45 seconds (she may have been waiting longer, before I chanced upon her) she doesn’t attempt cross. You can see why; to do so would involve stepping into the path of motor vehicles. When she does start to cross the road, it is only when a gap has emerged in the traffic.
She was not aware of the car approaching from the southern end of the street, and halts, uncertainly, in the middle of the road, when sees it. Confronted with the sight of a stranded mother carrying her child, the driver yields and lets her cross.
The behaviour here is instructive. Yes, yielding occurred, but only when the mother had quite literally put her body on the line. As we see for the first 45 seconds of the video, she wasn’t prepared to do so voluntarily. This is not ‘sharing’ in any conventional sense of the word.
To me, this represents the biggest flaw in what I would call the ‘total shared space’ philosophy; the belief that we can calm and civilise practically any street or road by removing distinctions and making surfaces uniform. The philosophy is holed below the waterline by the fact that the vast majority of people, just like the mother in this video, are not prepared to force motor vehicles to share. Another example below.
That reluctance means that streets like Exhibition Road – with significant volumes of motor traffic – will continue to function in more or less the same way they did before. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that what marginal improvements do result are simply not worth the expense of rebuilding the road, if motor traffic is not greatly reduced, or removed entirely.
The wonderful descriptions of this redesign from its advocates sadly do not match the reality. A Daily Mail article from around the time of the official opening contains this nugget –
Even before the road was officially opened today by London Mayor Boris Johnson, Sir Jeremy noted people’s behaviour had changed:
‘You see people promenading down the street, sometimes ten abreast. It’s marvellous.’
If anyone is ‘promenading ten abreast’ on Exhibition Road, they’re certainly not doing it in the road itself, or if they are, they are doing it on the southern section of Exhibition Road, which has practically no motor traffic whatsoever. Sir Jeremy Dixon’s comments are misleading. Likewise in the very same Daily Mail article Boris Johnson is quoted as saying that the new design makes it
much easier and even more pleasurable for families visiting these unique attractions with space to wander unhindered in an area that puts people first.
There is no ‘unhindered wandering’ on Exhibition Road, especially by families with children (I have on several occasions witnessed parents telling their children to behave and to ‘stay out of the road’).
Likewise this segment from the Smart Streets programme broadcast on Radio 4 last January is more than slightly misleading –
Presenter It’s quite liberating walking down Exhibition Road, because we can go wherever we want.
Ben Hamilton-Baillie It feels quite different, doesn’t it. And interestingly traffic is still flowing up and down here.
Presenter There are benches in the middle of the street!
Ben Hamilton-Baillie We’re walking where once was you would have felt crazy to be walking up the carriageway. And yet a street of this kind can cope with a huge volume of visitors from all over the world. It can cope with taxis and buses and bicycles and couriers without having to install complicated barriers and different levels and different traffic signals and so forth. There is a degree of uncertainty, intrigue, and as soon as the driver’s brain is engaged, the speeds drop, and the responses to the unusual, the unexpected, the individual, become immediate and responsive, rather than assumed.
There aren’t any benches in the middle of the street; they are only found in the explicitly pedestrianised western section, by the Science Museum.
This suggests that the presenter and Hamilton-Baillie are walking in that area (which admittedly was formerly part of the road, hinted at in Hamilton-Baillie’s comment), rather than in the carriageway. But the impression given to any casual listener is that the two of them are wandering aimlessly all over the street, which is misrepresentative of actual behaviour.
Whether this talk about people meandering ten abreast, or wandering at will in the carriageway, is deliberate sleight of hand or merely an accidental fusing of very different areas of Exhibition Road, is hard to say. But we should be very clear that the behaviour in the section of shared surface that still carries plenty of motor traffic is almost identical to that on an ordinary road. The claim, in an official pamphlet for the street, that
pedestrian priority [is] created by the kerb-less carriageway
is not founded. Simply creating a uniform street has not been enough. Groups representing blind people know this especially well.
And the amenity of the street is suffering due to the traffic volume too. Despite the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Official Decision Report [pdf] stating that
The crowded, narrow pavements and heavy traffic will be a thing of the past
the road is clogged, all too often, with motor vehicles. Heavy traffic still exists.
It is this very same traffic that is rendering the expensive rebuilding of Exhibition Road somewhat redundant. If the road is to start working as a genuine ‘shared’ space, it has to be removed, or greatly reduced.