Ben Hamilton-Baillie and motor traffic

Last night I attended a talk given by Ben Hamilton-Baillie in Eastbourne. I didn’t really learn very much, because the talk was very similar to the ‘stock’ talk he has presumably given on numerous occasions before – the one you can find in many places on the internet.

He charmed the audience with amusing anecdotes about silly signs, and the general absurdity of our urban environment, with photographs and snippets that have featured heavily in his previous talks. The same case studies featured heavily too – Seven Dials in London, Ashford, Exhibition Road, Poynton, New Road in Brighton, as well as the same thought experiments, like the ‘ice rink’ example.

It was really interesting to see how the people in the room were swept along with his vision for making our towns and cities better places. The videos and photographs of attractively paved streets contrasted starkly with the guard railing, the excess clutter and deeply ugly British streetscapes we are all so familiar with.

In some cases this involved a little sleight of hand. Pictures of the ‘former’ Exhibition Road, where huge numbers of people were crammed on to tiny pavements, hemmed in by guardrails beside a vast expanse of tarmac, were contrasted with the new Exhibition Road. Or rather, with artist visualisations of the new Exhibition Road, in which pedestrians frolic happily across the entire width of the road, and motor traffic is somewhere in the background.

Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 00.52.07 Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 00.52.19

The reality – a carscape, with pedestrians, err, hemmed in at the sides – was not shown.

IMG_0340What is curious is that, as these kinds of examples show, Hamilton-Baillie must be acutely aware that motor traffic makes our streets unpleasant, yet reducing or removing motor traffic never seems to appear as a strategy. In an hour-long talk, there was no mention of actually physically reducing the amount of motor traffic travelling along urban streets. He was even asked, at the end of the talk, what his ‘top criteria’ for the success of urban realm schemes were. He replied that you shouldn’t clutter up your streets with guardrail, or with signalling and posts, and you should avoid using one-way streets, before moving onto general principles of design and organisational skill, and political vision. Mention of removing or reducing motor traffic came there none.

The most telling statement of the evening – for me at least – was

We need to reassess what we have to sacrifice in order to accommodate traffic.

Which begged the obvious question – why continue to accommodate traffic in the first place? Because all the most attractive and pleasant urban streetscapes I know are ones where motor traffic is either non-existent, or greatly reduced – be that at a street level, or across a town or city centre.

It is still possible to drive around the centre of Utrecht for access, but motor traffic has been largely eliminated here. It has not always been this way.

It is still possible to drive around the centre of Utrecht for access, but motor traffic has been largely eliminated here. It has not always been this way.

We can see this in action on Exhibition Road, where – as I have pointed out before – the pleasant bit to the south of the A4, where through traffic has been cut out, stands in stark contrast to the traffic-filled section to the north. Reducing motor traffic is one of the essential components of creating more attractive urban areas, yet as far as I can tell Hamilton-Baillie never discusses it.

I think this is part of the reason why his strategies are so popular with councils up and down the country – they don’t really involve changing the status quo, at least as far as how journeys are being made is concerned. The street will look nicer, and it will be undoubtedly more pleasant for pedestrians (and probably for people driving too), but the thorny issue of how people are actually travelling within towns is not really tackled. Radical change does not appear to be on the agenda – instead the existing situation is prettified, and made less intolerable, but people will continue to drive around within towns, much as they did before.

Another telling pair of slides that Hamilton-Baillie often uses – and indeed used again last night – are the contrast between an ugly streetscape, full of traffic engineering overkill, and his paradise, where the street is uncluttered, with people mingling with motor traffic.

Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 12.44.57

The ugly ‘before’

Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 12.42.38

The attractive ‘after’

When I look at these illustrations (which are featured on Hamilton-Baillie’s own site) I can’t help but notice that the way people are travelling about hasn’t changed at all, and indeed that the apparently attractive ‘after’ streetscape is still unpleasantly choked with motor traffic.

