The Poynton ‘shared space’ scheme has attracted a large amount of attention, both in the UK, and abroad – attention driven principally by this seductive video, produced by Martin Cassini, an advocate of the removal, or reduction, of priority seen in Poynton.
With the best will in the world, it is hardly likely to be an objective presentation of the scheme, especially given that the councillors and designers responsible feature so heavily in the video. The only sceptics who feature are locals, who having initially voiced concerns then admit they were wrong.
The only ‘neutral’ assessment of the scheme that I am aware of is this rather good piece by Urban Movement’s Oli Davey, who raises concerns and issues, as well as outlining the benefits. So I couldn’t stop myself from taking a brief diversion to Poynton on a trip recently, to see for myself what the new scheme looks and feels like.
Now, like Oli, I had never been to Poynton before, so I can only really guess as to how much of genuine improvement the scheme represents. But I have to say that while I had many of my expectations confirmed, I was pleasantly surprised in other respects – about which more below. The scheme does seem to work quite well for drivers and pedestrians, although (as we shall see) it completely ignores cycling as a serious mode of transport.
The biggest (unresolved) problem – and one which is perhaps unfair to tie together with the redesign, since no redesign can deal with this problem – is the extraordinary volume of motor traffic passing through the town. It is still a very busy and noisy place, regardless of any benefits that might flow from the new arrangement. 26,000 vehicles a day pass through the main junction in Poynton (the one that has been changed). This is hardly a civilised environment, regardless of the way the junction is arranged.
The visualisations of Poynton (and to a certain extent the video produced by Martin Cassini) seem, to me at least, to wish away this motor traffic.
These are very busy roads, and there is certainly none of the ‘mingling’ in the carriageway by pedestrians that might be expected with the employment of the term ‘shared space’. In particular, while I wasn’t able to make counts, the proportion of traffic composed of HGVs seemed quite large.
While I am not able to make a comparison between the current situation, and the ‘before’ Poynton, there is still considerable congestion here. It may be slightly better, it may be slightly worse, I don’t know, but there were long queues on the arms of the junction, even in the middle of the afternoon.
It’s a slightly different form of queuing, in that, rather than being completely stationary, followed by bursts of movement, the traffic is just trundling along very slowly, at less than walking pace.
This does have benefits (which we’ll come to), but from a cycling perspective, this trundling, combined with the road layout, is just one of the ways in which the scheme is pretty awful. There’s nowhere to go, and you are left stuck, standing, in the fumes of the queuing traffic. This is particularly frustrating in the context of the wide footways that have been created.
Cycling as an inclusive mode of transport really hasn’t been considered at all in this scheme. The narrow carriageways block your progress on the approaches, and they are really quite intimidating on the exits, as you are forced to adopt a strong ‘primary position’ in the middle of the narrow lanes, to prevent overtakes. It’s not really for the faint-hearted, at all, especially given the nature and volume of the traffic. It was actually a relief for me to get back onto the ‘conventional’ and unadjusted tarmac road, where I could at least move over and let traffic past.
Indeed, it was particularly telling to observe how distinctly the people cycling here fall into two types. Those using the road were, without exception, wearing helmets and lycra, and were almost all male.
This kind of division is precisely the kind you would expect to see when you fail to design for cycling in its own right. People will fall into one or other of the available options – cycling like a motor vehicle (hardly an attractive option for all), or cycling like a pedestrian (not attractive for those who want to make progress, or indeed for pedestrians). Indeed, Poynton is almost a classic example of the poverty of the ‘dual provision’ approach. Both forms of provision are unacceptable.
To that extent, whatever the overall benefits of Poynton, it is worrying to see it being lauded from a cycling perspective. Indeed, it features in several places in Sustrans’ new ‘Handbook for Cycling Friendly Design’, which is quite troubling. Cycling has been completely ignored here, and any benefits are marginal and incidental. This is simply not what anyone interested in better cycling provision should be aiming for; this should be obvious from the types of cycling that have been produced by the scheme.
