Amy Priestley, Urban Designer
It’s been a turbulent summer for London’s streets and the people who use them, and people and politics are at the centre of it. In Bow, Tower Hamlets, a trial of modal filters was sadly cancelled after the first day due to the intense reaction of those inconvenienced by the scheme. Neighbouring Newham Council also ‘paused’ a traffic management experiment in the face of opposition from local people. In Kensington and Chelsea, the Council’s decision to withdraw its support for a new cycleway on Holland Park Avenue/Notting Hill Gate was at least partly due to residents and traders vocalising their opposition. These events all illustrate the challenges that politicians experience in delivering real change to our streets and improved environments for walking and cycling.
I recently contributed to the Urban Design Group Journal (Issue 151) themed around politics and urban design. Writing with Cllr Clyde Loakes of LB Waltham Forest, the article is essentially a list of illustrated advice on how to deliver change; how to support and encourage local councillors, politicians, officers and interest groups to deliver ambitious and visionary projects that will make our streets better, healthier and more sustainable places for people and movement.
Of course, ‘politicians’ vary considerably in their views, principles and prejudices. For some, walking and cycling may be part of their individual political identity (whether pro or con); others may have vocal supporters who hold strong views on certain transport issues; others may simply not understand or (more worryingly) appreciate the wider issues around transport, health and sustainability; and still others may understand the issues but fear whether they can gain public support for change. All of them want to get re-elected.
Whatever the starting point, I think there are three key facts that any politician needs to be clear about in considering the changes we need to see in street design and transport. Understanding these facts won’t automatically clear the path to delivery; but (changing the metaphor) grasping them is vital to navigating the choppy waters.
Firstly, streets are a finite resource. Giving more space to walking, cycling and public transport will inevitably take space away from cars, moving or parked. This can’t be avoided.
Secondly, enabling walking and cycling will almost always require a ‘stick’ or two, not just ‘carrots’. People won’t readily shift to walking and cycling if driving remains easy.
Thirdly, the ‘target audience’ for projects that aim to encourage modal shift away from cars is, by definition, people who currently don’t walk, cycle or use public transport much (or at all). It follows that the very people we’re designing for are those most likely to feel the ‘stick’ and be frustrated or angered by our proposals.
As a final word of advice, I think it’s best to avoid using the ‘C-word’ wherever possible. Talking about cycling or cyclists will typically alienate or provoke those who do not currently cycle. Streets are places for people and communities; they’re part of neighbourhoods. Start the conversation from that point, bring in some wider issues (such as public health, climate change, the costs of transport, congestion, air quality and future growth) and the narrative for people-focused design has a better chance of gaining traction.
It’s exciting and pleasing to see and hear about many local authorities and councillors who are starting to think about streets and transport differently, and how they might go about spreading the word, building support and delivering change. But it won’t be an easy ride, and making change happen requires a good amount of grit and determination from all involved. Keep the above in mind, and don’t forget why you started!
John Dales, Co-Founder + Director
Today (September 20th), Urban Movement is participating in the Global Climate Strike, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday (23rd). Many of our reasons for doing so are contained in this article by Bill McKibben. Amongst other things, we believe we need urgently to change how we travel, and so we’re also very supportive of World Car Free Day on Sunday (22nd).
With all this in mind, I was pleased to read a piece in the London Evening Standard last Wednesday (18th) entitled “Mayor of London Sadiq Khan backs plan to charge drivers levy for ‘needless trips to shops’”. On the same day, however, there was also a tweet from the Greater London Authority (GLA) Conservatives group which said “Sadiq Khan is planning to charge you to drive to the shops” and claimed that this “could cost you as much as £519 extra a year”.
