Placefaking

There’s a section early in the newly-released London Cycle Design Standards about ‘responding to context’ – the types of cycle infrastructure that should be expected on a variety of streets and roads, according to the movement or place (or both) function of that street or road.

From page 13 of the London Cycle Design Standards

From page 13 of the London Cycle Design Standards

That we have such a large variety of street and road types is largely a consequence of our historical failure to think coherently about clear functions and purposes for them. For instance, we have residential streets that, for the most part, still function as routes for motorised traffic. Our high streets, likewise, are all too often still corridors for motor traffic, rather than genuine places.

The Dutch – either by happy accident, or by careful thought, or a mixture of the two – do not have such a confused picture about the function of streets and roads. They are quite clear that, places should genuinely be places, and that this should be achieved by ensuring that the street, or square, in question serves an access-only function for motorised traffic.  Likewise if a street or road has to serve a movement function, then they won’t attempt to dress that street up as a place; the function will be quite clear, and all modes will have clear, defined paths along (and indeed across) this road.

So the historical centre of Utrecht is almost entirely a clearly-defined place, with very little motor traffic, except for residents coming and going from their properties, and deliveries. These streets do not have a movement function, at all, for motorised traffic, although they remain useful routes for pedestrians and cyclists.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 14.46.25

The main roads in the city centre, however, are quite obviously movement-oriented. Although people can cross the road easily, on foot or on bike, there are clearly-defined paths for the movements of motor traffic, buses, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 14.51.03Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 14.52.37

There’s a refreshing honesty about this approach. These roads and streets can’t ever really function as ‘places’ because they have (in these examples) large bendy buses travelling through quite frequently, so there is no attempt to pretend that they are places. They are designed accordingly for movement, but without compromising pedestrian or cycle comfort.

But in the UK we seem to developed a curious alternative strategy that, as in the title of this post, I’m going to dub ‘placefaking’. It involves dressing up streets that continue to have a serious movement function as a ‘place’, and attempting to persuade us that these roads and streets are now ‘places’, despite the fact that they continue to carry significant volumes of motor traffic. (In its most extreme form, the implication is that ‘places’ need to have motor traffic flowing through them!)

Exhibition Road in Kensington and Chelsea is perhaps the most painful example of this phenomenon. A certain amount of effort has been employed in an attempt to persuade the public that this road – heavy with motor traffic, particularly at peak times – is now civic space, where pedestrians can linger at leisure in the ‘carriageway’. That stylish diagonal lines would encourage pedestrians to cross on natural desire lines, as they pleased.

Unfortunately, the basic problem here is that a ‘place’ function won’t fit; there is too much movement, and too much movement of a particular kind.

DSCN9667

Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with planting more trees, and softening kerb lines, and making the street more attractive. But it strikes me that many of these schemes are in denial about the function of the streets in question, and in consequence it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. If the roads we are dealing with will still be carrying a significant volume of motor traffic, then we should be honest about that, and design accordingly.

My particular concern here is that cycle-specific design tends to get squeezed out by placefaking. For instance, I am not aware of any new ‘placemaking’ scheme on a road in Britain that incorporates cycle tracks where they should reasonably be provided – for instance, on roads carrying more than 2-3000 PCUs per day. (Please point me in the direction of any examples that I may have missed!)

Presumably this is because they reinforce the impression of a ‘movement’ function, interrupting the ‘placeishness’ of the new design. But there’s a degree of sticking heads in the sand here; cycle tracks are required because of the volume of motor traffic, and if that volume is high enough to demand cycle tracks, then it is fanciful to imagine you are creating a place – there is still too much motor traffic thundering through.

The proposals for Tottenham Court Road appear to me to fall into this trap. The intention, again, is an attempt to create more of a ‘place’. Trees are being planted, the kerb lines are being softened, and so on. Cycle tracks are not included.

tcr-proposed-finalAt the Camden Cyclists meeting on Monday to discuss this scheme, an officer from Camden Council explicitly referred to the ‘shared space’ on Tottenham Court Road, and also referenced ‘woonerf’ (home zone) as an inspiration.

But how much of a genuine ‘place’ is Tottenham Court Road going to be? Even when it is closed as a through route to motor traffic during the day, around 180 buses per hour at peak times will be travelling along it – on average, three a minute (Alex Ingram has crunched the numbers). More importantly, from 7pm to 8am, and all day on Sunday, this will be a conventional road, open to all traffic. A ‘place’?

I got the impression, from that meeting on Monday, that cycle tracks don’t really fit in with the Camden ‘vision’ for this road, an attempt to make it a place. Cycle tracks, which by any reasonable measure should be included because of the volume of bus traffic travelling down this road (to say nothing of the situation when it is open to all motor traffic), apparently won’t work… because of the numbers of buses travelling down this road, with passengers getting on and off them. There is a curious circularity here which implies that any road that carries a large number of buses can’t have cycle tracks on it, because floating bus stops can’t work with large numbers of bus passengers.

By all means create a genuine place, with low levels of motor traffic – then cycle tracks won’t be required. But if you haven’t dealt with the motor traffic, then you should accept reality and appreciate that cycle tracks should be required.