While the roundabouts (or ’roundabouts’) themselves seem to work well, with motor traffic slowly merging and moving smoothly on and off of them, the very reason they seem to work unfortunately acts to make them quite hostile from a cycling perspective. The lack of delineation and priority means drivers are not quite sure what’s going on, and slow right down – but that same lack of clarity also means that it is a bit of a free-for-all.
On such a large expanse of paving, there really isn’t any way to control driver behaviour when you are cycling (taking a ‘strong position’ is meaningless). While nobody is driving especially fast, it is quite intimidating, and certainly not an attractive environment.
Another slightly irritating feature are the raised ‘pimples’ that mark out the ’roundabout’.
Another issue is the disintegration of parts of the carriageway (something else which gave my Brompton an almightily jolt). While the main roadways seem to be holding up acceptably, the paved areas that mark out the informal crossing points are crumbling under the weight (literally) of motor traffic –
And the areas around the drains also seem to be suffering, in particular.
Given that the scheme cost £4 million, I think questions have to be asked about whether corners have been cut on quality, and if not, whether spending that amount of money on this kind of road surface, when it carries such a high volume of motor traffic, is wise.
Coupled with this damage, there is of course the issue of roadworks and utilities. A large area of the scheme was being dug up when I visited.
This raises the question of how well the surfacing can be ‘made good’ after these roadworks, and how much extra expense is involved in doing so.
That said – despite all these negatives – I did find some surprising positives about Poynton. Two in particular stand out.
The first, and most important, is that the previous signalised junction, with two queuing lanes for vehicles on each arm, has been replaced with a new junction with just one vehicle lane on each approach. The amount of space required by vehicles on each harm has been halved, with no (alleged!) increase in congestion or delay.
The lesson that can be drawn is that if you manage your junctions properly – for instance, as at Poynton, replacing signal control with roundabouts – there is no need to have such a huge amount of space allocated to queuing vehicles. That space can be reallocated. In Poynton it has been given over to pedestrians, but I see no reason why in other locations it couldn’t be reallocated to cycling as well. If a junction that handles 26,000 vehicles a day can cope with just one queuing lane on each arm, this is an approach that can surely be tried elsewhere.
The other important positive I took from Poynton is the importance of physical design in influencing driver behaviour. Poynton suggests to me, clearly, that British drivers are not idiots, or exceptionally dangerous, or more badly behaved than continental drivers. While I think it fails almost entirely from a cycling perspective, Poynton illustrates how the design of the environment can be used to make people behave in ways you want them to. The informal crossing points illustrate this well. Some examples below.
I have to say, I really didn’t think these would work. I didn’t think drivers would stop or give way; that they were just too ‘informal’. But they were working. Not just, I think, because of the way they look like an extension of the pavement across the road (this is an important detail to get right) but because the road has been designed in such a way that drivers lose nothing at all by giving way. They are already travelling very slowly, so it makes little difference to them whether they give way to pedestrians, or not. (Exhibition Road suffers badly in this respect because it still resembles a road, with no crossing points, and with nothing to slow drivers down.)
This is a lesson that can surely be transferred to cycling infrastructure in Britain. Our drivers are not badly behaved; we just have a road environment that encourages bad behaviour. If – as with Dutch roundabout and junction design – drivers are forced to travel slowly, and to think about the kinds of crossing movements they should be expecting, then they will behave just as well as their Dutch counterparts.
Poynton demonstrates this, with the way in which the drivers treat crossing pedestrians – the design of a scheme matters. Design for the behaviour you want, and people will respond to it, even if you think they are stereotypical British drivers who just won’t behave.
Given that Poynton is about to get a relief road, one that will (or should) remove the huge volume of motor traffic travelling through it, conditions there look set to change dramatically. Conditions would certainly be more cycle-friendly, if traffic volumes fall to those corresponding to access-only driving (although I would question how cycle-friendly the Poynton design is, even at low traffic levels).
It’s certainly an interesting experiment – albeit an expensive one – from which positive lessons can be drawn, despite the negatives I have attempted to describe here.