We all love a good story – it’s human nature. Stories have been used throughout history; to entertain, to teach, and to pass on information. The best ones have a simple narrative where nothing too surprising happens. Good versus evil; two star crossed lovers; or a tale of growing up. It’s all very comforting. We don’t mind the odd twist in the plot to keep us on our toes, but rarely does the lead character get run over by a car in the opening scene (unless you happen to be Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black!).
Traffic Engineers and Transport Planners are no different. Our track record is littered with examples where we have been all-too-keen to tell – and be part of – a neat, simple story that seems to succinctly explain how problems facing the profession can be solved. Whether it’s the promise that a new bypass will reinvigorate our town centre or how shared space will civilise our streets or that a 20 mph zones will strengthen local communities, we are drawn to the simple elegance that these solutions appear to offer.
These stories are nearly always grounded in some truth. A new scheme gets introduced with great fanfare. This scheme is then distilled and simplified down to a single, specific intervention, removed from any form of context and packaged as the latest silver bullet. And we are all too ready to believe the hype, keen to assume that complicated environments and individualised design responses can be so easily generalised. But our streets are complex places. To suppose that we can reduce their requirements down to a snappy sound-bite is to ignore the truth.
I was reminded of this recently as part of a presentation that I gave at Urban Design London’s seminar on Supporting Different Types of Journeys. My specific section was on Practical Approaches to Designing Complex Streets. In response to a question that I received at the end of my presentation I mentioned that I don’t share what appears to be the prevailing view that all one-way gyratories are bad and that we would ideally change them all to two-way working if we could. As with other stories that distill complex issues down into simple narratives, this view is based in some truth. There is evidence to suggest that the introduction of opposing traffic flows will reduce vehicle speeds, which in turn is used as a proxy for improved road safety. Two-way working has the potential to reduce some journey times, particularly for those travelling by bicycle. Bus routing becomes more legible and pedestrians tend to find two-way streets easier to navigate. There’s just something a bit more ‘normal’ about them.
However, over the last few years we have worked on the transformation of a number of streets, from Glasgow to Brighton – existing one-way streets and gyratories, and even a two-way street. All of them have either remained or been converted to one-way working, and, in my humble opinion, are all the better for it. Let me be clear, I am not against two-way working, but I am nervous whenever I hear people suggesting that this will automatically deliver fantastic benefits that justify the often tens of millions of pounds that are being poured into them. And that any other options were simply not worth pursuing as, after all, how could they hope to trump two-way working?
The thing is, whilst one-way systems and gyratories have well documented limitations, they do tend to be highly efficient at moving traffic. Historically (and crucially), traffic engineers have used this efficiency to maximise the volume of vehicular traffic that can be moved. But there is an another way. What if, instead, we used this efficiency to help create the space we want for active travel as well as green and blue infrastructure? Converting a one-way network to two-way working will nearly always come at the expense of capacity, and that’s before we get to adding in all of the good stuff, like cycling facilities, rain gardens and pedestrian crossings. It’s an uphill battle from the word go. Sometimes it can be the right battle to have. Sometimes not. I’m simply suggesting that, like everything else to do with our streets, rarely is there only one answer to so many unique and complex questions.
My concern is that, too often, existing one-way working is instantly dismissed as bad and designers seek to remove it without first exploring the potential benefits. When designers are asked what a scheme might look like that took a similar hit in traffic capacity, included all of the benefits that a contemporary re-design could introduce, with improved pedestrian and cycle facilities, but which retained the one way working, the response is normally confused silence (I know because I’ve asked exactly this question in design reviews). I’m not trying to suggest this would necessarily be the right answer, but to not consider it at all seems bizarre. At this point ‘the brief’ normally gets blamed or some higher power that has already ordained the requirement for two-way working. But surely as professionals we are better than that – it should be our business to push for the best overall solution and to explain to others why things should be done differently?
If you come across someone who is claiming to have a simple, repeatable way of solving a problem as complex as redesigning our streets, then I would suggest that it should be approached with some caution (the classic “here’s the answer, what’s the question”). In fact, the simpler the solution sounds, the more caution I would urge you to apply. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past. Not just from the types of schemes that were built, but also the readiness with which we have believed that such complex environments and challenges could be solved with the simplest of stories. Let’s be honest with ourselves and embrace the complexity.