Tag Archives: london

Insults, injuries and incompetence

Boris shouldn’t just apologise for blaming cyclists for getting injured. He should correct the policies that are based on this mistake.

It will come as news to nobody that making a journey by bicycle on Britain’s roads means exposing yourself to a considerable number of people who are operating potentially lethal machinery despite having neither the skills nor the temperament for the task. The fact that a significant proportion of the people society has allowed to drive on the public highway are simply not competent behind the wheel is far from a new phenomenon. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for starting this blog two and half years ago.

Over those years the blog has strayed off into all sorts of other areas, like designing out the need to deal with incompetent drivers entirely, but the original issue has been back at the top of my mind — partly due to the other thing I’ve been working on. Mostly, though, I think it’s because of the forceful reminder of the fact that comes from moving to SW17, just off Cycle Superhighway 7. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, or perhaps it’s simply the psychological bias towards to the recent, but after a New Cross-Bloomsbury commute, the roads between Tooting and South Kensington seem to have more than their fair share of the sort of motor vehicle operators who demonstrate a screaming lack of the aptitude and/or attitude that the activity requires.

It’s particularly highlighted in south west London by the near zero speed limit compliance around CS7 between Kennington and Clapham outside of the rush hour congestion, and the folk using the bus and cycle lanes to pass already speeding traffic as they try to get their high-powered cars — which I’ve always presumed must be stolen from the West End — back to Stockwell and Streatham. Or the few folk who still insist on commuting to the City by car, desperately seeking a ratrun back to the Surrey suburbs and not allowing any of LB Wandsworth’s traffic calming to slow them down as they slalom in and out of cycle lanes on residential streets like Burntwood Lane…

Burntwood Lane, LB Wandsworth

Morons in South West London just see traffic calmed residential streets with schools on them as the next level up in the game. Few of the bollards shown remain in situ.

And yet there is one person to whom this blindingly obvious problem might have come as news, at least until recently: Boris Johnson. During his successful campaign for re-election in the spring, the famously carefree with facts Mayor made the absurd claim that two thirds of cyclists who had been injured and killed on the city’s roads were breaking the law when they were injured. After months of pretending that he was trying to remember what the evidence for the obviously fictional factoid was, he finally retracted it — once the election had long passed.

Last month, Jenny Jones MLA asked the mayor to apologise:

In your response to question 2450/2012, you admit that Transport for London’s statistics and research completely disprove your previous claim that two thirds of cyclists who have suffered serious injuries were breaching the rules of the road at the time. Will you now apologise for wrongly blaming cyclists who have been killed or injured on London’s roads through no fault of their own?

The mayor instead decided to send a great big “fuck you” to victims:

Please refer to my response to MQ 2450 /2012.

But it seems to me that Boris has much more to make amends for than merely insulting the victims of bad driving and the way we operate our streets, and he needs to take far more substantial action than making an apology.

Because Boris is responsible for the problem, and if he really has been labouring under the delusion that it is cyclists who are responsible for the carnage on the capital’s streets then his mistake would at least explain why his policies have so far failed to do anything to address the problem.

The office of Mayor of London has always incorporated the role that in the rest of England and Wales is now played by the recently introduced Police and Crime Commissioners. Policing priorities are therefore ultimately Boris’s responsibility. And there is no remotely realistic policy in place for tackling the problems of life-threatening incompetence, aggressive anti-social behaviour, and barefaced criminality amongst operators of motor vehicles that is on near constant display every evening along Cycle Superhighway 7 and the residential streets of south west London. Boris has allowed deadly dangerous driving to carry on as the norm, apparently because he was oblivious to it, preferring to pursue policies targeted at changing cycling behaviour.

He has added insult to injury and he needs to apologise for both.

The M4 bus lane (repeat)

I heard Radio 4 news report that the Games Lane™ on the M4 in west London came into force today and that there had been “no noticeable effect on the rest of the traffic”. Of course there was no effect on traffic: the Games Lane™ is just the old M4 bus lane, de-restricted in 2010 by the then new government. The bus lane was just an engineering hack, and abolishing it was always a pointless political gesture that could do nothing to help the Motorist. This seemed like a good excuse to re-publish this 2 year old post on why.