The tweet featured a graphic with a picture of the Mayor next to a mocked-up ‘driving bill’ which carried the price tag ‘£519 every year’. The background to the graphic was a picture of a supermarket in which, rather hilariously, the prices on display are in Rand. Your driving bills certainly would increase sharply if your shopping trips involved going to South Africa and back. Lol
Gareth Bacon, the GLA Conservatives group leader tweeted his personal view that “what Khan thinks are ‘needless trips’ will be your big family shop, visiting the doctor, and getting to work.” He seems unaware that supermarkets can deliver direct to your front door; while the record suggests he’s entirely unwilling to promote the more environmentally-friendly modes of transport by which people might get to the doctor’s or to work instead of using the car.
Part of his record is ‘Highway robbery: the case against road pricing in London’ which he issued, unbidden, in June this year. It’s here we find that he plucked the £519 figure from a report by “top London economists CEBR” (as they modestly describe themselves) that posits a road user charging scenario that may bear no relation whatsoever to any that the Mayor may consider in due course. But – hey! – it’s a decent-sized number, so why wouldn’t Gareth want to mislead people with it?
Bacon’s ‘case’ also states that “our political opponents have pushed for ‘modal hierarchy’, in which walking and cycling are prioritised over public transport and public transport is prioritised over driving”, whereas “the GLA Conservatives have supported enabling the freedom of people to travel in the way that best suits them”. Putting aside the fact that, by this definition, his ‘political opponents’ include numerous Conservative-run local authorities, nowhere does he offer any ideas at all for changing the transport status quo, or demonstrate even the feeblest grasp of why it would be very good for London and Londoners if walking, cycling and public transport suited them better.
I wonder how many ‘Keep Calm and Let the People Die and the Planet Burn’ mugs he’s sold.
Bacon would also appear to have been sleeping on his job for quite a while. His tweet stated that “the Mayor has finally admitted today that he supports road pricing in London”, yet this is something that Khan wrote plainly in his Mayor’s Transport Strategy, published in March last year. This contains no fewer than three specific proposals to pursue road user charging and adds that “measures such as road user charging (where appropriate)… are essential to delivering an efficient and fair funding system”.
I realise, of course, that neither the GLA Conservatives nor their current leader, nor indeed any folk with a defined party affiliation, may actually believe what they say on occasions like this. Because, y’know, politics. But winning an election on a freedom-to-drive ticket could prove to be the ultimate pyrrhic victory.
To quote Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history”.
The Nero Complex is defined as taking the position of ignoring something that should require your immediate attention. Rome, London, [insert where you live here] may be about to burn, and we need to call out those who seem content to fiddle.
John Dales, Director
I was browsing my Twitter timeline the other day, and came across something that I found properly objectionable. It was a statement from a solicitor who specialises in motoring law, and whose Twitter identity emphasises his focus on defending those accused of driving offences. The utterance that caught my eye was this:
“Unhappy client this morning converted to a happy one as he left court with 19 points and still has a driving licence.”
In case you don’t know, you’re liable for a minimum six-month driving ban if you amass 12 or more penalty points (endorsements on your licence) within 3 years. How you might accrue points varies. For example, if caught, exceeding the speed limit will give you 3-6 points, depending on how much over the limit you went; using a mobile phone is also punishable by 3-6 points; driving or attempting to drive with alcohol level above the limit has a 3-11 points tariff; and using a vehicle with defective brakes is worth 3 points. You can explore the huge range of offences and penalties here, if you’re so inclined.
I do, of course, know nothing about the particulars of the case; and I’m not actually taking issue with the solicitor in question (other than about his boasting). As he said later:
“I don’t make the law or the decisions. Laws allow people to argue they shouldn’t be banned. If you don’t like it then tell your MP.”
It is these laws, as they relate to driving, and their application in our courts that I am taking issue with.
Drilling down a little, I found that the solicitor explained that the reason his client didn’t get a driving ban, despite the 19 points, was because the court accepted his plea that a ban would cause “exceptional hardship”. Looking elsewhere, I find that the law doesn’t seem to define what “exceptional hardship” means in any hard and fast way. Issues that might qualify include the loss of employment leading to the loss of accommodation, loss of the ability to travel to work, and the knock-on impact on third parties (e.g. due to a business having to close). Should you wish, you can read an enlightening case study on this topic here. Coincidentally, this case also involves a driver with 19 points on his licence.
