Tag Archives: tower hamlets

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.

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Superhighways

Otherwise known as “motorways”.  Freeways.  Die autobahnen.  A road specifically designed for those whose journey takes them quite some distance, designed to carry a large volume of traffic at speed.  They have special engineering features and special rules and regulations.  Junctions are grade separated such that through traffic can sail past unperturbed; there are no zebra crossings for pedestrians, level crossings for railways; the carriageways are wide, to accommodate vehicles of a variety of speeds and power.  No bicycles, no farm tractors; cars and motorcycles must meet a minimum power requirement.

What’s a “cycle superhighway”?  What special engineering features and special rules and regulations are they marked by?

Blue paint.

Certain cycling campaign groups, political parties, and local authorities subscribe to a belief that cyclists should be on the road, in traffic.  There are good reasons for this belief, and I agree with it: the road is a much better way for a cyclist to get around London than any of the variety of styles of pisspoor cycling infrastructure put in by the boroughs, and we should certainly be doing all that we can to reclaim the City and West End streets from the Motorist for the people.  The problem is that the aforementioned organisations are dogmatic in this belief.  They believe that all cyclists should be in traffic, all of the time.  But a street lined with bus stops and 25 sets of traffic lights per mile is not the best that we can provide for cycling, any more than it would make a suitable intercity infrastructure for a Motorist.

A true cycle superhighway, providing an efficient and safe route between the parts of London where people live and the parts where they work, would have some specific engineering characteristics.  It would not be a lame blue strip along the side of a road, too narrow to accommodate the required volume of cyclists and variety of cycling abilities, surface smashed by the buses, air stuffed with the fumes of the trucks, too saturated with signals and crossings to allow reasonable journey times.  Nor would it be like the embarrassing wastes of money that are our current selection of useless and dangerous segregated roadside bicycle paths; the ones that weave through street furniture, over kerbs, in and out of traffic, and force the cyclist to stop to cross every small side-road.

A true cycle superhighway is a cycling freeway.  It is not shared with inappropriate transport modes: no cars, no buses, no motorcycles.  It does not have level intersections with roads: minor roads that cross its path cease to be through routes, while major roads fly over or under, with slip lanes for access.  It can accommodate high volumes and variable abilities — at least two lanes in each direction, with a verge for those who need to stop.  And it’s straight enough, flat enough, and smooth enough for people to cruise uninterrupted at speed.  It looks a bit like the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, the arterial cycle path through north-east Bristol along the route of an old railway: gentle gradients, gentle radii, and no level-crossings with roads.

If London were serious about cycle superhighways, that is what it would be building.  In the outer boroughs the superhighways would follow suburban streets that have been fully closed to other traffic — having the beneficial side-effect of making neighbourhoods more pleasant as they are freed from speeding taxis taking short-cuts through residential streets.  As they reached the inner boroughs they would converge to continue as elevated cycleways, often alongside or above existing railways — in the south, for example, three great arterial routes alongside the elevated railways that come in to London Bridge, Elephant & Castle, and Waterloo; finally converging, perhaps, upon a de-Motorised Southwark Bridge.

That would be expensive, compared to a few barrels of blue paint.  But the pay-out would be huge.  It’s called “investment”.