Surely in this kind of environment – a public square, in the centre of a town – we should be actively discouraging people from driving, and making the alternatives like walking and cycling the attractive and obvious alternatives? Indeed, striving to create public squares that are not full of private motor cars?

I didn’t get a chance to ask Hamilton-Baillie a question at the end of his talk – there were many other hands up in the audience, and I had to catch a train to get home. I suppose I would have asked him why, when all the ugliness, blight, deaths and injuries he rails against in his talks are the direct result of an excess of motor traffic in our towns, he never talks about tackling the problem at source. It seems an extraordinary oversight.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Infrastructure, Shared Space, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Town planning, Transport policy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Ben Hamilton-Baillie and motor traffic

  1. Ian says:

    Maybe because if we took the cars away there’d be less need for his ‘clever’ solutions and ad-hoc fixups? \Very few of us will argue away our own jobs.

  2. rdrf says:

    Why not both shared space where appropriate and reduction in motor traffic? And of course, motor traffic needs to be reduced everywhere, not just urban streetscapes.

  3. nilling says:

    The attractive ‘after’ just makes me want to weep 😦

  4. monchberter says:

    The phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’ springs to mind. You’re completely right that he’s merely offering precisely the same thing, but repackaged.

    He doesn’t have anything to do with Kensington High Street does he, given that was previously held up as an exemplar of ‘naked streets’ decluttered, but still essentially exactly the same traffic choked dual carriageway?

    • Paul M says:

      Not that I can see – but another consultancy involved in Exhibition Road was involved in Ken High St – Project Centre ( is my favourite page of theirs, due to the presumably unappreciated irony in the choice of photo for the subject). They were also involved in Cheapside, and I think were the conceivers of the notion of using cyclists, with lanes too narrow for anything to overtake anything, not even a bike and a car, as traffic calming, or “rolling speed humps”.

  5. Christine Jones says:

    I wonder what it is about gemeente Utrecht that saw the possibility clearly and why they made it happen. Yes Utrecht was choked, I saw your great film but councillors in the UK are mainly business owners and land owners protecting their territory, not to mention largely in denial. Historically, utrecht have always experimented. It takes courage to have a go. Groningen is a success but what of the people who objected and I’m guessing there were many.
    Holland faces the same problems as us reducing pollution, they too are hitting the EU limit. Rush hour traffic doesn’t occur in Utrecht any more but it’s still sitting in a jam up the A2 to Amsterdam every day.
    It’s massively complicated, the love affair with cars is costing so much, is supported by advertising and there’s a kind of intravenous drug that is the comfort and ‘safety’ a couple of generations have been born and brought up on. As someone who wasn’t and has never bought the idea of a car being the be all, I find British culture frustratingly reliant on cars. We have to wean them off, and a smaller proportion of the Dutch too. Would it need draconian measures that would make being able to drive a much bigger thing, more like being a pilot – regular re-testing, tougher penalties for misconduct etc? Make it impossible to park on streets, only on private land- either your own or in a car park. Many more alternatives to driving? How about a luxury bus with wifi every 10 minutes during rush hour between Ely and Cambridge that stopped 50 metres walk from your house and dropped in all the useful bit of Cambridge for £10 a weekly ticket? That could reduce conjestion on the A10.
    We need to think like lazy people and make the car the expensive inconvenience that it actually is (without all the sexy advertising). You did a post on how driving a car fuels entitlement which is a heady drug. How and where is the rehab?

    • Chris R says:

      If we were to be genuinely radical (which I think we must), we’d treat cars, and especially petrol/diesel more like tobacco. 5p off your fuel when you spend £20 (or whatever) – no. Some restrictions on car adverts (no mentioning of speed, no video of a car in a city?). Of course, to even start this conversation we need political will that we are lacking.