Reflecting on this, I think it’s reasonable to accept that a driving ban that might cause “exceptional hardship” should not be imposed lightly. However, I also think that the burden of responsibility for not being disqualified from driving lies – plainly – with the driver. If the driver believes their ability to drive is essential for the avoidance of “exceptional hardship”, then they should drive within the law. A single breach of the law is understandable, if not acceptable, but if a driver has accrued 19 points within three years, they have missed several reminders of the precariousness of their position and it is highly questionable whether they deserve what one might describe as the court’s mercy.
Interestingly, the solicitor I started with later commented, “Got to admit I agree with this” when someone else proposed:
“There should be no hardship (excuse). I’ve never had a single point or even a parking ticket. I drive for the job, and personally. A driving licence is essential to my current role, so I don’t do anything to risk having it taken off me. If you’re on 9 points then obey the law. Easy.”
That said, the person or people likely to experience “extreme hardship” may not necessarily be the driver themselves, and this does indeed introduce other considerations.
One set of considerations I’d like to draw attention to are the facts that, on average, five people are killed, 75 are seriously injured, and 400 are slightly injured UK roads – every single day! For ‘slightly injured’ you can read ‘needing proper medical attention’; for ‘seriously injured’ you can read ‘a few inches the other way and it would have been curtains'; and for ‘killed’ you can read ‘made dead’.
You would not wish a ‘slight’ injury on anyone you care for, including yourself; and it’s entirely reasonable to state that hundreds of people daily begin experiencing “exceptional hardship” because of injuries they personally sustain on our highways. The length of this experience will be considerable in many cases. And hundreds (possibly thousands) more – those who are dependent on people who are killed or seriously injured – also begin experiencing “exceptional hardship” every day.
UK data from 2017 show that 44% of people killed on our roads were in cars, 26% were walking, 19% were motor-cycling, and 6% were cycling. Putting causal factors (and blame) to one side, those killed while walking were almost all hit by something bigger/heavier/faster. The same is likely to apply to most of those killed while cycling. When you then look at fatality rates (deaths per distance travelled) this shows that people walking are around nine times more likely to be killed while travelling than those in motor vehicles with four or more wheels; and people cycling around eight times more likely. (People motorcycling are around 30 times more likely to die per mile travelled than people in vehicles with four wheels or more.)
A study of five years of UK collision data published by the Institute of Advanced Motoring in 2011 found driver/rider error to be the main contributory factor in crashes; it being cited in 67.5% of all collisions in which someone was injured (65% in fatal crashes and 62% in the case of serious injuries).
In other words, huge numbers of people begin to experience “exceptional hardship” every day as a result of bad driving. Even if we put aside the fact that most of these people (including all of the dependents) will be entirely innocent victims, shouldn’t we, as a society, be seeking to do all we can to reduce the likelihood of people experiencing “exceptional hardship” because of traffic violence?
As they stand, however, our laws and their application seem somehow to be in sympathy with the saying often attributed to Stalin that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.
The MP Ken Clarke is someone I generally have a lot of time for, but he seemed to reveal the same blindness to what we might call ‘the greater harm’ when, as Justice Minister in 2010, he said the following:
“In the case of ordinary dangerous driving without any serious consequences, although I deplore all dangerous driving, we cannot start imposing heavy prison sentences on everybody who might otherwise be a blameless citizen and then behaves in an absolutely reprehensible way when driving his car.”
(If you want to explore the context, have a look at Column 180 in the December 7th 2010 episode of Hansard.)
In my view, this is very dangerous talk because it sends out the message that, so long as there don’t happen to be any serious consequences from a specific case of ‘absolutely reprehensible’ driving, the law should be lenient. But what about the next incident; or the next? 19-point drivers are essentially serial offenders and in many ways they’re ‘collisions waiting to happen’. Misguided leniency in the case of less serious incidents also completely ignores the fact that many slight injuries are a margin away from being serious, and many serious injuries are a whisker away from being fatalities.