I rather let the announcement of the removal of the M4 bus lane pass without comment during the busy period, but with work commencing on painting over the lines, it seems a good moment to revisit the topic. Because while the M4 bus lane was never a remotely important feature of the national or local transport system, and the effect of its removal will be negligible, it has always been of huge symbolic significance.

The short stretch of bus lane at the inner-London end of the motorway was introduced in June 1999 by John Prescott — one of our best and most progressive transport secretaries (one of those non-achievements like “best British cycle route” or “most likeable cab driver”) — and was something new and difficult to understand. The government tried to explain how it would help everybody, how Motorists themselves would benefit from it, but all anybody heard was that the amount of concrete that Motorists could put their cars on was going to be reduced for the first time ever. The media were desperate for it to fail. What if it set a precedent? Take this fabulous rant from a BBC correspondent, in the days before BBC correspondents had their teeth filed for fear that they might be accused of anti-Tory bias.

The M4 bus lane was the symbol of the first government that had ever shown signs of recognising that the country has a dangerous car addition; the first ever road policy whose entire purpose was not to make it easier for more people to drive more cars further and faster. And in the tabloid media fantasy world, that amounted to a declaration of war on the motorist.

The irony is that the purpose of the M4 bus lane was not any different to any roads policy that had come before. It was introduced to smooth the traffic flow: to make journeys faster, easier and more reliable for motorists on the M4. The issue is explained with nice diagrams here. I won’t try to explain the whole thing in words (well, I did try, and failed, and deleted it), but the take home message is that the rate-limiting step for this section of the M4 is a bottleneck at Brentford that can never be eliminated. Where that bottleneck occurs, three lanes became two, causing merging and lane-changing throughout the three-lane section — behaviours which are known to slow overall traffic flow. By effectively making the M4 consistently two lanes wide, the bus lane is in fact a clever hack to make the traffic run more smoothly and reliably. It needn’t be a bus lane at all, it only needs for this section to be consistently two lanes wide instead of three lanes merging into two.

And it works. Despite having less space, and despite the reduction in speed-limit that coincided with the change in layout, journey times for all road users fell after the bus lane was introduced. (Only by seconds — it’s a very short stretch of road — but you know how much a second means to a Motorist.) And with less lane-changing, accident rates fell. Even the Daily Mail had to acknowledge that it had been a successful implementation of an evidence-based intervention for improving journey times, reliability, and safety.

But this was soon forgotten, because it just didn’t feel right. An empty lane that you’re not allowed to use doesn’t feel like it’s helping you when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, especially given the absurd rule that allowed rich businessmen to sail past in their taxis from the airport to the city (and still allows them to do this in most remaining London bus lanes). And the fact that it was a bus lane, not a hatched-out or fenced-off wasteland, seemed to make an important difference to many people — the AA took the bizarre stance that the lane’s success could only be measured in modal shift; that any other beneficial effect would be a failure. By the time Philip Hammond decreed that in the name of ending the War On The Motorist the lane must go and the road revert to three lanes, no journalist could remember it being anything other than Prescott’s folly, a joke on a road that is barely used by buses, and the cause of much Motorist misery. No journalist mentioned that it had once been hailed as a great success independent of its role as a bus lane. No journalist questioned the received wisdom that the bus lane was a stupid, pointless, unfair, in-your-face ideologically anti-Motorist waste of money.

The lane improved journey times by seconds. Removing it will probably worsen journey times by seconds. It will affect cabbies marginally more, and every few days the Motorists will close the road by smashing up their cars when changing lanes. It doesn’t matter; it never mattered. But installing it had the symbolic significance of suggesting that the government might, for once, now and then, just consider transport policies that go beyond Motorism; to occasionally provide for more than just the car user. Its removal is the symbol of the opposite stance: that this government will continue to provide for the car, and nobody else.

But more than that. By removing the M4 bus lane, Philip Hammond is telling us that this government will happily pursue policies that hit the Motorist, so long as they hit the non-Motorist harder. This is the deliberately spiteful act of a government that cares for dogma not evidence.

Clerkenwell Road / Rosebury Avenue

Gray’s Inn Road, bottom left to top right; Theobalds Road, bottom right; Rosebury Avenue and Clerkenwell Road, left and right fork.