    • Motoring is cheaper in real terms than it ever has been (unless you’re a teenager) and public transport is ever more expensive and rare to find. The problem is that successive UK governments have clearly wanted to encourage motor travel and discourage public transport use, for some unknown reason (bribes from the motor industry and oil companies?) and the population generally likes this as cars make people feel powerful, and we’re taught to dislike and fear strangers.

      The solution requires strong will and leadership at the top of UK government, and there’s no sign of either in the foreseeable future, not in any of the main political parties.

      • Christine jones says:

        In a nutshell!
        It’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve come to and have decided to up root my family to Utrecht, NL next summer. It will involve making a lot of sacrifices but the UK is a pants place to bring up kids right now. We will have to exchange our 4 bed in the fens for a teeny tiny flat for a start – god knows how long we will have to live there before we will be able to get a mortgage!
        Life may be comfortable in the UK but I think we will be happier there not having to jump in the car every time we have to travel more than a mile or so.

    • Koen says:

      High speed bus connections, just as with trains, work best when there is a safe possibility of parking your crummy bike near the bus stop for that last mile to your house. Very good idea, and how about transferia like they have in Den Bosch and many other cities?
      Park your car at the edge of town, ride a bus very cheap for the whole family to the shopping area and enjoy a car-free inner city.

  6. I suppose I would have asked him why, when all the ugliness, blight, deaths and injuries he rails against in his talks are the direct result of an excess of motor traffic in our towns, he never talks about tackling the problem at source.

    I wonder whether anyone has ever asked him this after one of his talks? Possibly not because, sadly, those of us who see things this way and will say it out loud are a tiny minority?

  7. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    In fairness, there appears to be about a 50% reduction in cars between his “before” and “after” pictures. It would be interesting to ask him why…. aesthetic reasons only? (the streetscape simply looks better with fewer?) Or does he advocate schemes with the objective of achieving a substantial reduction in car numbers?

    • I think there are fewer cars in the after picture because they are drawn at twice the size as the before picture, so they take up more space. Look at the picture, the buildings and people are drawn at the same scale the cars are hugely larger.

  8. Did he show any before-and-after pairs of actual photographs? If his ideas work so well, there should be lots of places he could show real photographs of, instead of having to fake it with artists impressions and drawings.

    Of course you have to reduce motor traffic if what was a car-jammed road is to become a pleasant street. It is the motor traffic that most blights a street, not the traffic signs. He should be saying this loud and clear, instead of brushing this under the carpet.

  9. Brenda Puech says:

    Very interesting piece. I did ask Ben Hamilton-Baillie once about reducing motor traffic speeds and volumes, and he felt that as a designer all that was necessary was an intuitive layout that makes drivers go slower and respect vulnerable road users and maybe decide not to drive because road is more attractive for walking and cycling. He did not think strict liability was a priority either. As a designer, he naturally feels that design can achieve ALL the objectives we seek.

    • Christine jones says:

      Road design can save lives but this isn’t the only strategy, I’m sure Mr Treasure did a piece on how Dutch design looks first at usage levels, this type of design can’t be relevant on a through road.
      Could he design any other type of road?

  10. Tom says:

    Currently looking at a scheme where we plan to use a shared space scheme to try and break a B Road that bisects a resi area into two estate access roads I.e make a section in the middle annoying enough to drive through that a high proportion of the through traffic goes elsewhere. Given that there is no mandate for putting a bollard or bus gate in then its probably our best option. Given that there is no ring road trying to completely shut down motor permiability would hit a brick wall.

    You don’t need to believe in shared space in order to use it as a tool, but quite possibly you do need the designer to be a believer. In the UK you often need to be blooming devious if you want traffic reduction and to be prepared to use every tool you can get your hands on including shared space and a bit of granite block loveliness.

    • pm says:

      An interesting point, though it seems a massively economically inefficient way of getting to the desired result! A bollard is pretty cheap compared to loads of fancy-pants paving!