At least Mr Clarke did then say he was open to exploring changes in the sentencing regime relating to driving. But it wasn’t until May 2014 that the Ministry of Justice announced a ”full review of all driving offences and penalties, to ensure people who endanger lives and public safety are properly punished”. It then took another two and a half years (December 2016) before the MoJ finally published consultation on a decidedly partial review of ‘Driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury’.
The report of that consultation, published in October 2017, said that “the responses to the consultation demonstrate considerable support for the Government’s proposals to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving and to increase the maximum penalties for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years’ imprisonment to life”. But we’re still waiting for any action.
Just as worrying, to me at least, is the following extract from the consultation report, concerning the proposal to increase the minimum period of disqualification for drivers convicted of any causing death by driving offence:
“A number of respondents made the point that disqualification periods were more important as a deterrent in response to less serious driving offences, before a driver went on to commit more serious offences that could lead to death or serious injury.”
Very unhelpfully, this seems to confuse the matters of ‘serious offences’ and ‘serious consequences’. When you’re in charge of a motor vehicle travelling at speed, a relatively minor offence (e.g. travelling a few miles and hour over the limit) can have major consequences (e.g. death rather than injury).
This point is somewhat moot, of course. Because, almost nine years after Ken Clarke said it was worth “having a look” at sentencing changes, and more than five after his successor as Justice Minister (Chris Grayling – heaven help us all) promised a “full review of all driving offences and penalties”, nothing at all has happened.
The longer the law and successive Governments tolerate bad driving, the longer judges and especially members of juries will do likewise. It is an unavoidable conclusion, from numerous relevant court cases, that many members of many juries easily imagine themselves behind the same wheel as the defendant. “I don’t always keep to the speed limit either. I’ve also had problems when the sun angle is low. We’ve all had our sorry-mate-I-didn’t-see-you moments. And who hasn’t had people walking or cycling out in front of them without warning?” This remarkable Twitter thread (by Jon Ormondroyd, I think) is both an extraordinary piece of research and, by turns, a dispiriting and heart-breaking indictment of our current traffic laws, sentencing rules, and related court decisions. Read ‘em and weep.
Historical sources indicate that it was Spiderman’s uncle who said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. As things stand, however, the legal system does not assign great enough responsibility to drivers who, behind the wheel of vehicles weighing upwards of a tonne, clearly have – as the record shows – great power to kill and maim (even if none of them intend to do so).
Since a comprehensive review of traffic laws and sentencing guidelines was promised, in May 2014, nothing has changed. In the same period, around 10,000 people have been killed on the UK’s roads.
Five people dead every day. Seventy-five more seriously injured. Every day. If we’re really worried about cases of “exceptional hardship” in the context of bad driving – and we should be – then this is where we should start.
* * * *
We can all add our voice to the call for urgent reform of the law on traffic offences. One way is to follow the advice of the solicitor I began with and ‘tell your MP’. And you can also support the campaigning work of organisations like Road Peace and Brake; with the latter’s Roads to Justice Campaign specifically calling for the closure of ‘the “exceptional hardship” loophole’. It’s more than high time for change – and you can help make the difference.
This House of Commons Briefing Paper on Serious Driving Offences, published in December 2016, provides useful background up to the launch of the Government’s consultation on a limited review of driving offences and penalties.
Connie Dales, Creative Assistant
A few weeks back – and goodness only knows what Google rabbit hole I fell down to come across this particular Daily Mail (*shudder*) article – I had the good fortune of being introduced to the residents of an anonymous stretch of terraced houses in Middlesbrough, site of what I can only assume The People are now calling The Great Garden Alley Transformation of 2013.