Mark commented on an observation that Richard Lewis of LCC made, an aside in his Street Talk last month.

is this street out here [Theobald’s Road] an appropriate location for that type of [segregated] infrastructure presumably segregation?. Or is it kind of a bit ‘I’m not sure?’ Is the volume of cyclists using this street enough to calm the motor traffic down, so that actually it becomes safe and inviting for cycling? Or do you think there should be dedicated infrastructure?’

It doesn’t look so terrible in the photo that Mark used, does it? All buses and taxis, outnumbered by cyclists. But I never got around to posting the footage I captured of the Theobalds Road / Grays Inn Road intersection for the Tour du Danger series last year, shot from outside the newsagents, where the bicycles are chained up and the folk are waiting to cross the road on the left of the photograph…

To really see what’s going on, though, you have to take a few steps back to reveal the conjoined intersection: the fork of Clerkenwell Road and Rosebury Avenue, which you can just see hints off, behind the newsagents in the photo, as YouTube user pgsmurray has done…

Safe and inviting? There’s a reason this junction was in the Tour du Danger. The relatively high volume of cyclists — coupled with the atrocious fast and confusing road design, signalling conflicts, and appalling road use discipline — puts this junction in London’s top ten for cyclist casualties. So much for safety in numbers.

Modal choice in London has generally been less about pulls and more about pushes: there isn’t a Londoner who doesn’t have some complaint about their commute, after all. Very little about getting around London, by any mode, is all that inviting. If a few more people are cycling along this road, it’s probably more about the push of an overcrowded Central Line, of paying to sit in jams going out of fashion with city centre workers, and of poor public transport options in Hackney. For a few — an unrepresentative few — the horrors of all the other options currently outweigh the horrors of cycling along this road. What happens when Crossrail opens, almost directly beneath these roads, and the pushes away from public transport are eased?

Building a policy of cycle safety and traffic calming on a high volume of cyclists on the road is a risky strategy: the volume can go down as well as up. And then you’re right back at the beginning again…

The cycle lobby: Andrew Gilligan messes it up

Andrew Gilligan accuses “the cycle lobby” of thinking only of themselves and not “putting themselves in the heads” of non-cyclists. In-fact, failure to think as a non-cyclist is exactly why the policies of Boris Johnson are such failures.

Despite the “cycling mayor” image he encouraged early on, after four years in City Hall, Boris has been getting a beating from folk who cycle in London. His flagship scheme for cycling was meant to be the Cycle Superhighways, intended to “transform” London, “boost safety” and — independently of all other initiatives — contribute to modal shift to the tune of 120,000 more daily journeys:

“I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power – on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them. That should transform the experience of cycling – boosting safety and confidence of everyone using the routes and reinforcing my view that the bike is the best way to travel in this wonderful city of ours.”

Kulveer Ranger, said: “Cycle Superhighways form a key part of the Mayor and TfL’s target to increase cycling in London by 400 per cent by 2025, compared to 2000 levels. From cycling the proposed routes myself, and speaking to a whole range of cyclists, I’m sure that these routes will prove a hugely welcome addition to London’s cycling infrastructure – giving many more people the confidence to ride”.

But this hyperbole soon backfired on Boris when it turned out that the Superficial Cycleways were, except for sections of existing dedicated infrastructure taken over on CS3, little more than £100 million paint on the road — paint that dances and dodges around petrol power, does nothing to transform the experience of cycling on the capital’s busy arterial roads, and does nothing to boost the confidence of the would-be and wanna-be cyclists that Boris claimed would be attracted by the novel hued bike lanes. Although TfL have been able to claim that there has been a large increase in bike traffic on the Superhighways, they don’t really appear to be doing much to enable or encourage non-cyclists: at most, some existing cyclists have been tempted out of the backstreets and onto the main roads; few new cyclists have been created. The most common question Londoners have about the Superhighways is: are they joke?

Since people started dying on his Superhighway at the Bow junction on the East Cross Motorway, Boris has taken the emphasis off the dozen radial routes which were once “central” to his cycling revolution, and when he does talk about them these days he will tell you that the blue paint is a navigational aid — no mention of excluding “petrol power”, boosting safety, or transforming experience. What were originally sold as part of a cycling revolution which would enable and encourage people to take to their bikes have turned out to be, at best, something to help existing cyclists find their way to the square mile.

