Blindness to motor traffic

An essential component of whether a road or a street is a pleasant place is the amount of motor traffic travelling down it. It isn’t the only component, of course, but it’s going to be a struggle to make somewhere that has tens of thousands of motor vehicles travelling through it into an attractive destination. Conversely, streets that have very low levels of motor traffic – or indeed no motor traffic at all – are very much easier to ‘convert’ into destinations, places where people would like to hang around, rather than rushing off somewhere else.

This will often have very little to do with the way the street itself is designed. Waltham Forest managed to transform Orford Road into a pleasant place, simply by closing it to motor traffic.

Orford Road trial closure

People were happy to mingle in the street, and to let their children play in it, despite the ‘conventional’ road layout remaining, with tarmac, kerbs, and street markings.

The same is true of Earlham Street in Camden; again, a ‘conventional’ street became a place people were happy to wander around in, simply by the addition of a closure to motor traffic – without any changes to the street layout.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 17.10.48And even major roads in central London became places pedestrians were happy to wander around on, at will, when they were brought to a standstill by a taxi demonstration last summer.

The Strand, and Trafalgar Square, accidentally become places.

The Strand, and Trafalgar Square, accidentally become places.

This is surely all fairly obvious stuff; yet there is a curious blindspot on the inescapable influence of motor traffic levels on the quality and attractiveness of our street environments, particularly (and most troublingly) amongst many of the people who have responsibility for what happens to them, or who are engaged in the design and function of them.

It is a little unfair to single any particular individuals out, especially people who are thoughtful and reflective on how streets work, and how how they could be improved. But an analysis of Exhibition Road by John Massengale and Victor Dover in their book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns is such a good example of this phenomenon it’s hard not to point to it.

In a two-page section on this ‘shared space’ design – perhaps one of the most famous examples of this kind of design in Britain – the authors reflect on why this street is both a success and a failure, and arrive at some reasonable conclusions. The treatment on Exhibition Road is described as a ‘mixed success’, the authors finding that the very southern half of the street, south of Thurloe Place, is a success, while the section north of it (and north of the A4 Cromwell Road) is something of a failure. Here is the relevant passage, quoted in full –

The innovations at the southern end of Exhibition Road have been more successful than the primary stretch between the museums and other institutions. Thurloe Street and the adjacent plaza are small-scale, comfortable spaces that are well used by the public. Both are lined with attractive storefronts that have been revived by the popularity of the new design, now filled with several cafés with outdoor dining, a bookstore for the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other shops. Cars can enter the Exhibition Road space here, but it feels more like a piazza than shared space. Low ventilating stacks for the tube station and a tunnel leading to it poke up in the middle of the space, helping the spatial definition. Built-in benches attached to the stacks are frequently occupied by those who don’t have to spend money to spend time people-watching, and the few cars and vans that park in the square tend to cluster around them, giving some visual order to the parking. On the street itself, bold striping in light and dark grays clearly sets the space off from the through traffic on Thurloe Place.

The effect of these paving techniques on the long, wide piece of Exhibition Road to the north is less pleasing, because here the street feels vast and poorly shaped. The bold diagonal striping is visible for many blocks, and since there are no sidewalks, the supergraphic bumps into the institutions lining the road in an almost random and uncomfortable way. On the small piazza to the south, on the other hand, the paving pattern seems less repetitive and is broken up by the ventilation shafts and the benches around them, the parked vehicles, and the number of people in the space. The outdoor tables on the southern block of Exhibition Road also cover the supergraphics at the edges, softening their effect.

A smaller pattern north of Cromwell Road would bring a more human scale to the vast space, and breaking it into smaller parts would help, too. A more traditional design would make borders along the edge and break the long space into smaller parts. cars park in the center of the road, which has traffic on one side and pedestrians on the other. “Only the parked cars look comfortable,” says Hank Dittmar, the Chief Executive of the Prince’s Foundation.

This is all clever, intelligent analysis, but amazingly (to my eyes, at least) there is absolutely no mention here of the difference in the levels of motor traffic on the distinct sections of the street that are considered to be a success, and to be a failure. The section that they feel is a success has a relatively tiny amount of motor traffic, only accessing the shops and premises on the street itself, and the handful of properties on Thurloe Street, while the section they deem to be a failure has a considerable amount of motor traffic – around 15,000 vehicles a day.

Yet this difference is not mentioned, at all.

Instead, the authors attribute the differences in quality to what are, in reality, very minor design details. Indeed, the differences in design have to be minor, because the layout of the street is essentially identical in the two sections that are deemed to be a failure, and a success.


