User experience

When designing road and street space, it should be quite obvious that the safety and comfort of the people using that space should be a prime concern. Indeed, the design itself should be informed by the preferences of the users. Yet far too often those wishes and preferences are simply ignored or discounted, because they conflict with some other design goal.

Perhaps the classic example of this is ‘shared space’, or at least specific elements of it. (I use the term in inverted commas because the use of it is now so widespread it has essentially lost meaning). In a number of high profile schemes, the comfort and convenience of users – particularly people walking and cycling – ranks second behind an apparently more important design aesthetic that involves reducing conventional highway engineering to the absolute minimum.

Frideswide Square in Oxford is one such ‘shared space’ scheme where user preferences have been ignored. Campaigners argued  – long before the scheme was built – that providing no cycle-specific space would be a recipe for conflict. Double conflict, in fact. Conflict on the road, where people cycling have to mix on a narrow carriageway with  heavy traffic –

… And conflict on the footway, where people walking and cycling will also have to share space, rather than each mode having its own clearly distinct provision.

In addition, pedestrians have to make do with ‘informal’ crossings, rather than crossings which would give them certainty, or priority. Bizarrely Oxfordshire County Council seem to think this would be ‘unbalanced’.

In both cases – the lack of cycling infrastructure, and the lack of pedestrian crossings – what people using the road would actually prefer has been completely ignored. People walking don’t want uncertainty; they want safe crossings. They don’t want to share footways with people cycling either. Likewise people cycling don’t want to mix with pedestrians on footways, and they don’t want to mix with heavy traffic. They want their own dedicated space. But as John Dales astutely put it – in this case, the ‘sharing’ language of the scheme has become a dogma that overrides basic consideration for users.

There’s a similar (although less serious) problem with the Tavistock Place scheme in London. At Byng Place, the ‘shared space’ paving provides some degree of clarity between the footway and the carriageway – a kerb line, and a small height difference. However, it provides absolutely no distinction between cycling and walking. This means that people walking on the natural desire line – as shown below – will often be completely unaware they are walking on one of the busiest cycling corridors in London.

Just as this gentleman was doing earlier this week.

So while this might look pretty – a nice sleek surface – it’s not very good for the people who are actually using the street. People walking have no idea they might be coming into conflict with people cycling – it just looks like an expanse of pavement – and people cycling have to slow, and negotiate their way around pedestrians. It would be far better to have some visual clarity about what kinds of modes are expected where – a space where pedestrians know they won’t encounter people cycling, clearly distinct from an area where cycling will be expected, and relatively unimpeded.

This expectation that lumping cycling and walking together is actually better than separating the two modes modes is particularly prevalent in parks. The underlying logic often seems to be that providing a defined cycling space will result in speeding (or ‘speeding’, given that what actually amounts to speeding is never clearly defined), or ‘territorial behaviour’ on the part of cycle users. People cycling are then expected to somehow behave like pedestrians.

But again, is this actually what people want? Do people walking in parks really want to have lots of unexpected encounters with faster-moving cycles, wherever they are walking? Or would they have the certainty of clearly-defined space where they know they will be free from these interactions?

A prime example of this is the route across Hyde Park Corner for both people walking and cycling. There is essentially only one way across this very large traffic island, given there are only two crossings, at opposite corners.

That means that everyone walking and cycling is following the same line, indicated by the blue arrow. As everyone is heading in the same direction, it would surely make sense to separate the two modes, to reduce (or even remove entirely) conflict between them, with a clearly distinct cycle path on the north side. There is plenty of space here so neither mode would have to be forced into a cramped area as a result of this design separation.

But instead we have a situation that isn’t good for either mode. Every time I cycle through here, I notice how people walking have to deal with cycles taking unexpected routes around them – either through the centre of the arch, or to either side of it. In turn people cycling have to negotiate the unexpected movements of people walking.

Hyde Park Corner – an unpredictable mix of people walking and cycling

All of this conflict could be removed by placing cycling in a clearly defined space, leaving the rest of this large area free for pedestrians to walk and wander in peace.

As with the ‘shared space’ examples, we have a design approach that doesn’t actually work  for the people walking and cycling through the space in question. If you stopped and asked people at Hyde Park Corner whether they like the existing unpredictable melee of walking and cycling – with people whizzing past them unexpectedly –  or whether they would prefer cycling to be placed somewhere they wouldn’t have to encounter it, I am 100% certain everyone would opt for the second option. Likewise I am 100% certain people cycling would like to be able to traverse this space without having to deal with pedestrians.

