The public realm in the centre of Poynton, a town of around 15,000 people in East Cheshire, was the recipient of a radical makeover a little over a year ago. An existing, slightly offset four-armed signalised junction and adjacent high street have been remodelled into two closely associated mini-roundabouts. Conventional traffic management interventions have been removed (including all of the traffic lights), kerbs have been lowered and there is a liberal use of natural stone. All with the primary aim of reviving a declining town centre.
All approaches to the junction are now a single, 3 metre wide lane, but this is narrowed to an effective width of around 2 metres through the use of stone setts against both the kerbs edge and the 1.2 metre wide central median. The junction certainly now falls within the spectrum of what many would call a ‘shared space’, but this isn’t the type where you would consider holding a conversation in the middle of the carriageway or even crossing it between the two roundabouts. Rather, all road users are simply far more aware of one another than they would ordinarily be at a more conventional junction.
The presentations about the scheme that I have seen by Ben Hamilton-Baillie at conferences, and the short film produced by Martin Cassini, both make very compelling cases for the £4M scheme, but then I suppose that they are supposed to. The premise is that a junction that handles around 26,000 vehicles per day, including a substantial proportion of articulated HGVs , has achieved the seemingly impossible by reducing traffic congestion whilst at the same time improving the ease with which those on foot can get about. So, one Friday in May, a small group of us went to have a look for ourselves.
I had two main concerns about the scheme prior to the trip. The first was about the removal of all the controlled pedestrian crossings from such a busy junction and its approaches: would all pedestrians but the fit and determined be effectively excluded? The second was that, if all of that expensive stonework starts breaking up and gets replaced with blobs of asphalt, would a potentially game-changing scheme be irreparably, if unfairly, tarnished?
Unfortunately, I hadn’t been to Poynton prior to the changes, so my only sense of what it was like before have come from Google Street View (which hasn’t been updated yet) and the previously mentioned presentations. So I’ve tried to keep this more as a good/bad review of the space and design techniques rather than a better/worse comparison with what used to be there.
The first thing that you notice on the walk down from the train station (which lies outside of the town centre, to the west of the scheme) is the strong sense of transition between the conventional highway and the new layout. This appears to have a genuine, positive effect on the behaviour of all road users, which becomes more civil. Drivers visibly slow down, and as a pedestrian you get the impression that drivers are now looking out for you in a way that they weren’t just a few metres earlier. This is made all-the-more obvious if you move across to the eastern approach on Park Lane, which seems to have a far less beneficial effect at least in part because the transition is less pronounced.
More often than not, and especially at the main junction, drivers will stop or slow down if they see someone waiting to cross, in order to allow them to do so. This really is very noticeable and far different to the situation even just immediately beyond the scheme boundary. As well as the lower speeds making it easier for drivers to yield, I think that this may have at least a little something to do with drivers being in control of their own destiny. At a queue approaching a set of traffic lights, drivers are always trying to get through on the next green, if they can, and are unlikely to prioritise someone else’s movements over their own, as this could risk a longer wait. But when these lights are removed, so too is the need to press on with such urgency.
Another benefit of the steady-flowing yet slow speed environment is the traffic noise, or rather the lack of it. Without vehicles constantly stopping and starting, particularly given the number of HGVs, the relative quiet is noticeable. I would assume that this steady flow also results in improved air quality. Also on the noise front, it was quite striking that during around three hours of walking around and observing the scheme, I think I just heard one horn tooted – and that politely, as a warning, not in anger.
Despite the complete absence of road markings or any signs to explain which way drivers should circulate around the ‘roundabouts’ (as you’d find with conventional layouts) everyone negotiates the junctions on the same terms. Most vehicles even make at least an attempt to go around the central ‘islands’.
The kerbs have a standard up-stand of around 25mm, but this rises locally at bus stops and looks very neat. More generally, the streetscene has been noticeably de-cluttered, looking almost barren in places.
The consistent treatment of private forecourts along the high street and the lack of forecourt parking does a very successful job of unifying the street. The continuation of the footway material across crossovers and minor side roads seems to help prioritise those on foot. The overall impression is that the street design doesn’t go out of its way to respond to every possible vehicle movement.
Pedestrians do tend to cross at the marked crossing points throughout the whole scheme rather than elsewhere. Whether this is because pedestrians felt that this was safer or that the crossings have just been placed very well is hard to discern. Most people tended to cross perpendicularly rather than following the crossings’ slightly contrived-looking angles.
One criticism that I’ve read about the Poynton scheme is the lack of dedicated facilities for cyclists. By itself, the lower speeds and more civil nature of the junction should go some way to improving things and the few cyclists that I did see seemed to be negotiating the area relatively easily. The narrow lane widths that encourage drivers to slow also force them to follow cyclists, and this could certainly feel intimidating for some cyclists. Also, when relatively long queues of motor vehicles build up on the junction approaches, these would be very difficult for cyclists to filter past. I would suggest that a useful development of the design if its principles were to be applied elsewhere would be to consider how to do more for this user group.
The scheme isn’t perfect, but then no scheme ever is. There are always things that I would have done differently with Urban Movement’s own work, let alone other people’s. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing them out in order to learn from them.
Loading bays have been provided along the high street, within the traffic lanes, but they are so discretely marked, and would require vehicles using them to block a lane, that almost all the loading that we saw was taking place on the footways.
Public art is always a controversial topic, but I do wonder who apart from the artist could get excited about the metal ‘tiles’ that divide the private thresholds on the high street and whether this money could have been better spent elsewhere.
There are a number of ‘Keep Left’ (Diagram 610) signs on lamp columns that looked to have been a concession to the road safety auditor, but their locations are so inappropriate and unnecessary that they are almost comical.
Finally, and I admit it’s a bit of a pet hate of mine, but why do so many good schemes include overly fussy lamp columns that make then look instantly dated? Unfortunately, Poynton is no different.
I should also mention that while we were watching the junction a vehicle that had stopped on exiting, to allow a pedestrian to cross, was hit from behind by another vehicle. The speed involved was no more than walking pace and everyone was immediately out of their cars exchanging details. A couple of squashed and scratched bumpers were all that it was, but it would have been remiss of me not to mention it.
Of most concern to me are the signs that the carriageway construction is already beginning to fail, especially around the drain covers within the junction. So while the first of my two initial concerns, about the removal of formal crossings, has been allayed, I fear that my second has not, and that within two years the main junction will have been asphalted. In operational terms, I hope that this won’t substantially alter the terms of engagement (of drivers with one another and of pedestrians and drivers), but it would mean a waste of a considerable amount of money and further disruption.
If all of this sounds overly negative then I apologise, because the effect of the scheme on driver behaviour and the general air of civility in the town centre are hugely impressive. This is made all the more significant for having been accomplished at such a busy junction. Unlike previous schemes built on similar principles, such as Exhibition Road in London or New Road in Brighton, the Poynton design is probably applicable to many other small towns located on crossroads, all over the country. Where a set of signals may once have been the obvious choice, or some form of over-engineered roundabout, the successes at Poynton now give us another option for serious consideration.