Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Thinking Streets - what about delight?

A 30 minute item on BBC Radio 4 tonight reviewed new science in 'thinking streets' - with the byline "the streets beneath our feet are getting smart". Contrasting with the ecological-political reference of the situationists' cry "beneath the pavement, the beach", the 'smart' street reference was a 'geeky' one. The UCL Pedestrian Accessibility and Movement Environment Laboratory was featured, where the presenter Angela Saini (author of Geek Nation) visited the "world's largest model street" and seemed fascinated with the iris tracking technology mounted to her headset.

Besides Nick Tyler and the UCL's PAMELA Lab, the programme featured the design of newly completed Exhibition Road, although the presenter did not explain the important difference between shared surface and shared space there. Cycling was discussed (LCC going Dutch), and the pioneering Dutch work of Hans Monderman, Hans De Jong, and of UK's Ben Hamilton Baillie on shared space. John Adams' work on risk compensation theory was incorporated as good background context, and Simon Christmas' work on moral models for 'road users' was introduced

A distinction between roads and streets was not made, something I consider significant, given the programme title. Streets in urban areas have a major public realm function, while roads are often designed primarily for movement. This principle, spelled out in the Manual for Streets (2007 and 2010), and reinforced in the London Mayor's 'Better Streets' guide book of 2009, still seems to elude Transport for London in its press releases about its work in central London, on its 'Transport for London Road Network', on 'Mixed Priority Routes', on High Streets and on urban movement arteries. The public realm is overshadowed by 'road' engineering. Engineering design methods for motorised movement on roads still dominate, and the built legacy of postwar highway engineering remains widespread. The sensory architecture and ambiance of streets as public places remain at a disadvantage.

The issues the programme raises about shared space and risk compensation theory were thought provoking for the concept of sharing the public realm, in my view, unlike the science methods used in PAMELA Lab, however important their work on materials testing and accessibility prototyping of tactile surfaces and proprioception analysis certainly is. In the context of Simon Christmas' research on individual and collective moral models people use when occupying the street, a code of behaviour and humanity emerges in spaces, related to the whole environment. The spatial perception of the street is not only a physical and sensory one. Christmas suggests, with the currently topical example that some "some militant cyclists say they don't minding being hated in traffic, so long as they are safe", that safety alone, however, is not enough. Here I concur, that streets - solely by becoming less deadly - will not make for a better public realm, nor be a source of civic pride.

The streets laboratories and roads engineers have 'overlooked' one part of the Vitruvian triad of the conditions of (good) architecture, 'Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas' (Firmness, Commodity and Delight). Smart streets should be intelligent in a humanistic, social way, by activating humane and social qualities in users, promoting civic consciousness and pride. Technological and engineering methods, however technically 'smart', will struggle to achieve this. As Christmas says, "happy streets" or "lovely streets" would be a more worthy aim - public places where people enjoy their lives being in the city.

from BBC

Thinking Streets
The streets beneath our feet are getting smart. Pavements are melting into the roads and traffic lights are disappearing. Inspired by the work of scientists and engineers in Holland and Japan, this is a revolution in urban design. Part of it is a movement known as 'Shared Space', which promises to dramatically change the way cities look and how we experience them. In Thinking Streets, Angela Saini asks if all these ideas really fulfil the promise of making us all safer, happier and more efficient?
Two years ago, at the heart of London's shopping district, a strange thing happened. The big red buses, white vans and black taxis that usually skimmed pedestrians as they tried to beat the maddeningly slow grid of traffic lights at Oxford Circus, were stone still for thirty seconds. And suddenly every person standing at the junction scrambled into the middle of the road.
In one stroke, life changed for the 90 million people who step through Oxford Circus every year. Not only has it made life easier for those on foot by giving them 70% more space, it's also faster and looks neater. In 2010, the council even claimed that it contributed to a 7% rise in annual sales in the area's shops.

The Oxford Circus diagonal crossing was one of the first steps in a growing movement to change streets in Britain and all over the world. Today, engineers at Imperial College London are helping to overhaul South Kensington's museum district, with pavements being levelled down to the same height as the road and new criss-cross paving patterns designed to calm drivers (the scheme is nearly complete and the result is striking if rather disconcerting). In Portishead, near Bristol, a trial that removed traffic lights from a notoriously congested crossing was such a success there are plans to roll it out across the town. Other schemes already constructed include Brighton's New Road and another in Ashford, Kent. But Shared Space has been labelled 'speed-bump science' by its critics - Jeremy Clarkson among them. True, one of the guiding principles is reducing traffic speed, often with the use of raised brick-paved areas (very long speed-bumps!) but proponents insist Shared Space is a creative and radical solution aimed at improving the experience of all road users. And the benefits go beyond reduced accident rates to a host of socio-economic benefits for the cities, towns and villages choosing to adopt such schemes.

In practical terms, a shared space scheme will involve removing the distinction between streets and pavements. No barriers, few if any road markings, no pedestrian crossings, and little in the way of street signage. The result of this street minimalism is that you enter a shared space very much at your own risk. And this is the key to improving safety, traffic flow and quality of experience. The early roots of this innovative concept lies in the work of the late Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman. A passionate advocate of shared space, Monderman and colleagues started small - more than twenty years ago, converted an intersection in the northern Dutch province of Friesland from a conventional signal-controlled intersection to a brick-paved street, giving equal priority to cars, people and cycles. The idea was that people would use their own minds in navigating the streets, building their own informal traffic rules. Research has shown that these kinds of shared spaces automatically reduced traffic speed to under 20 mph - the threshold at which the chances of being severely injured in a road accident plummets. This highly counterintuitive approach - increasing risk decreases accidents is finding favour (albeit slowly and not without opposition) all over the world.

Today, Monderman's vision can be experienced throughout his Dutch province of Friesland, no where more so than in Drachten, an unassuming town that until recently was famous only for being the home of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. As Angela discovers for herself, Drachten's shared space schemes (and those of its near neighbours) now attracts a regular pilgrimage of engineers and planners, from all parts of the world, eager to experience this new urban vision.

Episode image for Thinking Streets

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