GREEN STREETS ARE 'NAKED' STREETS
Removing 'clutter' can help to reclaim our streets and make them safer.
INITIALLY I WAS far from enthusiastic about helping Green Party Stroud District Councillor Sarah Lunnon research traffic engineering. The world of traffic and traffic management seemed cold, unfriendly, uniform, predictable and vehicle-orientated. Answers to reducing dangers on our roads, beyond cutting car use, appeared to lie only in further segregating vehicles and pedestrians by adding more signs, barriers, signals and road paint. Indeed, encouraged by a reduction in casualty figures for such an approach, I was one of those who had previously supported more road humps, bumps, chicanes, warning signs, protective guard rails, and so on.
My interest in the research was sparked when Sarah pointed out that a closer look at the statistics shows that this approach has come at a cost: the UK's record for child safety is one of the worst in Europe and we have discouraged cyclists and pedestrians from using our streets. She went on to outline a new approach to traffic engineering that turned upside down much that I held true.
This new 'shared spaces' approach has been dubbed 'naked streets' by some, because it includes removing highway signage, traffic lights, speed bumps, centre lines and even pedestrian crossings - but there is much more to it than that.
It started some twenty years ago with Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who was one of the first to challenge the prevailing view that traffic and pedestrians should be segregated. He found, in his hugely successful experiments, that by emphasising context and integrating drivers into the cultural and social world of the village or town, he could significantly improve safety, reduce speeds and enhance the built environment without adversely affecting traffic flows. In fact, in many areas congestion was reduced.
Recalling his first project, Monderman said, "When we do traditional traffic calming with speed bumps we typically expect about a 10% drop in speed. But with no disincentives, the speed was down by almost 50% - down from 57 km/h to under 30 km/h. I could not believe my eyes. All we had done was make a village look more like a village."
Monderman's work showed that it was essential to make explicit the transition between the traffic zone and the shared spaces of the public realm in our towns and villages. The work of behavioural psychologists has since supported this: high-speed roads demand different cognitive skills from those of shared public spaces. The traffic zone requires standardised, simple, repetitive signs and signals, but if these are present in shared spaces then people are less responsive to normal human behaviour. Hence cycle lanes can bring benefits in a traffic zone but help less in shared spaces.
In other words, it is only when the road is made less predictable and less certain that drivers will stop looking at signs and start looking at other people. Urban design specialist Ben Hamilton-Baillie observes, "Instead of relying on the street system for security, drivers are forced to use their reactions."
David Engwicht, author of the excellent Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic, notes that a child playing on the pavement can be more effective at slowing traffic than a speed hump. The speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have psychologically retreated from their street. By reversing this retreat we create 'mental speed bumps' in the street.
Here at last is a Greener approach to traffic engineering: a more diverse, unpredictable, voluntary, personal and people-orientated approach. An approach that has parallels in the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, which are about striking a balance and living everything better in our hectic modern world - about recognising the benefits of doing things in a more human, less frenetic manner.
In Drachten, Holland, a busy intersection with over 22,000 vehicles a day has been redesigned without signs as a more attractive integral part of the town's public realm; as a result, congestion and safety have improved. It is even claimed that you can safely walk backwards across the intersection with your eyes closed.
SUCCESSES LIKE DRACHTEN have led to schemes in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden and Spain. The UK has been slower, but it is starting to explore these ideas. In a pioneering scheme in Kensington High Street, London, guard rails were taken down, resulting in a significant drop in injuries, while the busy shopping area of Shrewsbury High Street has been much improved by removing the usual signs and signals. Other schemes are planned around the country, including an ambitious project for London's Exhibition Road.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Women's Institute and English Heritage are all pressing for changes of this kind to the look of our streets. Nottingham City Council has even appointed a 'Clutter Buster' to remove redundant signage and street furniture, including over 10,000 'No Waiting at Any Time' plates.
To me it is astonishing that it has taken us so long to wake up to the visual impact of our roads. Public involvement in architectural decisions is rightly taken for granted, but such debate about what happens to our streets is virtually non-existent. Too readily we have accepted the ugliness of standardised traffic engineering as an inconvenient necessity for safe and efficient traffic flows.
Some 30-40% of public space lies in the realm of the traffic engineer. If we wish to make our cities, towns and villages more coherent and more liveable then we need to give more consideration to this. Bill Bryson, English Heritage Commissioner, has said, "Nothing says more, nor more immediately, of how a nation feels about itself, than the way it dresses its streets."
We have seen too many of our communities destroyed by some of our traditional approaches to traffic. This new approach is a breath of fresh air and it shows us how we can rebuild communities, reduce personal injuries and collisions, encourage more pedestrians and cyclists, improve our built environments and bring benefits to our local economies. And with the added bonus of cuts to congestion, no-one can dismiss it as a Green anti-car campaign. Indeed, it is gaining cross-party support in many councils.
Here in Stroud, Sarah easily persuaded me to research and co-write a report on these ideas, and this is now available online. Publication of the report led to a conference for local councillors, police, traffic engineers, contractors and others. As a result, there are moves to explore possible schemes locally.
A growing number of us across the country see that a traffic engineering revolution is on its way - a revolution that brings the benefits mentioned but is also about restoring respect. Shared spaces give people back responsibility - a responsibility they will know how to use.
The report, 'Better Streets for Stroud District', by Philip Booth and Sarah Lunnon, has been warmly welcomed by many including Mahmood Siddiqi, Chief Traffic Engineer for Kensington and Chelsea, Jenny Jones, Mayor of London's Road Safety Ambassador, Road Safety groups, and John Whitelegg, Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool. It can be downloaded free from the Reports section at www.glosgreenparty.org.uk.