The story goes like this: not thrilled with the congregation of rubbish, rats and rascals in the shared alley behind their row of houses, a group of residents, led by the one and only Mavis Arnold, planned and executed a revamp of the space, funded by a £6800 grant from the authorities. Now, I don’t claim to have an extensive knowledge of outdoor wares and their pricings, but a short trip to mumsnet informed me that a garden renovation, and we’re talking individual gardens, averages £5000, so I don’t think £6800 is exactly an inordinate amount of money for the job.
Be that as it may, the change is very impressive. From a dirty, uninviting jitty – so these alleys are called, apparently – to a communal area where the residents can relax, families can play, and all can put their green thumbs to use. The space is lined on all sides by an eclectic range of garden furniture, from tables to ceramic ducks to benches to bird cages; flowers and shrubs in abundance, even on the walls; and a varied offering of fruit and vegetables to be tended to.
In a society where time spent outdoors is dwindling, small pockets of community initiative, like this one in Middlesbrough, can make all the difference. With neighbours of all ages having access to the space, the passage can be a hub of social activity and a way to look out for each other. No one has to be alone when such an uplifting space is literally on their doorstep. So not only has it been a physical transformation of the alleyway itself, it’s also changed, in a very positive way, how these people can and do interact with nature and with one another.
Upon further research, I learnt that Middlesbrough is home to ‘something of a gardening revolution’. One of the groups responsible for this is Alley Pals who, as the name suggests, focus their efforts on alley gardens such as that created by Alley Pal member and local legend, our good friend Mavis. After the disbanding of Middlesbrough Council’s Back Alley Improvement Team (BAIT), Mavis and the gang became the only ones working on the ongoing development and maintenance of these spaces. A whole community transformation masterminded by the community themselves.
I am in awe of their efforts and how they’ve turned out. I just vaguely considered starting something similar myself and that was enough for me to appreciate that, no, I’m very unlikely to.
Oliver Davey, Co-Founder + Principal Design Engineer
I’ve decided to set-up a club. It’s for traffic engineers who are fed-up with the game-playing. For those who know full-well that the promises they’ve made to the public aren’t worth the pre-paid postage that their consultation responses were returned on. For those who struggle to look their Councillors in the eye when they reassure them that the proposed changes will be ‘traffic-neutral’. And it’s for those who, outside of working hours, wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemies the results of the decisions we’re routinely party to about our streets and the places we call home.
It’s for traffic engineers who’ve had enough of applying for funding based on the stated belief that we can reduce journey times by building more traffic lanes; or who’ve given up the pretence that insisting retail developers design their highway and car park arrangements for the weekend before Christmas will help create a place where anyone will actually want to live; or who can no longer live the lie that ‘guard’ railing is a reasonable response to road safety in our towns and cities. It’s for those who know there’s a better way; or at least hope there’s one.
It’s called Induced Demand Club; and the first rule is that nobody talks about it.
It’s a safe place where we no longer need to pretend we possess the silver bullets for congestion, parking and road safety. And where we can discuss the massive, untapped possibilities that our streets represent for creating a better society. It’s somewhere for care-worn traffic engineers to come together and find refreshment in speaking openly about the unparalleled role that we could play in the shaping of public health, economic vitality, environmental impact and social cohesion; where we can dare to imagine the wonderful benefits that our streets could offer to all, if only we were brave enough to say these things out loud.
If you’re interested, then get in touch. Just don’t tell anyone else
Rebecca Jones, Design Engineer
The government’s Transport Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the issue of pavement parking, and this week published a rather extensive catalogue of the evidencethey have received thus far. For those that have ever had to squeeze by a vehicle parked up on any pavement, much of what has been said will not be a surprise.
Particularly poignant, however, are statements from the Guide Dogs charity, who in a recent surveyfound that vehicles parked on the pavement have caused 95% of respondents with visual impairments problems in the past year alone, and for wheelchair users this figure rises to 98%. Furthermore, for some the footway being obstructed in such a way isn’t just an inconvenience, but actually impacts their ability to live independently, with 48% of respondents that use a wheelchair stating that they were less willing to go out alone where there is pavement parking, for example.