The south section – a supergraphic extends from building to building, across the whole width of the street.

That same supergraphic, extending from building to building, across the same width of street.

North of the Cromwell Road – the same supergraphic, extending from building to building, across the same width of street.

This continuity of design is even more obvious in aerial shots of the whole length of the road.

Picture from here.

Picture from here.

The main reason for the difference in quality is obvious – the north section is a busy road and car park, while the south section isn’t, carrying only a negligible amount of traffic on what is actually a minor access road. 

The southern section of Exhibition Road is not a useful route for motor traffic. So it is only used for access purposes.

The southern section of Exhibition Road is not a useful route for motor traffic; anyone accessing it will be sent back where they came from. So it is only used for access purposes.

So while the authors observe that ‘the rebuilt road changes character as it goes north’, they fail to remark upon the principal reason why this is so – very different levels of motor traffic.

The reason the southern section – which has the same street layout as the northern section – feels like ‘a piazza’, and ‘a small-scale, comfortable space’, and where people will actually want to sit out on the street and eat a meal, or watch people walking by, is because it is not full of motor traffic. Nothing more, nothing less.

Is this failure to recognise the importance of motor traffic levels important? I think it is. I think it explains why towns and cities have been so ready to embrace ‘shared space’ as an apparent solution to the problems with their roads and streets. Current levels of motor traffic on a given route are taken almost as innate, an essential characteristic that cannot be changed. It’s background; the ‘problem’ to be solved then becomes one of how to arrange that motor traffic on the street, how to manage its interactions, how to make it ‘behave’, rather than one of determining the function and purpose of a road or street, and determining the level of motor traffic it should be carrying accordingly.

Dutch access roads work well because they are designed to eliminate through traffic, often in very subtle ways – an arrangement of one-ways, for instance, or simply a fast, obvious parallel road. The success of these layouts actually has very little to do with the design of the streets themselves.

The children are able to play safely in this residential street in Gouda not because of any 'shared space' or similar treatment, but because this is not a through-route for motor traffic.

The children are able to play safely in this residential street in Gouda not because of any ‘shared space’ or similar treatment, but because this is not a through-route for motor traffic.

Streets like the one in the picture above are designed the way they are because motor traffic has largely been removed from them; they are not designed that way in an attempt to mitigate the effects of motor traffic. They are able to function as ‘shared’ because of low motor traffic levels; their design is essentially a bit of icing on the cake.

Of course at the other end of the scale, by ignoring the reality of motor traffic we risk designing inappropriate ‘sharing’ into roads that are far too busy for anyone too actually consider sharing, creating (at some expense) what amount to fairly conventional roads, but ones that have serious downsides for groups like those who are not included on the carriageway or the footway, or those with disabilities like visual impairment. Roads that will continue to function as distributor routes for motor traffic should be designed with the needs of all users in mind, even if in practise that means a dilution of the ‘placemaking’ value of any redesign.

We ignore the importance of motor traffic at our peril.

This entry was posted in access roads, Shared Space, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Blindness to motor traffic

  1. rdrf says:

    And of course we had a Road Traffic Reduction Act brought in by New Labour, dropped like a hot cake by the Government. (It could have specified MOTOR traffic, as I’m glad you do above).

    • T.Foxglove says:

      All the Act did/does is to require local authorities to prepare reports relating to the levels of local road traffic in their areas. It defines ‘local road traffic’ as to mean “…traffic consisting of mechanically propelled vehicles on roads for which the Secretary of State is not the traffic authority”

  2. Schnauzer Minelli says:

    There are also plenty of examples in DeBouvoir Town in Hackney. Simply close the roads to through-traffic et voila! Unfortunately, there is only one example where I live in Harringey (Hermitage Road). This should be the norm for residential roads!

  3. KristianCyc says:

    Oh my….that analysis is staggering, what blinkers! It’s almost orwellian in its ommission

    • Har Davids says:

      Talking about elephants in the street; you can hardly miss a vehicle that outweighs its user by a factor of 20, whereas a bike weighs a fraction and a pedestrian doesn’t add any weight to the street at all.

  4. Cyclestrian says:

    I think they do get it, but they can’t quite seem to say it. E.g. “sets the space off from the through traffic” They see through the transient use of the street though and fail to consider the parked cars as ugly fixtures and the through traffic as omnipresent.

    I hate this street – walking from tube to Science Museum with kids is unpleasant and feels unsafe. This must be one of the most walked-by-children routes in London and what do we do? Provide a gold-plated car park and put the kids in a stinky subway.

