The latest trend in street engineering is shared space. It sounds great: the street belongs to everybody, Motorist, pedestrian and cyclist, and we all look out for one another and show some respect. It’s a reversal of the forced traffic management: the curbs and railings that segregate vehicles from people; the feeder lanes and traffic lights and one-way systems that take decisions about traffic flow out of the hands of the Motorist; the crowds of warning signs and prohibitions, all shouting information at the Motorist who is treated as too dim to work it out for himself; and the omnipresent bollard, that cares for those Motorists who really are too dim even to read the signs. The idea is that with everybody sharing the road space, we will all have to adopt a different attitude: a new culture will emerge. We will all be forced to act responsibly and courteously; Motorists will have to drive carefully, pedestrians will have to stay aware of their surroundings, and we will all have to give way until it’s our turn.
It’s a reversal of decades of ever more elaborate schemes to manage traffic and the harmful effects of urban private car use.
It’s nice. It seems like a cute idea. My immediate reaction is to like it. And it’s a popular one. All the urban planners and sustainable transport groups are saying what a miracle cure it is; all the journalists are falling over each other trying to share the shared space in the transport utopia that is Drachten in the Netherlands. Politicians are falling in love with the money-saving planning philosophy, and the first samples are being put in place in Exhibition Road and in towns around the country.
But after further contemplation, I find that it says something very interesting about traffic management and the state that we have got ourselves into. It says that traffic management has failed.
Traffic lights and bollards were not invented to fill a void in council expenditures. They were invented to solve real problems that had existed without them, real problems that, if left unsolved, would become unbearable. They are there for a reason. The widespread use of oversized and overpowered private vehicles in cities causes dozens of major problems: the symptoms of a car sick culture are problems with space, pollution, impaired mobility, conflicts, health, and many more; symptoms that authorities have so far attempted to manage. The management methods for traffic problems that the planners developed were not random. They were based on evidence of their efficacy. They worked. But now, with more management schemes than ever, the city is also more blighted by the problems of traffic than ever. We have failed to acceptably manage the symptoms of car sickness for many reasons: because drivers adapted their behaviour around the management schemes; because the roads filled with too many conflicting schemes; and most of all, because over the years the roads filled with traffic, more traffic than could ever be managed.
The idea that shared space might now eradicate the symptoms of car sickness in the city seems optimistic. The assumption is made, perhaps, that the reason why traffic management failed — the huge growth in traffic density — is the same reason why, when we revert to pre-traffic management streets, we will not simply revert to pre-traffic management problems. And certainly the absurdly optimistic assumption is made that, while magically solving all of our existing problems, shared space will not create entirely new ones.
Shared space might be a miracle cure. But it might just as plausibly be a desperate and unrealistic last-ditch attempt to justify continuing to allow masses of inappropriate private vehicles on London streets that manifestly can not handle them. Sixty years of experiments have been conducted, attempting to find a way that the mass use private cars and fleets of taxis might be compatible with the narrow and complicated streets of London. Every experiment has failed. Rather than giving in and acknowledging that mass car and taxi use simply can not work in central London — can not be managed except by physically barring it — the politicians and planners seem to have decided to start over at the beginning, and run all of the experiments one more time.
Miracle cure or last-ditch reprieve for a failed system: my first and second gut reactions. Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at where the evidence is pointing — right now, I’ve no idea which way it’ll go.