As Easy As Riding A Bike

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.

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.

And 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.

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.

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.

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; 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.

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.