  5. The noise from motor traffic also has a big effect on whether a street can act as a ‘place’. When you are in a car, you are blissfully unaware of the noise you are creating. When you are on the pavement, noise can be a problem, but it is usually possible to walk close together and hold a conversation. On a bike, the traffic noise is dominant.
    When I cycle on quiet streets towing a child there is plenty of chat, singing and pointing out of interesting things along the way. When we move onto the main roads our conversations reduce to yells of “can’t hear you”, “too noisy”, “wait until we get to a quiet bit”.
    It’s similar on solo bikes where conversation is limited to stretches of the road where there is space to ride side by side without holding up motor vehicles and, even then, is likely to be punctuated by abuse from drivers who are offended at seeing people riding two abreast.

  6. canamsteve says:

    I think this project was a bit crippled by the fact it spans two boroughs – Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. In fact, the change occurs just in front of/between the museums, often resulting in unexpected parking fines for “residents”. The two boroughs had to agree on the details and it took forever.

    I lived nearby 15 or so years ago, when vehicle access to the westbound A4 was via a busy right-turn from Exhibition Road or a byzantine U-turn/left turn from Queen’s Gate. The southern “plaza” section you describe was then equally busy as it was the main connection south.

    Eventually, a right-turn lane was added from Queen’s Gate to Cromwell Road and I think it was expected that southbound traffic would use the new “invisible roundabout” at Prince Consort Road to scoot over to Queen’s Gate – thus avoiding the “semi-pedestrianised” part of Exhibition Road. Keep in mind Hyde Park is just above this area and Exhibition Road connects with the road across the park and is a Black Cab favourite. I say invisible roundabout as the brickwork somewhat camouflages its existence – you sort of have to know it is a roundabout in advance. No doubt here have been a few accidents as a result.

    The biggest problem in this area is simply lack of capacity for the available traffic. I’m no fan of making more space for cars – heck, ban all private motor cars from central London – but this entire area is very limited in options for vehicles. Scotch Corner and its constant traffic jams is to the east – the park to the north. Westbound options are either the A4/Cromwell Road or High Street Ken. Look at the map and note how there is no way through westbound (past Gloucester Road) between HS Ken and the A4 (some very rich folk, perhaps?) I think we can agree the A4 is accepted as a major London feeder road? I wonder what other major cities would plan a route like that past such magnificent and important structures.

    So, traffic – even if only buses and the guy coming to fix your toilet – has to go somewhere. And there is just not enough capacity here. It was probably one of the least-likely places for such a traffic-calming objective to be met. I’m amazed it works as well as it does.

    • pm says:

      “So, traffic – even if only buses and the guy coming to fix your toilet – has to go somewhere.”

      But does so much of it have to be motorised? Surely if there’s a shortage of capacity, its all the more important that more of it be a more space-efficient mode than cabs and private cars?

      (And I doubt the guy coming to fix my toilet takes a black cab!)

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      The keep left and right signs in the StreetView image are hilarious. Probably didn’t feature in the original plans eh?

      However, to use Katja Leyendeker’s likening of active travel in motor-centric communities to swimming in polluted waters; not severely curtailing traffic movements along Exhibition Road (a museum district of international importance, remember) is simply letting the polluters carry on polluting (this is of course, also literally true). Condoning or attempting to justify this, or simply turning a blind eye, is at best short-sighted.

      Anyway, here’s a StreetView pic of the Grand Place in Brussels – note the presence of necessary motor vehicles – one may even be there to fix a toilet.

      What’s not to emulate?

      • canamsteve says:

        Simply put, central London cannot sustain private motor car use. In many cities, the only private cars are those belonging to that area’s residents, which can be housed in nearby underground and multifloor car parks (not outside your front door in what could be a bike lane). There is almost no reason for private car owners to drive into or in the city. However, should they want a car to drive outside the city (rural public transport is poor in the UK and getting worse) I think some accommodation should be made.

        People in Kensington & Chelsea can (or at least were) able to drive from their Notting Hill houses and park as “residents” in front of the museums (in the K&C area) since K&C resident parking permits (of which there are twice as many as there are parking spaces) were “borough-wide”. This actually encourages inner city car use. Madness. At least Westminster has (for at least the time I’ve lived here) restricted resident parking (which is not free, but still too cheap) to the small zone you live in.

        The Brussels reference reminds me of my days touring Europe on two wheels (a motorcycle, though). In almost all European cities, you can pretty much park a motorcycle anywhere that it doesn’t block progress. But in London, motorcycles and scooters are – if anything – persecuted, rather than encouraged. I wonder why? Another example of the car-first bias among the ruling elite?