This is why Boris has failed on cycling: he’s trying to drive a cycling revolution — more people cycling for more of their journeys — by providing for existing cyclists. Hilariously, Gilligan is so clueless about the substance of the disagreement between Boris and “the cycling lobby” that he attributes this problem exactly backwards:

“Cycle lobbyists need to put themselves in the heads of a non-cyclist or politician most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange the streets for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus.”

Go Dutch, and The Big Ride, are precisely the product of the London Cycling Campaign “putting themselves in the heads of non-cyclists”, and calling for streets to be arranged for the 98 per cent who currently would never dare to cycle on them. The Go Dutch campaign was squarely pitched at the non-cyclist, showing everybody how, with a determined leader, London’s busy roads could be transformed into places where anybody and everybody can use a bicycle, and share in all the benefits that come with cycling. Gilligan seems to think that the campaign and ride was a demand by existing cyclists that they must be pampered and privileged in their niche activity. Far from it. The point that The Big Ride made was that the “cycling revolution” that Boris Johnson promised will not be delivered so long as he continues designing cycling policies and “Superhighways” for the 2 per cent who already cycle. Indeed, many of those who rode with us on Saturday are, on any normal weekday, part of the 98% themselves.

As part of the two per cent willing to — no, no, as part of the one per cent happy to — cycle on the streets of London as they are, Boris is the last person who should be appointed to lead a “cycling revolution” aimed at enabling the 98 who don’t cycle to take it up. He boasts that “scooting down Euston underpass” and around Hyde Park Corner are “no problem” when you’re “used to it”, and his now infamous comments about the Elephant and Castle being “fine if you keep your wits about you” tell you everything about how far he has penetrated the minds of ordinary non-cycling folk.

Boris’s “cycling revolution” seems to be designed around the premise that there is a large population of Londoners who are just on the cusp of taking up cycling and who just need lessons in “keeping their wits about them”, or blue paint and hire bikes to help them to “get used to it”. Boris understands how his 2% cycle so he designs policies for more of it. But the conclusion of last year’s Understanding Walking and Cycling project (admittedly primarily based on research in England outside of London) was that there is no such substantial section of the population just waiting to take up cycling in traffic, ready to be nudged in by one cheap and simple little thing. The Understanding Walking and Cycling project — which has informed and given urgency to infrastructure campaigns like Go Dutch — “put themselves in the heads of non-cyclists” and found that the 98% will not cycle so long as they expected to keep their wits about them and get used to the Euston underpass. There are very few waiting to join the 2% cycling in heavy and fast traffic: if you want a cycling revolution, you have to try something new and different. The 98% look at the policies of the Cycling Mayor and see irrelevant “Superhighways” which they presume must be good for Cyclists but on which they would never dare to cycle themselves. They look at Go Dutch and see civilised dedicated space on which they might. And Gilligoon thinks it’s the latter who are out of touch and appealing to the minority on cycling.

Boris even came close to showing signs of understanding all this when he talked of not having to “dance and dodge around petrol power”. But like so much about Boris, that turned out to be all waffle and no substance.

The problem with Boris and his cycling revolution, and the many reasons why he has messed it up on cycling, obviously go far far wider and deeper than his inability, as a contented member of the 2%, to understand why the 98% are so reluctant to join him. But I’m not sure I can bring myself to write about, or even think about, it any more. Please, just make it stop.

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.

Can road loveliness be found in shared space?

This week, science writer Angela Saini introduced Radio 4 listeners to “shared space” in Thinking Streets.

The premise was that there is currently a “war” between the different users of streets,* that the way to create peace has puzzled policy makers for a long time, but that new research points to shared space as the solution.

The conflict on our streets is real. But I think that’s about all that is correct about the story. How to create peace is not a puzzle: policy makers know how to do it, and have known for decades. And new research doesn’t point to shared space as the answer. There’s really very little of what a scientist would recognise as research in shared space — not because streets are not something that lend themselves to the scientific method, but because, despite the importance of streets to our health, wealth and happiness, the budgets and expertise required for proper research are rarely turned to the topic.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a powerful group of people who have convinced themselves that shared space is the revolutionary solution to the problems with our streets. The programme was largely devoted to the now familiar routine of these shared space evangelists, but there are a number of important things missing from the evangelists’ routine — things that I think would have been interesting to hear about in the “street science” narrative.

The first thing that is missing is the full story of the wider differences between the streets of the UK and those of the evangelists’ preferred example, the Netherlands. The second is the full story of the history of risk compensation on the roads. And the third is the full story of how the UK came to be transforming streets into “shared space”.

