Rides & Routes


Cycle Life


1887 Sketchbook

New pages



Site Map


Civilized Streets?

Twenty one million motor vehicle journeys are made each day in London. The average speed is 9 mph. Gridlock is a constant and growing threat. There are half a million cyclists using the same roads.

No mode of personal transport is more efficient than a bike in an urban environment. But in using space more effectively than either pedestrians or motor vehicles, the cyclist often attracts unfair criticism from those who have little knowledge of the twilight world between the piety of the pavement and the mad world of the drag strip.

Does there need to be a radical re-evaluation of road space? This will shortly be answered in a paper, Civilised Streets, to be published by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. The following is some of the thinking we hope it contains.


Simon Jenkins The Guardian - Friday 29th February 2008

Drivers and pedestrians negotiating shared space is shown to cut accidents and traffic, yet flat-earth planners won't believe it

Best news this week is that traffic police in Timisoara, Romania, are to have ballet lessons. Videos revealed an "awkwardness and lack of elegance" in their movements, confusing drivers and impairing road safety. Their instructor in pirouettes and pliés claims that Swan Lake offers the best role model, a nuance lost on me. Sadly, the police would not be wearing tutus but will perform in standard-issue uniforms.

Traffic police have long gone out of fashion in British cities. They have been replaced by technology, otherwise known as traffic lights. The common assumption is that this constitutes an advance, a machine being invariably better than a human. This is untrue.

Cut to Professor John Adams of University College London. Meeting Adams is to feel like an Inquisitor grappling with Galileo. He persists in rejecting received wisdom. In his virtual world, white is black, mad is sane and the Earth is round, when everyone knows it is flat. Among other things, Adams has long regarded seat belts and crash helmets as lethal, a menace to public safety. They raise the personal risk threshold and, while making the wearer safer as he drives faster, cause more injury to others. Needless to say, Adams has figures to prove it. He also thinks traffic lights should be banned, along with stop signs, zebra crossings, kerbstones and railings. The reason is not that he is a libertarian nutcase but that they kill people.

Traffic lights force drivers to watch and obey robots rather than other road users - an obedience not enforced to the same degree on pedestrians, skateboarders or cyclists. One result is that zebra crossings are dangerous because drivers are no longer used to eye contact with other road users. Technology makes them drive like zombies.

Traffic lights, like one-way systems, are also hopelessly inefficient allocators of road space. Even in London's busiest streets, half the tarmac is vacant, waiting for a light to release vehicles on to it. Many British streets are so empty they might as well have shops and houses built over them. We build over countryside but treat roads as sacred.

The concept of traffic-light removal is simple. It is that all users of public space adjust their behaviour to that of others, balancing a measure of danger and risk in return for convenience. Drivers undirected by signs, kerbs or road markings are faced with confusion and ambiguity. Since they do not want to cause accidents at junctions, or damage their cars, they reduce their speed and establish eye contact with other users.

I recently watched the result of a traffic-light failure in London's Portland Place. Two things happened. One was that drivers opened their eyes and scrutinised other drivers and pedestrians as the intersection became like an American "flashing amber". The other was that traffic flowed steadily over the crossing without being held for minutes while nothing moved. Drivers instinctively policed the crossing and rationed the road space on their own.

While the concept is not universally applicable, for instance on access to main arteries, it is no longer radical. Across the world, except in Britain, the so-called shared space movement preaches that urban streets should be redesigned for use by all and sundry, motor vehicles weaving their way along them as best they can with chicanes and other devices offering relative protection to pedestrians.

The concept has long been familiar in Italy's historic towns. It has been introduced, at the last count, in 3,500 zones in Germany and the Netherlands, 300 in Japan, 600 in Israel, and in cities as widespread as Lyon, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Portland, Oregon. All have experienced a drop in accidents, and most a drop in journey times. At the now celebrated lights-free Laweiplein intersection in Drachten in the Netherlands, the chief danger is from crowds of foreign experts watching incredulously as traffic merges with pedestrians and separates, unaided by robots.

Why has the concept not caught on in Britain? The reason is simple. Policy is in the hands of traffic engineers. These people deal with road builders, kit manufacturers, consultants and health and safety inspectors. All have large budgets and a vested interest in treating streets as policed corridors of total control. To them, traffic management involves herding pedestrians into cages and hurling vehicles along fast, one-way streets to bring them to a halt at the next stop light or traffic bump.

As a result, road users in cars and on foot in Britain are probably having to travel twice as far as necessary to get from A to B, with controlled crossings and cars negotiating tortuous one-way systems with long waits at lights. This increases traffic volume, causes more accidents, misallocates road space, slows buses and doubles carbon emissions. It is plain dumb. British traffic engineering is stuck in the dark ages, covered in woad and chanting runes about "gridlock".

One of the few progressive councils in Britain, London's Kensington and Chelsea, has bold politicians leading from the front. The deputy leader, Daniel Moylan, studied shared space abroad and designated Kensington High Street as an experiment (as if it needed one). Railings and crossings were removed. Pedestrians were encouraged to cross where they chose. Bicycle racks were placed on the central reservation. The whole street was tidied.

The effect over two years has been a dramatic cut in accidents, down 44% against a London average of 17%. Pedestrians and wheelchair users are no longer dragooned behind railings. Drivers have slowed and pedestrians look at drivers rather than traffic lights. Moylan did not have the courage to remove all lights, but perhaps that will come with the extension of the scheme to Exhibition Road. The experience has been a success.

What pushed the Kensington High Street scheme was an eagerness by businesses to make their street more attractive against competition from malls. They wanted, as Moylan puts it, "to get away from the idea that streetscape is essentially an exercise in safety engineering". His latest report tells of the need to overrule health and safety officials, who seemed uninterested in evidence that accidents would fall. As for engineers in general, they seem to care only about "making it harder for road accident victims to bring successful litigation against highway authorities". Because of this opposition, Moylan is gloomy about his efforts being imitated elsewhere in Britain. The pro-accident vested interest is too strong. Like Adams, he thinks officialdom would rather people died than admit it was wrong.

Certainly the concept of people and vehicles sharing the road, and thus rendering it safer and more efficient, is counter-intuitive, because vehicles are regarded as inanimate thugs that do more damage than bicycles and pedestrians. But vehicles are driven by people with eyes, who only become dangerous when treated as automatons. That is why shared space has saved thousands of lives across Europe in the past decade. It also saves pollution, time, money and policing costs. It is a no-brainer.

In Britain the flat-earthers deny evidence and cry that the great god traffic would "grind to a halt" if streets were shared and traffic lights were abolished. Yet as Galileo told the Inquisition, "Eppur si muove", and yet it moves.