Rolling back shared space in the East End

Brick Lane

Brick Lane by stevecadman on flickr (cc by-nc-sa)

As the builders move out of the newly completed £30 million “shared space” on Exhibition Road, their next job might be the polar opposite project: rolling back shared space from Exhibition Road’s geographical opposite street. Tower Hamlets council, with £300,000 from TfL, have announced that in the next few weeks they will be replacing the bricks of Brick Lane with a standard issue asphalt carriageway.

I don’t know if Brick Lane has ever actually been claimed as “shared space”, but from my recollection of its construction (and it’s the best part of two years since I was last there, so recall is assisted by flickr and Streetview) it certainly falls within the spectrum of “shared space” that Stuart Reid described at last month’s Street Talks. Though it is not without signs and bollards, and even a bit of guardrail outside a school, it does have features that encourage mixing more than conventional road design. There is delineation between footway and carriageway but it’s blurred, with no kerb and with only a slight difference in the style and colour of the block paving. I don’t know the street well enough to know whether this really gives users the feeling that pedestrians own the street, but that did seem to be the case on those few occasions that I’ve been there (though I know that construction of the East London Line extension closed the top end to traffic for a while, and it might still have been benefiting from that effect last I was there).

It’s not clear whether the works will reintroduce the kerbs, but the council reveal a lot when they say that the reason for replacing the paving with a conventional surface, apart from the fact that the paving is looking “scruffy” (is it?), is to “help to distinguish space for pedestrians from traffic”. That is, this is an explicitly anti-shared space move, intended, perhaps, to put pedestrians back in their place.

I’ve written several pieces critical of shared space. In high-profile cases it has been applied in inappropriate places — to big and busy through routes like Exhibition Road, where traffic will dominate and drive everybody else out simply by weight of numbers. Its True Believers at the extreme “naked streets” end of the spectrum emphasise their discredited hypothesis that giving motorists a free reign will make them more cautious and courteous, and so shared space is often applied in a way that allows motorists to bully their way to dominance. And unrealistic claims are made about the benefits of shared space for pedestrians and cyclists, usually involving anecdotes about crossing the road while walking backwards with your eyes closed.

I can now redress the balance and defend the weaker form of shared space at Brick Lane. Brick Lane is a far more suitable candidate for shared space than most of the high-profile schemes. It is already a narrow single-lane one-way street with a high pedestrian to vehicle movement ratio — a high place status, in the jargon, and little importance as a transport route. And there is none of the “increasing motorist freedom is good for pedestrians” pseudoscience in Brick Lane’s current design, just a few features that help to slow drivers down and make things easier for pedestrians.

Caution infernal traffic
Brick Lane by duncan on flickr (cc by-nc)

(If traffic volume is a bigger problem than I remember then more can be done to discourage non-essential traffic from using the street. Reversing the direction of the one-way traffic south of Hanbury Street, perhaps, so that it can not be used as an inter-arterial rat-run all the way from Whitechapel Road to Bethnal Green Road. And of course, the while lot should be two-way for bicycles. It would also be nice if there weren’t quite such a vast amount of (often illegally) parked cars.)

Brick Lane is exactly the kind of narrow city street — important place for people but unsuitable for and unimportant as a transport route — where shared surfaces could be beneficial, and where, in my (very limited) experience, they’ve been working better than in most of the high-profile shared space schemes. Spending £300k rolling back shared space here while spending £30m installing it on the other side of town seems daft.

Tower Hamlets have been promised a lot of money for all sorts of public works and events, having completely missed out on the Olympics to neighbouring boroughs. You’d have thought that a scruffy inner-city borough like Tower Hamlets would have been able to come up with a long list of worthwhile public works. This one just looks like construction for the sake of construction, with some silly rationalisation.

Friday photo: a handsome Raleigh tourer

On the urban motorway that is Whitechapel.  Whitechapel should be the quintessential neighbourhood High Street: it has the tube station, the bus stops, the shops and pubs and library — sorry, “Idea Store” — and the street market that these vans supply.  As Andy Cameron would put it, Whitechapel has a very high “place status” — it is not an anonymous transport route but a destination, somewhere people go and things happen.  It’s not a part of London that I frequently have reason to visit, but every time I do it is packed with people living their lives.

And yet the powers that be have for decades put Whitechapel the place secondary to Whitechapel the A11, TfL trunk road.  This is a High Street on only one side of the road; the other has withered and died because crossing the four to six lanes of traffic has been deliberately made as difficult as possible with the use of metal barriers and cages to supplement the barrier of fast moving rivers of traffic.  There are a few official crossing points, where crowds gather as the signal timings make it clear how much their time is valued relative to the other road users’.  The High Street and street market is being prevented from reaching its full potential, as growth is limited not by lack of interest from businesses or customers but by lack of space — space that is currently given to the movement and storage of cars.

Isn’t it interesting how we always manage to find room for the storage of cars?

What I don’t understand is why the bicyclist chose to chain to a signpost, instead of the excellent cycle stands nearby?

Looks like the signage has suffered from some strong winds...

If you’re interested in the colourful transit van, check out this week’s Spitalfields Life for an explanation.  The vans are essentially storage for the market traders, who seem to be subverting the fact that society tolerates using the streets as free storage, so long as you’re storing a vehicle-shaped object.

More photography and prints for sale at my photography site.

Cycle superhighways: are they a joke?

That’s the most common question asked in the responses to the London Assembly transport committee survey

Thanks to Jim who pointed out in the comments to the Cycle Superhighways Report post that the raw data from the survey is actually publicly available for us to play with.  (I <3 data, so Jim’s London geo data visualisation blog is the latest addition to my googlereader.)

The GLA have kindly published the raw data from the survey online:

I’ve done some quick sums, which indicate that you’re right about the difference between the two routes. Of the 135 respondents who said they used SH3, 53% said they felt safer, compared to 36% of the 303 who used SH7.

You can do a variety of other breakdowns from the raw data if you’re interested. And the ‘other comments’ parts are fascinating.

So users of the more off-road CS3 have a more favourable view of the relative safety of their route than the main-road CS7 users, though even on CS3 TfL can hardly claim an overwhelmingly positive response.

The other thing that interested me was the group of 11 respondents who said that they had taken up cycling because of the Superhighways — which superhighway had converted them.  Well it’s 4 of the 135 CS3 users and 6 of the 303 CS7 users.  One person who said that they had taken up cycling because of the cycle superhighways stated that they had not used either (“none in the area I want to ride”).  Of the 4 CS3 users, however, two said that they had been cycling in London for longer than 6 months, and one of those had only used CS3 once, so perhaps they had clicked the wrong options.  Of the 11 individuals who stated that the cycle superhighways converted them to cycling only 5 use them more than once a week.  Note that a number of people stated that both the bike hire and superhighways together converted them to cycling — 14 CS7 users and one “occasional” CS3 user.

I don’t know what these numbers mean.  CS7 is better at converting people to cycling than CS3?  People in the CS3 catchment area were already cycling on its precursor segregated bike paths so there was nobody to convert?  They might mean nothing at all, the numbers are really too small for any serious scholarly analysis.

Below the fold are a few quotes from the responses… Continue reading “Cycle superhighways: are they a joke?”