  7. Of course traffic volume makes a difference, Mark, and we say that many times in the book. When you’re writing about 150 streets, you say different things about different streets.

    I have said in Twitter exchanges with you that the biggest problem on Exhibition Road is that the cars go too fast for it to be called “shared space.” It shares that problem with other shared spaces in England, but it’s interesting that the English critics seem to focus instead on traffic volume.

    Take a look at the Wikipedia entry on shared space. When it gets to national variations, Britain has far and away the longest section, and it focuses on traffic volume. In fact, one reads there that “The Department for Transport’s “Manual for Streets” reports that “subject to making suitable provision for disabled people, shared surface streets are likely to work well where the volume of motor traffic is below 100 vehicles per hour (vph)(peak)”.[36] Maybe the British focus on this contributes to too many shared spaces where the cars are going too fast.

    That is not what Hans Mondermann, the godfather of modern shared space said. Maybe that’s why he was able to make high-volume shared spaces that work. And a friend and colleague here has just submitted a paper to the Transportation Research Board in which they study high-volume shared spaces that work. I haven’t read the paper, but he tells me one of the most important factors was that the cars go 17 mph or slower. I will let you know when it’s online.

    That does not contradict what I said above. Design is all about context and solving problems. One-size-fits-all solutions will frequently produce places that don’t work.

    • Andy R. says:

      “And a friend and colleague here has just submitted a paper to the Transportation Research Board in which they study high-volume shared spaces that work.”

      I’m not being funny, but what’s your definition of a shared space that works? The phrase ‘shared space’ suggests an equality between users, where everyone is comfortable and no-one, particularly vulnerable users like peds and cyclists, feels bullied. However, looking at videos, Laweiplein (1) is basically a roundabout with some fountains on the periphery, no pedestrians appear to be claiming the centre of the Drachten de Kaden interchange (2) as a ‘place’, and Donkerbroek (3) – where apparently “all the lessons that have been learnt” have been put into practice – speeds less than 45kph are deemed a success. Again peds are not to be seen, never mind claiming their place (and space) as equals. These are very different visions of what shared space is compared with that sold to us in the UK, where apparently one should be able to cross an intersection with ones eyes closed in complete safety.


  8. PS: Now that I think about it, I visited Exhibition Road four times and never saw it with a lot of traffic. I’m sure you’re right that there are times when it was a high volume road, but that definitely was not the problem when I was there.

  9. canamsteve says:

    Further to my stroll through Kensington Gardens, I also walked down Exhibition Road. As noted in my comments above, the southern part of the road has residents parking for K&C. It was chock full – not a spot available and I must say a fine display of central London ironmongery – Range Rovers, Jags – not a Prius or G-Wiz to be found.

    Oddly, the northern, Westminster residents parking was almost empty. Three cars and at least 50 empty places? Whatever could be the difference? Well, having lived in the area, I know it is Zone A. Zone A is tiny – wedged in under the park, against half of Queens Gate and forming a small triangle down toward (but not reaching ) Cromwell Road. With Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Art, Imperial College and the museums taking up the bulk of the real estate (many, I might add, with their own private encouraged-to-drive-to-work staff parking) there are very few spots. And the only people who can park in the Westminster spots are Zone A residents, who by definition live within a few blocks – hardly worth driving as your spot around the corner at home would be gone later.

    Now, no doubt a few crafty profs at Imperial, or admins at a museum have invested in a pied-a-terre in Westminster Zone A – possibly let out to students but with that important local address for parking? But compared to the K&C free-for-all, quite a difference.

    I also studied the “shared use roundabout” previously mentioned. It’s a bad mix – locals and taxis “know” so whip around at regular (30 mph) speeds, while tourists and pedestrians approach with caution. I saw no cars yield to pedestrians waiting to cross and no more courtesy was displayed for those already in the road than you would see at any roundabout (pretty much none, although I didn’t hear any taxis hoot at pedestrians with the temerity to cross in front of them). Funny how there is a Highway Code rule (“give way to pedestrians who are already crossing the road into which you are turning ” that is almost universally ignored by London Cabs)

  10. David Fisher says:

    My wife took the kids into London for the day just yesterday, and after describing all the fun they’d had, she said “…but let me tell you about EXHIBITION ROAD! It’s appalling! Our son nearly got run over because neither of us realised it was a through road, there are no kerb markings, nothing!”


    Our son is nearly 6, and has been trusted to happily walk along pavements and stop at kerblines almost since he could walk. He’s not stupid. But Ex Rd doesn’t follow “the rules”. How’s a 5/6-year-old (or their non-traffic-management-fad-aware mother) supposed to know what’s going on?

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