      • Absolutely, although the other option might be a rising bollard with bus and residents permits so not that cheap either to install or maintain. Try explaining the need for this to the public and finding a politician prepared to do it in the middle of a busy inner suburb in the face of likely opposition. Start to see why using public realm improvements is attractive? The ideal scenario perhaps is that the public come to value the space enough that a virtuous circle is created with more and more traffic reduction measures going in.

        • michael says:

          I guess time will tell, as regards people seeing the benefits of more people-centric streets. But given its so hard to find _any_ grounds for optimism I’ll take anything I can get!

  11. perthbiker says:

    Hamilton-Baillie seems to be making a living out of giving councils ‘modern improvements’ without suggesting anything threatening to business owners. His job would be harder and his own business might suffer if he tried to push for less parking and motor vehicle traffic.

    I have an example near me that had similar artist-visualisations followed by a car-dominated reality once completed. I don’t think Hamilton-Baillie was involved but they were preaching the same religion.

    A year after the transformation the mayor of this council considers it a success because business has improved. What they haven’t measured is how much better business could have become if they reduced motor vehicles in addition to the new paving.

    • Looks to me like a quick improvement to that scheme would be charging for the parking and keep uping the charge until 20% of the bays are empty at any one time. Of course designing it eithout parking in the first place would have been nice….

    • michael says:

      While these designs don’t seem to be _100%_ useless, they do seem to involve a disproportionately large expenditure for relatively small gains.

      But I wish something could be done about this general trend of using ludicrously unrealistic-to-the-point-of-dishonesty ‘artists visualisations’ for promoting such developments. It seems that there is a consistent pattern of magically omitting cars from these images. And the original article here seems to show at least in the South Ken case they are continuing to use those fantastical ‘visualistions’ long after the work is done and real images of what has _actually_ happened are available. It seems ridiculous that the shared-space advocates can get away with this.

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        ^this (as well as the original post). I just tried superimposing the before and after cartoon pictures in photoshop. The buildings stay the same but it seems that motor vehicles will be twice the size after the transformation. Is this what they call an increase in traffic volume?

  12. kev kitching says:

    Maybe this gentleman could explain how I work a guide dog through his utopian dream world, on my way to the non existent employment dreamt up by some of his peers.

  13. Duncan says:

    Actually the comparison of B H-B’s two slides is interesting. The ‘after’ slide only has eight vehicles in it, the ‘before’ one has 14! You should have asked how he’d achieved an almost 50% reduction in motor traffic!

    I do have some sympathy with what B H-B’s doing though. You may not agree with it all, but it seems to me to definitely be a step in the right direction. He’s running a business and he knows that anyone who marches into Local Highway Authorities in England and tells them the only answer is to halve traffic volumes is unlikely to win much business.

  14. Fred Smith says:

    They’re still pushing their ideas, Ben Hamilton-Baillie is doing a presentation at the building centre – details below (taken from the flyer – their blurb):

    “Wednesday 19 March 6.30pm
    Kindly hosted by The Building Centre
    Store Street, London WC1”

    “50 years after the publication Traffic in Townswarned of the need to
    tame the tyranny of the motor car in urban areas, UK designers are
    finally beginning to rethink the strategies of traffic control.
    In 2013 the Cheshire town of Poynton completed a scheme to
    transform its central streets by re-engineering how the large volume
    of traffic moved through it. Its success has been described as a
    ‘game changer’ and as a beacon for other towns and cities looking to
    regenerate the places where there is a need to rebalance the needs
    of people and vehicles.
    The evening is a chance to explore how this works. It will begin with a
    showing of the video Poynton Regeneratedwhich will be followed by
    a panel discussion examining the issues raised by the scheme.
    The panel will include Ben Hamilton-Baillie an urban movement
    specialist who was lead designer for the Poynton scheme and
    Robert Huxford, Director of the Urban Design Group.
    The event is free to attend.
    Please confirm that you would like to attend by sending an email to register at
    Cross Town. Traffic!”

    There’s usually the opportunity to ask questions at the end if anyone is interested…

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