The first story is one that readers of this blog will now be familiar with. The Dutch have a far more advanced system of roads and streets than we have in the UK. We just pour asphalt everywhere, preferably in a configuration that allows people to drive fast, sometimes put a footway on the side, and then let people drive cars and trucks anywhere and everywhere.  The Dutch, meanwhile, take care to distinguish between roads, streets and lanes, build them differently, and have clear and widely understood differences in the expected use of and behaviour on them. And they build them following the principles of “sustainable safety”: ensuring that users share space only with other users who have roughly similar kinetic energy and direction.

That last point should have been made when introducing what the programme calls “home zones” (though British “home zones” have never fully replicated the Dutch woonerven). Woonerven apply the sustainable safety principle that you only mix users who have roughly similar energy — by banning heavy vehicles, and cutting the speed of the remaining motor vehicles to a crawl. “Shared space” may share some of the superficial characteristics of woonerven, but the crucial one for making people safe and comfortable is the equality of energy.

These wider differences between the UK and the Netherlands are important. They mean that Dutch drivers already understand streets differently to British drivers. And they mean that the Dutch have a vastly different proportion of journeys made by bicycle. The demands for, purpose, effects, and success of novel street designs are therefore going to be different in the Netherlands than equivalent changes in the UK.

The second story that was missing from the programme was about risk compensation. The evangelists told the usual story to explain how shared space is supposed to work: “an environment that overtly keeps us safe makes us behave less cautiously, whereas a shared space makes us more sensible.” Motorists, the story goes, will see the unfamiliar shared space street scene, with its jumble of different users and lack of signs to tell them what to do, and their automatic response will be to slow down and pay more attention. Pedestrians and cyclists, meanwhile, will respond to the increased sense of danger and discomfort by pricking up their ears and keeping their wits about them. Risk compensation, the story goes, means that in shared space everybody will become friendly, with drivers giving way and letting pedestrians cross.

This is little more than a just-so story. Even in the Netherlands, the evidence that it actually happens this way is weak and far from scientific. In Britain, though, it can be outright contradicted by ten minutes hanging around any shared space street. Taxi drivers still speed up Exhibition Road (if there isn’t a traffic jam already blocking the street). Traffic still completely dominates the seafront at Blackpool, and the blind and disabled now stay away from it. There’s not much friendliness from the white van men at Seven Dials. “Where once you would feel crazy walking on the carriageway…,” they say of Exhibition Road. Well, observations of the scheme so far suggests that pedestrians and motorists alike will view anybody on foot who casually “shares” the carriageway — walking outside of the clear pedestrian “safe zone” — to be crazy, and will shout and blast their horns at such people.

Saini observes that in the Netherlands cars “just stop” for pedestrians trying to cross the shared space. London cabbies and commercial drivers on a deadline don’t stop for red traffic lights, let alone mere pedestrians trying to get in their way. That Dutch drivers do is less a product of the shared space environment and more to do with the fact that the Dutch recognise a fundamental difference between “roads” and “streets” and how people are expected to behave on them.

Risk compensation theory is legitimate science, but in shared space the theory is applied to explain a phenomenon that, at least in the UK, just doesn’t exit: motorists becoming more cautious and friendly. In fact, the results of risk compensation can be seen all over British streets, and risk compensation on the roads has been a powerful force shaping our behaviour, built environment, and health and wealth for almost a century. But with the exact opposite effect of that claimed for shared space.

The Rt Hon JTC Moore-Brabazon recognised the existence of risk compensation when he said, in objection to the introduction of speed limits in 1934:

“It is true that 7000 people are killed in motor accidents, but it is not always going on like that. People are getting used to the new conditions… No doubt many of the old Members of the House will recollect the number of chickens we killed in the old days. We used to come back with the radiator stuffed with feathers. It was the same with dogs. Dogs get out of the way of motor cars nowadays and you never kill one. There is education even in the lower animals. These things will right themselves.”

