Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cluttered Streets - Cluttered Thinking

'De-cluttering' is the latest buzzword in street design circles. You rip out all the unnecessary signs, guard rails, advertising hoardings and street furniture to create a 'naked street' exactly as God intended.

Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond are the latest to add their weight to the 'de-cluttering' campaign. Considerable weight in Pickles' case. He said:

"Our streets are losing their English character...we are being overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards, patchwork paving and railed off roads – wasting taxpayers' money that could be better spent on fixing potholes or keeping council tax down. We need to 'cut the clutter'.

"Too many overly-cautious town hall officials are citing safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets with an obstacle course when the truth is very little is dictated by law. Common sense tells us uncluttered streets have a fresher, freer, authentic feel, which are safer and easier to maintain."

However, it's not all the fault of over-zealous council officials. Traffic signs exist in large part because they have to be present for motoring law to be enforceable, and have to be of a prescribed size and in the right location. There is a huge variety of signs because there are a huge number of restrictions enforced by motoring law. This arises partly because a significant number of motorists can't be bothered to drive or park with care and consideration for others, and partly because there are simply too many vehicles. To manage the traffic levels in modern tows you need speed limit, no entry, one-way, no motor vehicles, parking restrictions and all the plethora of signs that decorate our streets, along with bollards to physically stop drivers going where they ain't allowed. Then there are direction signs. These have to be large so that motorists can see them. And of course, crossings, because otherwise motorists will run pedestrians down.

Pavements are cluttered with dangerous obstacles because so much of the available street space is used for traffic lanes and parking. All the street furniture (much of it related to motor traffic) is squeezed onto narrow pavements along with the pedestrians.

There is one siimple reason streets are cluttered: the presence of significant motor traffic. If you disallow parking and through traffic, suddenly you don't need most of the signs, many remaining signs can be smaller, you don't need bollards or railings, you have much more space available for pedestrians and useful street furniture, and the street is a more pleasant and less dangerous place. If you encourage people to use active travel, they'll be fitter and healthier as a result.

What you cannot do is make public transport expensive and inconvenient, cycling unsafe and unpleasant, do nothing to discourage driving, and then complain how cr@p the streets look.

But even English Heritage don't seem to understand this simple concept. Their 'Save Our Streets' campaign ("a campaign to return England's streets to places where people want to be, where all street users are accommodated and where communities thrive as a result") doesn't even mention the idea that cars responsible for much of the clutter, and indeed are the clutter. Or that their presence intimidates the other "street users" out of their way onto the narrow, cluttered pavements.  Their guidance for traffic measures are:

"Traffic calming measures should fit sensitively into the street scene as though they were part of the original design of the area.
  • adopt a minimalist approach. Physical measures should involve minimal visual interference with the established street scene
  • use traditional material such as asphalt and granite setts. Coloured surfaces are usually unnecessary and undesirable and should be avoided
  • confine road markings to those essential for highway safety"
If you have 'traffic calming ..and physical measures that involve minimal visual interference" then guess what? Motorists won't see them. They'll crash into them instead, and complain that it's somebody else's fault. As for "coloured surfaces...are unnecessary", what colour should the yellow lines be? And which road markings "are essential for highway safety" ? Does that include the 20MPH repeater signs that are necessary because motorists are too busy gassing on their mobile phones to notice the speed limit?

Now don't misunderstand me. I like very much the idea of de-cluttering. But you cannot do it with the current presumption in favour of motorists that "if there's no sign, it's legal". Otherwise, de-cluttering is more likely to intimidate than to liberate.

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