I’ve lived in the same couple of streets for twenty years now.
At some point a while ago – maybe ten years? – the Council decided to put in traffic calming. They asked us what we all thought, and in our house we opted for blocking off some streets, but I guess we lost the vote, cos the Council kept the rat-running routes but decided instead that all the cars should go at less than twenty miles an hour.
They put up signs at each end of our estate and half way along each of the roads they put a bump in the middle, narrowed the road to one lane and put a tiny cycle lane each side of it. The cycle lanes were helpful as this now meant there were areas at the side of the road where cars could be parked safely, when the driveways got full up of people’s second cars.
The other effect was that cars travelling in opposite directions had only one lane to compete for, so drivers in a hurry had to accelerate towards it if they wanted to be first over it. To address this, some drivers helpfully signal to drivers going the opposite way that they are under the most time pressure, by beeping their horn a few times whilst approaching it. Because the cycle lanes are full of parked cars, the cyclists have to wait until the impatient drivers are out of the way.
So, p*ss-taking aside, is traffic calming worth doing?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about 20mph zones. There’s some evidence that average speeds reduce when these zones are introduced (but often increase again after a little while). Consequently it’s reasonable to assume that some lives and serious injuries have probably been saved. But are these zones really the panacea that some people claim? Do they make people want to walk and cycle more in their areas? Do children play in the streets? Do neighbourhoods feel friendlier? Do busy streets stop being barriers to communities? The jury’s still out and I’m not so sure.
I think we need to go back to common sense. Putting up signs will not change the world, nor even change perceptions very much. That takes more people-centred engineering and more people-centred activity.
If we want drivers to slow down, we have to show that it’s a residential area. So narrowing the entrance to the area will make car-drivers have to slow down in a way that yet another road sign won’t. Wide junction entrances make crossing difficult anyway. And once you’re in the area, the speed limit should be indicated by your surroundings. It should feel like a place to meander through.
If we want drivers to treat pedestrians and cyclists as equal users of an area, make it a mixed space – ambiguous, so it’s not clear who has priority, so that everyone has to think about everyone else. This usually means they slow down. Put in the odd curve – straight lines say ‘go faster’.
The speed bump is a focus for my street because it’s where people get angry with each other. The overall mean speed may have reduced but my street is also on someone’s boy racer map. Around 11pm is the best time to clock someone doing over 40, but daytime races are not uncommon. The straight road with an enticing slope makes it feel like an attractive place to put your foot down, despite the speed limit.
The pavements on the other hand have an irritating camber, so slantily unusable when it’s snowy or icy (no-one grits the paths, only the roads). And they often have cars parked across them in any case.
So if we want more walking around, it’s not just about car speed. We need to get rid of the obvious barriers – broken paving slabs, dirt, overhanging branches, bins left out – and tackle things that let anti-social behaviour go unchallenged – graffiti, broken windows.
If we want the street to feel people-centred, then plant trees, help people to grow flowers, public art, put seats in so you can walk a little, rest a little. And where can you walk to? Is there a playground nearby? Where are the shops? Are there handy little ginnels that make the walk more direct and more interesting? Are they kept clean and safe?
I think I know in part why this problem doesn’t get solved. Some of it is about pressure on public spending but it’s also about priorities and being joined up. We have public services where the people who are there to encourage walking and cycling are in Public Health. And the people to reduce speed are in Transportation (and in the Police but they aren’t bothered unless it’s an actual ‘crime’). And the people to make you feel better about where you live are in Planning or Localities or City Centre Management or something like that.
And how do we make it easy for people in neighbourhoods to say what they want? Too often plans are drawn up and consultation means presenting it as a done deal with little ownership or buy-in. It’s quite challenging to get buy-in if you’re talking about grand schemes in the city centre, but when it’s about your own street, surely it can’t be that hard.
I like the Arena and Trinity and all that stuff but making people’s day-to-day experience better locally is at least as important, so we have places we enjoy living in. How do we share good ideas of what works? I’m pretty sure that declaring a 20mph zone isn’t it.