I’m going to finish here with this picture of Vredenburg in Utrecht, from a few weeks ago, tweeted by @CU2030.

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This is a street, nearing completion, in Utrecht, which is principally a bus-only corridor, with cycle tracks alongside it. As you can see, there are plenty of buses travelling through here – the road travels from the station, forming part of a corridor through the centre of the city, out to the university on the outskirts.

When I tweeted this picture, Tompion Platt wrote

I shouldn’t really be singling him out, because this is quite a common attitude! Indeed, I suspect most people, confronted with this image, would agree that it isn’t a ‘place’ at all. It looks like a transport corridor.

And that’s exactly right. Vredenburg can’t be a place, because it has a large number of buses travelling through. Attempting to make it a place would just fail – it would be a waste of time. So it has been quite rightly designed around a movement function, with pedestrians and cyclists catered for alongside the bus lanes. It is, as a I mentioned earlier, a refreshingly honest approach. If you can’t get rid of the buses, then you have to accept reality, and design accordingly.

Let’s not keep falling between two stools. We need to make our places actual places, and the streets and roads that fulfil movement functions genuinely accommodating for all potential users who wish to travel along them.

This entry was posted in Infrastructure, placemaking, Shared Space, The Netherlands, Town planning. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Placefaking

  1. Very good post, it’s the hardest thing, in convincing this side of the channel to think about function and that provision isn’t about turning the UK into a car free zone, it’s about treating each road intelligently and giving it the treatment that best serves it’s purpose.

  2. I would connect ‘placefaking’ with ‘encouragement to cycle’. Both substitute expressive piety for problem solving.

    Expressive Piety and True Religion have obvious major differences, but there is room for so much nuance and variation between the varieties of expressive piety. Here’s one- the ‘cyclists should be encouraged’ piety can be almost £free. Whereas the ‘never mind the busses, feel the width’ approach really sticks some gold in the candlestick.

  3. I rarely shop on my local high street because it’s 6 lanes of choking standstill or high speed traffic depending on the time of day The pedestrian lights take many minutes to change (twice to cross one bloody road). I do most of my shopping online because I’m in no danger of being run over or asphyxiated. Well done London.

    • D. says:

      I work in Bristol city centre. A few years ago a new shopping area was built called Cabot Circus. I used to be able to go up over the four lanes of traffic on a pedestrian footbridge. When they built Cabot Circus, they decided that there wasn’t room to have the footbridge there (because the shopping mall came up too close to the existing shops). So it was taken away. I now have to wait and cross two lanes on one toucan crossing, then wait on a large island and cross the other two lanes on another offset toucan crossing. PITA!

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        TfL don’t even need the excuse of lack of space. From the July Richmond Cycling Campaign newsletter…

        “TfL are proposing to remove the footbridge at St. Margarets roundabout and replace it with a toucan crossing. The proposal appears to be seeing exceptional opposition from local users of the bridge, and we’re not sure of its value either.”

        Not surprised the locals are annoyed, with a school on one side, and especially if it’s going to be one of those that responds to gaps in traffic – traffic as shown here:

        https://www.google.co.uk/maps?ll=51.457176,-0.323346&spn=0.010549,0.009828&t=m&z=16&layer=c&cbll=51.45725,-0.322989&panoid=wi9yDzYaWFfkBa3_Ejfr4Q&cbp=12,267.64,,0,24.37

        Yes there’s a narrow cycle path by the school – of course it stops at the roundabout behind the viewpoint – rotate it and you’ll see (plus 2 bike riders not on the path).

        @AsEasyAsRiding

        “If you can’t get rid of the buses, then you have to accept reality, and design accordingly.” That is often done, especially on TfL roads. Unfortunately, replacing “buses” with “bicycles” in that sentence seems to be the step too far. In situations where that should be the case, such as the Kingston-upon-Thames gyratory, bike riders are not given the same clearly-defined paths as motor traffic, buses, or pedestrians to move parallel with the system. There are a few disconnected, narrow lanes here and there, but there’s potentially loads of room for continuous cycle paths. Of course making the paths continuous doesn’t get a mention in the mini-Holland bid. The “place” aspect of the centre, in terms of excluding motor vehicles, is reasonably well managed, though adequate cycle parking seems to be viewed as an impediment to movement (yes in a pedestrian-cycle zone) by the latest street designers.

  4. geoffrone says:

    “Let’s not keep falling between two stools”, this is where the problem is, they have to wake up and stop sleep walking first.

  5. Mark Hewitt says:

    It does depress me that when it comes to building Dutch style cycle infrastructure we haven’t even yet managed the trek to the foothills. Brand new street designs are still being rolled out without any thought being paid to cycling. There really is no excuse.

  6. judging every function with ‘place’ is quite ridiculous, certainly when you strive for one particular template. Regarding ‘Vredenburg’ and it mainly functioning as corridor:
    a) it’s situated right next to Vredenburg square, where Utrecht’s car-free zone starts.
    b) its design was improved to better serve as CS-city corridor *and* be made more attractive for adjacent retail (to people walking and on bikes). Hell, even bus passengers might find it more attractive to get off one stop before their final destination.

