Last year I wrote about how Ben Hamilton-Baillie – one of the foremost proponents of the ‘shared space’ philosophy – does not appear to be all that concerned about addressing motor traffic in urban areas. His designs are mere rearrangements of the way motor traffic moves down a street. In his talks and presentations, his vision of ‘urban realm improvement’ tends to involve removal of the physical manifestations of our attempts to control motor traffic, without reducing or removing that motor traffic itself.
Yesterday Matt Turner spotted an interview with Hamilton-Baillie that provides a remarkable insight into the mindset of ‘leading international expert on the development of “Shared Space”’, as he is described.
It’s a relatively old interview – dating from 2010. However, it appears to confirm not only that Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t really care about motor traffic reduction in urban areas or (more specifically) prioritising more efficient and safer mode of transport within them, but, more than that, he actually seems to think existing levels of motor traffic in British towns and cities should be maintained.
It starts with some odd explanations from Hamilton-Baillie for the apparently rising popularity of ‘shared space’, and its philosophy of ‘integrating’ human beings and motor traffic in urban areas.
The Genome Project, understanding our DNA, and the remarkable intricacies of our interconnections, has allowed us to question many of the assumptions that gave rise to conventional traffic engineering and the principle of segregating traffic from other civic and social aspects of cities.
Because we’ve sequenced the base pairs in the human genome, we’ve understood that motor traffic shouldn’t be separated from civic life in cities? If you are not convinced by this ‘DNA’ explanation, maybe a change in the nature of political philosophy over the twentieth century could tempt you.
During the last century, governments of both the left and right tended to assume that the state should assume responsibility for resolving all potential conflicts and interaction through increasingly complex regulation and control. The evolution of the traffic signal illustrates this tendency perfectly, removing the need to think and respond from the driver, and attempting to control behaviour through technology and legislation. We now understand more about the downside of states over-regulating and over-planning.
Or maybe it’s just that traffic control is expensive, and shared space is cheap.
In addition, the fiscal realities of the European Union are having an effect. Even if they wished to, governments can now no longer afford the huge costs of regulating, controlling and enforcing every aspect of traffic behaviour. Traffic lights, signs, markings, barriers and bollards cost a fortune, and the recent public spending crises have highlighted the need to question the role of the state in many areas. The idea of streets and spaces being left to informal negotiation and local social protocols chimes with initiatives such as the new “Localism Agenda” in Britain, or what David Cameron refers to as “The Big Society”.
It’s worth reminding ourselves here that one of the most widely-known and prominent ‘shared space’ schemes in Britain, Exhibition Road (which is lauded in this interview) weighs in at a cost of around £35,000 per metre – £29m for 820m of road. But clearly it’s ‘conventional’ street engineering – tarmac, kerbs and so on – that is expensive. Or so we are led to believe.
We then move on to Hamilton-Baillie’s philosophy, which is quite explicitly argued.
I think shared space represents a fundamental rethink of the principles of segregation espoused by Colin Buchanan and his team when he wrote the influential “Traffic in Towns” in 1963. In contrast to Buchanan, I see no need to separate or segregate urban traffic from other aspects of civic space. [my emphasis]
Well, on the contrary, I see plenty of reasons to keep urban traffic (in this context, clearly motor traffic) away from civic space. Noise, pollution, danger, amenity, to name just a few. If you continue to allow motor traffic to flow, unrestrained, through urban areas, and the civic space within them, you will end up with a low quality environment.
This is what Colin Buchanan, and the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report, appreciated, even if the solution it prescribed was misguided. Streets full of motor traffic are fundamentally pretty awful. We don’t need to ‘rethink’ the principles of segregation – we just need to apply them in a more humane way, a way that puts people walking, cycling and using public transport first, and segregates the car away from them, rather than segregating human beings away from motor traffic. This is something I’ve argued at length before.
Curiously, however, Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t appear to believe in putting efficient, safe, urban-scale modes of transport like walking and cycling first, and prioritising those modes of motor traffic.
… Shared space is all about integration, and that means avoiding over-attention on any one factor or group… We are asked to support groups campaigning for motorists, and groups campaigning against the car – all sorts. But shared space is not about promoting the interests of one particular group or user over another, but merely about setting the stage for different activities to interact.
Shared space is ‘all about integration’, and when different modes are ‘integrated’, it is of course impossible to prioritise one over another, because such prioritisation requires separation.
All we are left with is some cod nonsense about a blank slate – a ‘stage’ on which ‘different activities’ can ‘interact’.
Having already stated that
Traffic and movement is the life-blood of cities
(again, a reference to motor traffic), the interview concludes with a curious pean to the virtues of motor traffic in urban areas, juxtaposed against Jan Gehl’s philosophy of creating people-centred urban areas –
I am a great admirer of Jan Gehl and his colleagues, and they’ve done absolutely wonderful work. Copenhagen is a phenomenal success story. But I feel that that generation has run its course in the sense of that there’s only so far you can go with exclusion [of the car]. For them the removal of the car is an overriding theme. At times, of course, it’s appropriate. But reality is that the car is with us, for better or worse, for at least a couple of generations. It’s a wonderful liberating technology. For all its downside it has transformed most of our economic and social lives. And shared space offers the opportunity to welcome and exploit the good side of motor traffic, as it were. It needn’t be a destructive force for streets, for cities. [my emphasis]
It would be interesting to know what the ‘good side of motor traffic’ in urban areas actually involves. My personal opinion is that we should be doing everything we can to make the alternatives to travel by car in urban areas as attractive and as easy as possible, because doing so would make our towns and cities vastly safer and more pleasant. This isn’t about engaging in a ‘war’ on the car, but more about opening up choice, and prioritising the alternatives.
But it seems that Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t share this approach. The status quo – with a huge percentage of short urban trips made inefficiently, inconveniently and expensively by motor car – is something he apparently wants to preserve, albeit with that motor traffic travelling around on fancy paving, rather than conventional tarmac. No mode of transport should be prioritised; we should all be ‘equal’ on the stage of ‘shared space’.
It’s not a hugely enticing vision.