Yet in response to the recent ‘Superhighway’ consultation on this area, a combination of Transport for London and the Royal parks rejected such an approach, plumping instead for a widening of the existing shared area – which in my view simply increases the amount of space in which uncertain interactions can take place.

All these examples illustrate a reluctance to design for how people actually behave, and for what they actually want – these (allegedly) simpler designs actually create more conflict and uncertainty, and are poor for both walking and cycling. We aren’t asking people what they want – instead we are building schemes that look pretty but don’t reflect user preferences. The question is why we keep doing it!


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16 Responses to User experience

  1. Pete says:

    I cycled through Hyde Park corner for the first time the other day and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. The mix of pedestrians and cyclists is really horrible and as a newbie (i really don’t know the area) it was actually difficult to navigate. I’d come in for Paddington down a very clear, well defined route which just peters out and I had no idea whether I was supposed to cycle, get off my bike or even go through the archways to get to my destination.

    If anything it would only take 5 minutes of time stood watching it all for the powers that be to realise it doesn’t work, no need to even ask anybody. The contrast with the defined, segregated parts before and after throws it all into sharp relief. I’m actually dumbfounded that this is the permanent design because this simply can’t be the final design! I assumed it was a stop gap whilst they prepared to do better.

    Its probably only a matter of a short period of time before there are “cyclists dismount” signs

    • Pete says:

      I would also add that the presence of the E-W route was the only reason I came by bike, I’d have used the tube if it didn’t exist; as I have every other time I’ve been to the big smoke.

  2. There’s an interesting background to the Byng Place scheme. Back before it was implemented in 2000, Camden’s plan included a two-way cycle track, with kerbs, alongside the road, roughly where the red line is drawn, though the track curved. This brought down the ire of Camden’s heritage department who objected to having a ‘trench’ (their exaggerated description of a cycle track) that curved across the space. This objection was based on aesthetic grounds as they said Byng Place was a London square and the curving trench would destroy the aesthetics of the square. Their case was damaged when it turned out that they didn’t know when the Place had been built. They also had no answer to the observation that Byng Place was not a square, but, as the name suggests, a Place, an odd linking space for two different developments that didn’t meet up. To try and assign Byng Place as a square was the real assault on the Place’s heritage. After making such a poor showing with their arguments, Camden decided to go ahead with the cycle track when the cycle route was put in. However, shortly later Camden went from Labour control to Conservative control. The Conservatives took up the anti-cycling theme and spend a lot of money removing the cycle track in order to implement the current botch. It is not irrelevant that the heritage lobby did not notice or see any problems with diagonal traffic flow across the ‘square’ that they imagined it should be. I’ve tweeted a photo of Byng Place before the cycle route at:
    The above account is not an attack on the Conservative Party, but a neutral statement of what happened. I happily acknowledge that London’s (CSH) cycleways were introduced by a Conservative mayor and his plans for more such cycleways are being progressively dumped by the present Labour mayor.

  3. Ollyver says:

    By contrast, compare where CS5 crosses from Harleyford Road to Vauxhall station. The original designs were for the cycle track to simply give up, and for the pavement to be a big shared space area at that point.

    We went along to the consultation, and pointed out that this was nuts. As pedestrians crossing regularly from the station, we didn’t want bikes everywhere. And cycling through crowds of people is slow and tricky.
    “Do you have any suggestions for solving it?” asked one of the very helpful TfL engineers discussing it with us.
    “Well, no. But if we can’t figure out a conflict-free route looking at diagrams for five minutes, how do you expect people on bikes to figure it out in the moment?”

    A lot of other people must have made the same point. Because when the cycle route opened, there was a separate bike path across the junction, and different signal phases for pedestrians and cyclists. And I’ve not had a single awkward interaction as either a pedestrian or in my new role – thanks to the protected tracks – as a cyclist there. And there are a lot of people on foot and on wheels there.

    Hyde Park Corner is the exact horrible uncertainty we foresaw at Vauxhall, and I hate it as both a pedestrian and a cyclist. Even without pedestrians, cyclists don’t even necessarily keep left with the super wide crossings at each end, so I worry I’m going to end in a head-on collision with someone one day.