  7. D. says:

    I appreciate that I’m coming late to the party, so to speak, and I don’t generally get up to London at all. But, that picture of Exhibition Road above: I’ve read blog posts (probably some of yours) about what they were intending (a sort of shared space for that area…) I’m looking at that picture, and isn’t it clear that they completely failed? I mean, that just looks like any main road, except for the fancy paving. Nobody looks as if they are behaving or treating it any differently than if it was a bog standard black tarmac road with kerbs and a defined footpath at the side. Are we *really* supposed to believe that we can wander around on there as if it is a grand European square, or something?

    • It’s clear that it’s a failure, unless you ask the shared space zealots in which case it’s a resounding success and is to be copied everywhere, literally.

      • Simon Still says:

        Indeed. Just last night I was reading plans for Brixton town centre which include fancy paving, no clear plans to actually remove any traffic and hold up exhibition road as a model (of course using a photograph that shows it empty of cars).

        • pm says:

          Is it an actual photograph or one of those ‘artist’s visualisations’ that were used to lobby for the project?
          It would be a bit dishonest to use the latter now its up-and-running and photographs of reality exist.

    • Michael J says:

      Yes, but it’s more dangerous than a normal main road if you’re walking with young children because it’s not clear to them where the “pavement” and “road” are. For shared space to work it has to be just access only with traffic at 5mph or so.

  8. Brilliant taking Fred Kent and PPS campaign for #Placemaking and demonstrating how many cities – especially in the UK(?) have subverted it to suit their skewed agenda confusing the movement of vehicles with the movement of people. #Placefaking absolutely has to start trending as the hashtag for all of those dire schemes presented as the zenith of contemporary public realm when nadir might the be more appropriate place.

  9. steve says:

    Abington street in Northampton is currently a pleasent pedestrianised place to shop, walk, eat etc.. and is shortly to become a car park and through route for motor vehicles. The conservative council leaders have not considered what the place is for.

  10. Sarah says:

    Absoutely brilliant word and brilliant description. I saw some VERY fluffy powerpoint slides the other day that were definitely in this placefaking mould (vague initial planning for an urban renewal project involving a somewhat dated out-of-town retail park.) There was grass, there were trees, there were even pink cycle facilities, but the plans didn’t address the fundamental problem, which is that the road has been tweaked to facilitate smooth, continuous traffic flow and there are no longer any gaps which give cyclists and pedestrians a chance to get across. The traffic isn’t fast, or terrifying, but it has become quite relentless since the replacement of a signalled junction with a roundabout. I have given up trying to make turns across traffic during busy shopping times – I now turn in the direction I don’t want to go, proceed to the nearest roundabout and do one full circuit. Trees are nice, but they aren’t going to get me out of a pickle like that.

    On the other hand, I’m writing these lines from a place just off the ring road that surrounds the city centre in Munich and I have made a few trips on foot in the same locality today. I saw various places that seem to have fairly significant place functions and transport functions at one and the same time. Even now, just after midnight, I can hear both functions going on. Streets heaving with people enjoying their night out are also heaving with cars and buses and trams and cyclists and pedestrians. (Obviously there are also plenty of streets where either a link function or a place function predominates, but there seem to be quite a few where it is about 50/50.) As a pedestrian, I found my progress today quite slow, but all the other modes seemed to be whizzing along.

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  12. Herb says:

    There’s a name for it! Thank you so much!

    With one simple name you’ve made our jobs so much easier here in Toronto. We’ve had politicians and planners for years say vague things like “This street is a destination, not for through-traffic.” Mostly this ends up meaning they widen the sidewalks and have a ready-made excuse to ignore cyclists. And this is coming from the most “progressive” of politicians with the highest of ideas of improving the pedestrian experience. But we couldn’t get it through their heads that they needed to put in bike lanes.

    I had just written up a post on this topic http://www.ibiketo.ca/blog/torontos-failed-shared-space-experiments-exclude-vulnerable, jut minutes before someone on Twitter pointed me to this post.

  13. Matt says:

    Hi Mark, I saw this video: http://youtu.be/HhfV1Rd5-_Q and thought of this blog post

  14. Brian says:

    Excellent article, except for the distracting lipstick / pig line – no doubt the article writer isn’t a woman with low self-regard, to be so blythe, but if you are unsure, it’s often best just to avoid lines that can be read as ridiculing ugly women who don’t know their place. Yes, Obama used the line, but Wikipedia says it’s Dick Cheney’s fave, warning enough. These guys are trying to appear less urbane, a bit folksy, not too progressive. If you don’t need votes in rural Ohio, best just avoid.

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  22. anadapter says:

    There’s a consultation going on about a busy ring road gyratory here at the moment (in the form of an SPD) and my fear is this is what it’ll become. Placefaking. I mean, it’s ring road for goodness sake. If it was less busy then it might, possibly, be more viable but they want to reintroduce two way traffic on some parts and have chairs and tables in the middle. It’s the bikes that suffer disproportionately from the lack of thought through design currently on offer but I’m not confident either they or the pedestrians will get a good scheme out of it, though I hope so.

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