This kind of testimony is quite affecting, but I am not surprised that the problem is so common, given the attitude towards pavement parking both from motorists and legislators. Carlton Reid has summarised the legal background to pavement parking very well in his article, so I will spare you the details, but in short the lack of a blanket ban has meant that this practice has become the norm, to the detriment of everyone else.
The photograph above was taken in an area of London that permits pavement parking, albeit in marked bays (the only type of pavement parking permitted in the capital). While the vehicle shown is parked illegally, the presence of pavement parking bays can serve to normalise the practice to the point whereby some drivers feel entitled, and indeed deserving, of the use of the pavement to store their vehicle. There is no doubt that this practice needs to be reviewed and overhauled.
The outcome of the inquiry is yet to be seen, but I think the situation as it stands is typical of the attitude shown by many as to how our streets should be used. Those that park on the pavement usually do so to avoid parking in the road where traffic may be held up as a result, but why has that emerged as the main concern in our streets? The context of this behaviour is that as our cities and towns have grown, maintaining the flow of traffic has been prioritised, with motor vehicles getting the lion’s share of the space and our most vulnerable road users (pedestrians and cyclists) getting whatever is left over. In some cases, this means almost nothing, and so many are excluded as a result.
For me, it all boils down to what we want our streets and towns to be. If they can only comfortably be used by those on four wheels, or by the young and able-bodied, then we have failed.
John Dales, Director
It’s tempting to think that, due to the simple fact of his not being Chris Grayling, the appointment of Grant Shapps must be a positive change. Time will tell, of course, but his track record suggests that he isn’t about to depart from his predecessor’s essentially car-centric approach. In May 2016, I wrote an article for Local Transport Today about something that Mr Shapps had himself just written; and this piece is reproduced below verbatim, other than for a couple of references to dates. It would be good to think that as he’s got older he’s also got wiser. We’ll see.
Vanessa Lastrucci, Landscape Architect
There is grace in this apparently insignificant and rather ugly piece of footway, in a random street of inner Vienna. It is a cheap, simple detail, yet full of value: an engraving in the asphalt filled with black topping commemorates the place where Olly Schwarz lived between the wars.
The little engraving - a carpet decorated with typical eastern European embroidery patterns - bears the traces of time: its life-time, when it was laid and then deformed by the cycles of heat and cold and the multiple steps of people walking; and also Olly Schwarz’s life-time, reminding us of the darker days of European history.
This urban carpet is not alone: it is in the company of a number of brass studs, carved slabs and other tiny details we walked past in quiet residential streets of Vienna, marking the place of raids against Jewish people, and commemorating their memory. Little urban details shared with Berlin, and similar to those I’ve seen in New York (albeit dedicated to other purposes).
To me, what is special about it is its humble-ness. It does not have the grandeur and the stand-out qualities of a monument (I saw a rather moving pair on the same theme), but it is just as effective.
This piece of footway calls on your attention for detail, your sense of observation, your alertness to your surroundings. It requires you to consider where you are, and where you are going. And, in your going, it requires you to take a moment for pausing and for thought.
The power is in the number of these tiny objects, affording a walk through history for those who are careful enough to look down. It is a history experienced through the movement of drifting from street to street, impressed in the body of the city and unveiled by such details, that can tell so much about Vienna.
(Note: in writing this article I discovered that the carpet is indeed a piece of public art; commissioned from Iris Andraschek and realised in 2012. ‘Tell this people who I am’ is its title.)
Oli Davey, Co-Founder + Principal Design Engineer
The body of evidence in support of the many positive attributes of street trees is now significant and has indeed enabled the monetisation of these benefits, so that direct comparisons can be made with alternative forms of investment in our streets. I can readily find out, for example, that a single mature tree can absorb carbon at a rate of 21.6kg per year; and that a tree-lined street can lower particulate levels by 60%; and that a mature tree can capture 11,375 litres of rainwater a year; and that street trees can increase property prices by as much as 15%. In fact, it is estimated that, for every £1 spent on tree planting, £7 of expenditure is saved in other areas (for further information about the benefits of street trees I’ve found the following link a useful resource https://www.greenblue.com/gb/green-infrastructure/benefits-urban-trees/).