When people feel unsafe and uncomfortable, they stop doing whatever it is that makes them feel that way, or stop going to the places where they feel unsafe. It is entirely true that, as the programme says, “an environment that overtly keeps us safe makes us behave less cautiously, whereas a shared space makes us more sensible.” The environment that overtly keeps us safe — and which has kept us more safe with every technological innovation and toughened standard — is the interior of the motor car. In the safety of the motor car people behave without caution. The result is that everybody else feels less safe and compensates by getting out of the way. We walk less and less, bundle kids into SUVs for the school run, and most people will now never consider using a bicycle. JTC Moore-Brabazon recognised this process of risk compensation in the 1930s.

The shared space/risk compensation hypothesis is not simply a just-so story. It’s a just-so story that ignores all of our previous experience of streets. When pedestrians and cyclists felt uncomfortable and threatened by the rise of motor traffic on their streets, they compensated by getting out of the way. They went somewhere else, or swapped the bicycle for a car of their own. So when the programme says that, statistically, Dutch shared space is at least as safe as the traditional streets that it replaces (it’s probably not (p10)), far from being proof that those streets are working because “everyone becomes aware of each-other”, it is in fact just another consequence of the most vulnerable road users staying away from those streets. The increased risk of collisions and injuries on these streets is compensated for by those people who are most likely to get injured — the pedestrians that schemes like Exhibition Road are supposed to attract — staying away.

The final story that is not properly explored is why Britain is building shared space streets and other “road loveliness”, as the programme puts it, such as the scramble crossing at Oxford Circus. The programme’s only comment on this was that we are now designing places for people instead of merely designing places for cars. In fact, designing successful places for people has been going on for a long time. To create them, you first get rid of cars. In his 1995 Reith Lecture, “The Sustainable City”, Richard Rogers described all the opportunities that came from removing motor vehicles from places, and listed some of the top priority places in London that needed the treatment. The terrace in front of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square was one, and this was implemented in 2003, creating a largely pedestrianised zone between Trafalgar and Leicester Squares. One side of Parliament Square almost followed, but the plans were cancelled when Boris came to City Hall, and our politicians now seem determined to keep Parliament Square as an isolated and desolate traffic island forever. A riverside park in place of the Embankment road from Parliament Square to Blackfriars Bridge was the most radical of the suggestions, and the one that politicians wanted least to do with. And then there was Exhibition Road:

Albertopolis – the collection of major museums and universities in South Kensington, including the Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum – could be connected across the road into Hyde Park. Exhibition Road could become a pedestrianised millennium avenue, part of a network of tree-lined routes.

Exhibition Road has been transformed because the case for transformation was overwhelming. The need to make a more attractive environment and the opportunities and benefits of a place for people were obvious. But shared space is a miserable compromise. Shared space on Exhibition Road is not an alternative to the old four-lane highway layout, a layout that everybody already agreed could not be allowed to stay on such an important street. It is an alternative to the much needed and long called for removal of the motor vehicles, which will now continue to dominate the space, continue to separate Albert, perched in the park, from Albertopolis, and continue to choke South Kensington with pollution.

Far from being a case of people reclaiming the streets from cars, Exhibition Road and Oxford Circus are examples of places where traffic has succeeded in clinging on to its ownership and dominance of streets that so obviously needed to be properly reclaimed. None of the great economic and cultural opportunities that Richard Rogers described have been enabled by the changes. No modal shift, no health or environmental benefits will result from them. It was built — for £30 million — but they won’t come for fancy paving alone.

(I don’t think the programme makers can be blamed for failing to discuss these points — the fault lies with the shared space True Believers. Shared space is currently very trendy in a field that doesn’t have much experience with scientific skepticism. There are a lot of people who desperately want it to work and so have convinced themselves that it must work — as one person tweeted, if Jeremy Clarkson is a critic, it must be a good thing. Steve Melia is one of the few academics to have tried to introduce some of the much needed scientific skepticism — and I imagine the publication of his paper came too late for the programme.)

Shared space is the topic of next week’s Street Talk: Stuart Reid, Director of Sustainable Transport and Communities, MVA Consultancy, will talk about Creating successful shared space streets, followed by a chance to raise questions. As usual it’s upstairs at The Yorkshire Grey, 2 Theobalds Road, WC1X 8PN at 7pm (bar open 6pm) on Tuesday 10th January.

* illustrated by broadcasting sound bites that included the sort of massacre fantasies that would, with any other kind of weapon, result in arrest, but for some reason never does when the weapon is a motor vehicle.

Street greenery

Lining the pavements on Holborn last new year.