One of the most ambitious “shared space” projects to date, and one that bears careful study, has been unveiled in the English city of Ashford. In a striking departure from what we normally associate with the concept of “road improvements,” the county council has spent some 13 million pounds to “break up” the old one-way, high-speed ring road circling (and strangling, some say) the city and convert it into a series of two-way, narrower, slower (20 mph) “quality streets” — largely free of aesthetically displeasing and typically ignored traffic signage.
As the after (above) and before (below) photos show, the changes are meant to improve pedestrian access to the town center, which had been curtailed by the old “concrete collar,” as one politician dubbed the ring road. New road treatments have been put in, the sidewalks (or pavements, as the English say) have been widened (they are now wider than the actual roads), and typical traffic infrastructure, from the humblest sign to the brightest traffic signals have been removed. As the county’s website puts it, the “shared space” project (whose consultants include Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who appears in Traffic), “seeks to change the ‘mental maps’ that drivers create and alert them to a different environment in which pedestrians and cyclists have equal priority. The keys to this are low speeds, a narrow carriageway and the removal of the typical visual clues for drivers, such as information signs and pedestrian guard railing.”
The press, rather than talk about, say, how the project might make the town a more livable place, has focused on one aspect: The provocative stance towards traffic interactions on the new road. The Times wrote: “Drivers no longer have the right of way on the ring road in Ashford, Kent, and have to negotiate their way across junctions, with no signs or lines to guide them. All road users, whether travelling on foot, by bicycle, car or bus, have equal priority and must use eye contact to decide who goes first.” This is the same sort of thing that has been successfully deployed everywhere from London to Sweden, and happens in more informal environments like parking lots, but still elicits an inherent suspicion, as we seem to treat drivers as a group as a class beyond behavioral change, beyond the capability of reacting to shifting hazards, beyond the ability to act civilized. The paper quotes Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA: “Those streets will be reverting to the law of the jungle. There will be road rage, collisions and chaos because no one knows who has priority.”
To which I might only say that road rage, collisions, and chaos, in my experience, occur as much, if not more, on the roads in which the priority — and everything else, including the majority of space — quite clearly belong to cars (my nearby Brooklyn example is Atlantic Avenue, a perennially promising street calling out for a renaissance but which reminds chronically hampered by a vast gulf of routinely speeding traffic down its six lanes; crashes, involving both vehicles and pedestrians, are frequent). The high incidence of pedestrians struck (with the right of way) by cars turning on “their” green light is proof enough that signals themselves only go so far and may in fact heighten danger. Of course, the issue goes far beyond design: Beginning with more thorough education for drivers and ending with much stiffer penalties for violating fundamental traffic laws.
I hope to make it to Ashford to see some of this first-hand, but in the meantime, there’s loads of information at the Kent County Council’s site. Also work a look is the “Lost O” website, after the vanished ring road, which details a set of public artworks (including Montreal’s excellent Roadsworth) that were unveiled on the build-up to the project — to the typical alarm, scorn, and consternation of shrill outlets like the Daily Mail.