Pedestrians take to the streets; motorists learn to coexist

Author: 
Philip Langdon
New Urban News, December 2010

Britain is energetically designing streets that intermingle foot and vehicular traffic; the US follows ever so cautiously.

Maybe it’s a reflection of American car culture. Or maybe it’s a sign of how risk-averse the United States has become. Whatever the reason, the US is a long way from catching up to Europe in designing streets that allow the flexible, unchoreographed mixing of cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians.

A recent presentation by Ben Hamilton-Baillie at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, highlighted how far Europe, and especially Great Britain, have gone toward letting motorists and pedestrians sort things out for themselves rather than having traffic engineers impose a strict order on circulation.

The Netherlands pioneered much of Europe’s modern work in “shared-space” streets, under the influence of traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Since Monderman’s death in January 2008, the United Kingdom seems to have taken the lead, thanks in large part to Hamilton-Baillie, whose Bristol, England, firm, Hamilton-Baillie Associates, has designed the UK’s most notable shared street spaces.

Monderman advocated getting rid of the welter of traffic signs, pavement striping, and other devices intended to regulate conflicting modes of traffic. He believed that human beings — whether in motor vehicles, on bikes, or using their own two feet — could intuitively adjust their movement and manage to cross the streets and squares safely.

Monderman operated mainly in small towns, where traffic tended to be light. There it was fairly easy to count on pedestrians and motorists to keep an eye on one another, thus avoiding accidents. By contrast, Hamilton-Baillie has introduced the shared-space idea to streets in the center of a great metropolis —  London.

You might think that where motorists are much more hurried and numerous, they would pay less attention to pedestrians. Yet in London and elsewhere in Britain, the results have been encouraging.

This year Exhibition Road, a much visited street that connects some of London’s major cultural institutions, is being redone. The southern portion of that thoroughfare, traveled by 9,000 vehicles a day, is being reconstructed with a paving pattern that helps tie together the museums, Imperial College, and other institutions.

Formerly a route that, according to Hamilton-Baillie, “had no coherent pedestrian spaces at all,” Exhibition Road is getting a walking and driving surface covered with a diagonal pattern of large squares. The conspicuous checkerboard pattern tells motorists they’re entering a special place, where the imperative of speeding from one point to another must give way to other priorities.

Instead of sidewalks higher than the street, the walking surface is almost level across the entire right-of-way. Pedestrians don’t feel constrained to remain at the edges of this striking urban space; they saunter across. Tall light poles on concrete bases, which would be considered hazardous objects by conventional traffic engineers, rise from the center of the street, introducing a complexity that causes drivers to proceed cautiously.

Exhibition Road was the result of a competition in which Hamilton-Baillie — who calls himself an architect, urban designer, and “movement specialist” — served as an adviser to the winning designer, Dixon Jones Architects.

One of the design’s virtues is that it accommodates the ways that people naturally behave; instead of insisting that pedestrians cross only at right-angled corners, it lets people cross diagonally along much of the roadway. You wouldn’t think of doing this on an expressway, Hamilton-Baillie acknowledges, but it’s acceptable in many city and town settings that are meant to be welcoming to pedestrians.

In Ashford, Kent, a ring road that had an average of one death per year has been redesigned to offer a boulevard experience, with the roadway visually narrowed and distinctive places created along its length. At one point, motorists confront what looks like a large rusty nut in the roadway. “Is it a traffic roundabout?” Hamilton-Baillie asks. “You’re not sure.” Thus motorists let up on the gas pedal.

Initially, for the Ashford project, “There was a barrage of skeptical press; ‘millions will die,’” was the prediction, according to Hamilton-Baillie. But in the two years that the redesigned road has been in operation, “we’ve had one grazed knee so far,” he reports. Why? Partly because of reduced speeds.

“The design speed was 19 mph; the actual speed is about 21 mph,” he says. “A speed of 18 to 21 mph is safe. Humans can withstand an impact of about 21 mph.”
Of the road in Ashford, he says: “It’s a space that has begun to give us confidence that there’s another way of thinking about streets.”

Risk is good

Hamilton-Baillie is an engaging story-teller, and a listener sometimes senses some exaggerating going on. But his fundamental point seems sound: When traffic speeds are brought down to the teens, cities can eliminate the rigid divisions between the realm of motor vehicles and the realm of pedestrians.
Risk, he says, is not something to be eliminated from the built environment. He cites a British thinker,

John Adams, author of the 1995 book Risk, in arguing that “we need hazards in order to know how to respond to our environment.” Perhaps the most extreme example is a primary school in Utrecht, Holland, where the playground spills out into a street. “You’re absolutely aware you’re driving into the playground,” Hamilton-Baillie told an audience at the Lincoln Institute, a think tank that sponsored his talk to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. “Children need to learn about traffic. Where better to learn than on the playground?”

No playgrounds have yet been built in the streets of the UK, but other thought-provoking places exist. At Seven Dials in Covent Garden, London, a monument stands in center of a complicated intersection, with people gathered ‘round. “It’s been in this form for 22 years,” Hamilton-Baillie says. “It’s the safest junction in London. Pedestrians take little notice of the drivers. Drivers pay attention. Civility is inherent in that process.”

Poundbury, the traditional town that Leon Krier designed for Prince Charles in southwest England, provides another example of safety being achieved despite departures from the principles of conventional traffic engineering.

“Poundbury created a very different model,” Hamilton-Baillie says. It has “none of the distant sightlines” that engineers demand. Yet “in 17 years there has been no blood on the streets of Poundbury, as far as we know.”

Turning off traffic signals

“Governments assume they can use signs to save people the need of thinking,” Hamilton-Baillie asserts. But in doing so, they “misunderstand the intelligence of people. People aren’t idiots. But if you treat drivers like idiots, they tend to act like idiots.”

In recent months there have been a number of experiments in Britain with turning off traffic signals. In Portishead, outside Bristol, expensive traffic signals were switched off for four weeks in a trial in September 2009. Since then, they’ve remained off, he says.

Objections to shared-street designs have been raised by the blind and visually impaired, many of whom feel they need curbs and other predictable physical demarcations to avoid walking into traffic. There are ways to provide indicators to the blind in a shared-space street, Hamilton-Baillie responds. On Exhibition Road, a dark gray line of granite, raised about 1.25 to 1.5 inches, with a bullnose face, runs up the street. “It gives some tactile guidance,” he explains. “There are a series of grooves parallel to the line of the street, like a corduroy groove. People can pick it up with a cane or with thin-soled shoes, or a guide dog can follow it.”

Last September the UK Department for Transport released Manual for Streets 2, a publication that Hamilton-Baillie welcomes as a sign of growing official openness to civilized street design.

“The notion of the street serving a multitude of functions” is reemerging, Hamilton-Baillie says. Streets are increasingly seen not simply as traffic conduits but rather, as social places that should complement their surroundings. The goal, he emphasizes, is to give streets “the qualities of individual place.”

On Tuesday, December 7, New Urban Network will post a story on shared space street efforts in the US. Update: story link here.

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