Whilst all of this data can be very helpful for those making the case for more street trees, especially at a time when capital budgets are tight – and maintenance budgets are even tighter, it can all start to sound a little too clinical. Don’t get me wrong: all of this empirical information is invaluable when it’s time to push back against a spot of value-engineering. However, Vienna proved to be a very welcome reminder of the simple yet joyful pleasure that a few street trees can engender.
With some rather austere architecture, an abundance of on-street parking and some functional catenary street lighting, many of Vienna’s residential streets can start to feel a little drab; even bleak. Add in the thirty-degree heat that we experienced on our trip, and many of the canyon-like streets can be pretty oppressive places to move through and spend time in.
However, throw in a few mature trees and suddenly otherwise identical, nondescript streets become elegant, welcoming avenues. I don’t doubt that they can also justify some fantastic cost-benefit ratios but, at a purely qualitative level, they simply result in attractive places to be. The reason that this was so striking to me in Vienna was the seemingly random selection of streets (and their residents) that get to enjoy these trees, or which miss-out.
Streets with otherwise identical cross-sections, often just one block apart, made for a stark reminder of the transformational effect that trees can have. And it is for this reason that I alone, amongst all my colleagues, have been allowed to show two photos (even if one is just inset).
So, thank you Vienna for providing a very welcome reminder of the everyday value of street trees that can sometimes get lost in all the number-crunching.
Rebecca Jones, Design Engineer
As a (very) new recruit to Urban Movement, this was my first StreetTour and, as I discovered, one of the primary benefits of travelling around a city with like-minded design folk is that when you stop to admire, say, unusual paving or signage they join in with enthusiasm rather than the somewhat exasperated looks I often get from travelling companions...
Emboldened by this, I noticed on several occasions that, at signalised crossings, not only were we not waiting for a green man, we weren’t even sharing our wait with the familiar, singular red man. This is because many of the signal aspects didn’t depict the usual solo person but, rather, a romantic pair– such as the two red women (complete with lovehearts!) seen in the photo. This detail in the red signal aspect was of particular interest to me, and reflects a bit of a difference between Vienna and standard practice in the UK. Where we may have variations in the green signal aspect (such as the LGBTQ+ symbols seen in London and Manchester during previous Pride months), typically the red signal is the red man for crossings, or solid red aspect at ordinary traffic lights. This is seen as key by the Department for Transport for clarity over when it is and isn’t safe to proceed, and consequently often means that getting a different symbol for the red aspect can be very difficult.
It’s no secret that it took several years for the DfT to approve the red cycle-shaped signal aspect in the UK, so to see this pushed so much further in Vienna was an interesting sight. That’s not to say that the Vienna signals were without issue – on some shared crossings it was difficult to see if the red signal depicted just pedestrians or pedestrians and cyclists, so perhaps more careful design is required to ensure clarity at a distance! It also goes without saying that the actual need for signals should be reconsidered, as there did seem to be an awful lot of overly-complicated crossings in Vienna, but perhaps that’s a story for another blog post…
Issues aside, it was heartening to see creativity in street design extend to signals, something that might typically be seen as quite a dull bit of the landscape – but why should fun in design be only limited to paving or planting? Furthermore, when we explore more creative options, then other benefits come to light. For example, the pictured LGBTQ+ inclusive signal aspects were only supposed to be temporary when installed in 2015, but they were retained and now form part of the city’s charm, bringing not only interest and fun to the street, but also fostering a sense of inclusivity. It may only be a small part of the landscape, but when we think about how to help everyone feel welcome in our cities, such little touches as this can make a real difference.