    At least at Byng Place, there there is a single obvious route for cyclists to take following the kerb, and only ever in one direction, so pedestrians know how to get out of the way when a dozen people roll up behind you. Well. Local pedestrians know, and why would there be non-locals walking between an international rail station and the British Museum?

  4. Dexter Johnstone says:

    Bizarre justification for shared space from Sheffield City Council redevelopment officers:

    ‘“Cyclists have a high awareness of pedestrians in a shared space, tending to ride around them or give way … These interactions reduce the speed of cyclists, thus minimising risk of incidents.”

    So mix people walking and on bikes, to slow the people on bikes down, to reduce the risks of collision. If that is a problem then why mix them at all?

  5. ORiordan says:

    Hyde Park Corner is made even worse by the phasing of the lights. When you get a green at one crossing, regular cyclists know that to get a green at the next crossing, you need to sprint. Travel at a slower speed and you get a red and a long wait.

    So not only is there no separation between cyclists and pedestrians, the light phasing results in a fast moving peleton of riders who want to get green.

    There could be “green wave” phasing of lights with timing based upon a target speed but I’m sure that will have been rejected because of impact upon motor traffic.

    It really is bad there because a lot of pedestrians are tourists who are out for a relaxing stroll but find themselves at the end of a sprint stage with no barriers…

    • I go round the island with the motor traffic for this reason. Not quite sure if I am mad or not….

      • Years ago, when I was a student in London, I had no choice but to go round the island and down Park Lane and round Marble Arch on a 3-speed Raleigh with the motor traffic. 40-odd years later you would have thought the authorities had more sense.

  6. Bmblbzzz says:

    I think expecting cyclists to behave as pedestrians with wheels is the general root of the problem. Of course, some are willing to accept this and ride at walking pace or little more in return for protection from motor traffic, but others would prefer to mix with cars and lorries rather than ride so slowly, and this exposes another problematic attitude; treating everyone cycling as one homogeneous group.

    • Successfully done though in places such as the Netherlands. Mass cycling lends itself to a large degree of homogeneity.

      • Paul Luton says:

        Yes but you have to have a design speed that is reasonably acceptable to (practically) all. Walking pace isn’t.

      • Bmblbzzz says:

        Really? Surely the more people you have doing one activity, the greater variety of people there will inevitably be. Added to which, a frequent complaint about UK cycling is that it is dominated by ‘mamils’, in both gender and attitude if not age, compared to countries like NL where it’s the transport choice of a wider cross-section of society. What might well be true though is that better facilities for cycling allow the fast and the slow, the competitive and the pootlers, to coexist within the same broad space (or on the same broad path).

  7. Bmblbzzz says:

    Thinking about pedestrians and cyclists sharing space and also picking up on mass cycling as mentioned by paulgannonbike, there are cycle paths here which are differentiated from their neighbouring footways by surface colour and texture, height, bike symbols and the presence of lane lines, yet still they are full of people walking on them. I suspect there are two reasons for this (that come to mind – probably more can be found): that cycling on these paths is not yet ‘mass’ enough for the distinction to be self-enforcing; and that the space available to pedestrians is itself insufficient. Photographs of city streets before ~1918 frequently show people walking in the carriageway; there wasn’t enough traffic, and what there was wasn’t fast enough, to make it worth not using.

  8. Pingback: User experience) As Easy As Riding A Bike

  9. Mark Williams says:

    The wishes (or even fundamental needs) of some classes of traffic are ignored or discounted because they are quite simply not considered to be the relevant customers, legitimate users or barely even members of the same species. Likewise, the laws of physics, value for money or any sense of professional pride are way down the list of priorities in our corrupt, Thatcherite hodgepodge of government. Virtually all UK highway ‘engineers’ in the public or quasi-private sector are motorists first and foremost and know full well that there is an endless stream of cash for that and practically no accountability whatsoever. But they also have a reasonable fear that they will be ostracised within their own ‘industry’ if they don’t show sufficient ideological commitment to the motoring cause. So it should come as no surprise that they deploy extreme laziness, arse-covering, jobsworthiness, discrimination, work-to-rule, theft of resources, divide-and-conquer, etc. when it comes to the deplorably non-motorised.

    IMO, the most feasible remedy to this is scorched earth rather than trying to appeal to the better nature of the perpetrators.

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