Town planners may sell us the idea that their futuristic vision of uncluttered roads is best for everyone – but is it really? Having heard both sides of the debate I’m now not so sure…
As Miranda Akhurst wrote earlier this week, the last bendy buses ran their final routes last Friday. I for one am glad to see the end of these dangerous beasts, which cyclists have been forced to share the bus/cycle lanes with.
The ‘Routemaster-esque’ replacements are due in February. At least they’ve been designed for London’s streets and not, like bendy buses, transplanted from airports, where road widths aren’t an issue and there are few pedestrians and no cyclists to consider.
I haven’t lived in London for more than thirty years, but I do work there and I’m on the streets (on foot and by bike) daily. I attended the third national Sharing the Street conference recently and, bizarrely, there was no mention of the bendy bus.
But there were lots of examples of congested, chaotic inner-city cross roads, (portrayed as concentrated accident black-spots). Then we were shown idyllic scenes – unfamiliar and futuristic – where cars give way to pedestrians as a matter of course, and all is well in the world. And all this apparently while improving safety and without reducing traffic flow.
After the first presentation, a lady stood to speak in response, referring to a Dutch study that looked at a set of ‘blind tests’. As a Which? researcher, I’m very familiar with blind tests! Whether it’s testing washing-up liquid in the lab or asking the public to taste strawberries or champagne, a blind test can quickly gauge which one is the best.
But this lady wasn’t talking about strawberries or champagne. She was challenging these new, safer, ‘shared streets’ because when you remove the ‘furniture’, (eliminate the kerbs, get rid of formalised crossings and essentially remove all the hard, physical markers) anyone who can’t literally ‘see’ the change can find it unusable.
A blind person may not simply get lost (that would be bad enough), but they may even be led, by a well-trained but unsuspecting guide dog, into the path of equally unsuspecting drivers.
Don’t design out important features
The man who originally presented the Dutch study admitted that in one of his trials all the blind people involved had become completely disoriented, failing to navigate the new ‘shared’ streets completely.
I acknowledge that there’s a lot to be improved with street design. And not just in cities, but towns and villages where ‘community’ seems often to have been neglected, also need new measures to control traffic.
It’s amazing what town planners are expected to do simply in order to prevent drivers from having to wait a few minutes in traffic during one or two peak hours a day. I welcome a fresh approach to street design (especially the abolition of those awful bendy buses!).
It’s all too easy to be taken in by the superficial ‘before’ (scruffy street, chaotic and slow moving, or stationary traffic) versus ‘after’ (neat, new designs and traffic flowing slowly but freely and people milling around, seemingly relaxed) demonstrations. But let’s not be in too much of a hurry to repeat the mistakes of the past by ‘designing out’ important features, crucial to some folk who may end up with streets they can’t share at all.