In this article the author explores his ‘wheelchair-view’ of Prestwich, a town in Manchester that struggles to retain a sense of identity. A traffic laden arterial road severs the town East and West. Pedestrians become an inconvenience instead of celebrated inhabitants capable of breathing economic life into it. The article considers whether the innovation of ‘shared space’ is capable of transforming a community from one traumatised by traffic into one that celebrates all the possibilities afforded by street life.
I’m counting the seconds in my head. It’s a rainy morning in Prestwich and I’m sporting my wheelchair cape as I wait corralled with other hapless pedestrians waiting for the lights to change. How much is our time worth? Apparently, much less than cars and lorries. Thirty seconds, forty seconds, now over a minute… now it seems several minutes. Should I tell the mum with a buggy? If she doesn’t stand to the side she is going to get drenched: I have learned from bitter experience as a regular road crosser – beware the pooling at the pedestrian crossing! Sometimes I have to return home, dry off and start again. I don’t know why I am so complacent today: the gutters above the shops relentlessly amplify the downpour on my head. The inevitable has happened – splash – the poor mother has caught a full frontal assault drenching a now inconsolable buggy incumbent. The older brother holds on tightly to the buggy giving me a sideways glance – yes, I know that I look like a wheeled grim reaper in my cape.
Now, finally, the time has come for us to cross the road. Bedraggled and downcast we take a less than triumphant passage across the parted waters with screaming children in tow. A towering four-wheel-drive car rumbles menacingly as we cross. It edges forwards reminding us that we are unwelcome inconveniences.
I look down the road. The parade of equidistant traffic lights stretches out to infinity. Each set of lights is alternately choked and evacuated by stop-start drivers engaging stop-start gear sticks and stop start brains. The traffic lights force obedience in a way that makes these cocooned inhabitants oblivious of their surroundings.
Could this world be better? Sometimes, from the vantage point of a car-less wheelchair user you start to see things differently. Cars become hostile reminders that you are no longer welcome in the mainstream of life: nor for that matter are pedestrians or cyclists. But this is not a rant about car ownership. After all, are we not all pedestrians at some point?
During this mental meandering I have failed to notice that the young boy has chosen to lead our crossing party. But quite unexpectedly a car appears from nowhere and passes straight through the red lights narrowly missing the young lad. A gasp of fear and despair is followed by shouts of anger. But to no avail. The driver has long since gone, perhaps unaware of the near miss which could have made all of our day so entirely different.
Is anyone keeping count of these ‘near misses’. If it was in aviation, we would have taken note. But as it is, it seems as though this will pass as an unrecorded event just like all the rest. And in time the inevitable will happen. Perhaps it is because of an impetuous driver, perhaps it is to do with blind-spots and information overload. The cause we will never know but one thing is certain: the driver would certainly come out better than the young boy.
This is not just my story: despair, vulnerability and threats abound on social networking sites. Take for example the unexpurgated Facebook exchange below. It shows an increasingly intolerant yet despairing pedestrian fraternity for whom the rule of law has failed.
AnonFacebooker: For people who are driving out of M&S car park in PRESTWICH and turning right to go towards Whitefield. Please make sure you pay attention to the FECKING PEDESTRIAN LIGHTS, if the traffic has stopped it usually means that they are on RED!!!!! Next time you nearly run me and my 2 yr old little boy over my husband will put your window through not just bang on it so you don’t hit us!!!
HumorousMan: That’s not just an incident, it’s an M&S incident.
PoshMum: Classy ..
VintageCarMan: Also, drivers of Prestwich fail to locate the indicator stick in their car. They assume you are a mind reader and can tell what their next move is. Bone idle laziness.
SkintMum: Similar to the pelican outside of the White Horse the number of times that I have had to dodge cars going through on Red? One time Hubby thew pounds coins at the driver spent the next hour try to retrieve them lol
SightImpairedLady: I am registered severely sight impaired (blind). I use a white cane whilst out and about in Prestwich. I fear for my life at both crossings. If this post makes just a few people be extra careful when driving through pedestrian crossings then you have done a good thing posting this. Thank you.
PrincipledLady: Understandable anger…. but threats. Really!
SoothSayer: It’s a very badly designed car park. You end up in ong queues of traffic if someone is turning left into their carpark and there is just a couple of cars waiting to get in. I fear things will get even more hectic there when the Kentucky opens x
CaringPerson: Thats nasty. A lot of accidents happening or just misses one we all need to try not to rush and look out for pedestrians, bikes and cars. And care for others not just yourself.
PrestwichFarmer: .. pitch forks out. Prestwich does have some w**k drivers tbf
DischargeJustice: I saw a turd speed through the red light on the crossing outside the pub in Prestwich, missed a pedestrian by a hairs breadth, then got stuck at the lights at the junction.. Said pedestrian then got the opportunity to have a word
InvisibleLady: Nice one they drive as those lights don’t exist I know cos it’s happened to me wanting to cross !
MalevolentUrchin: My dad is harder than your husband so if you put my window through he will put your husbands face through
Facebook discussion from ‘Spotted in Prestwich’ Facebook group
It seems as though the more traffic interventions we make, the greater the problem. Drivers are bombarded with stimuli in the form of road markings, traffic lights, road signs. All of this is designed to delineate driving zones from pedestrian and cyclist areas. However, such interventions seem to have the reverse effect of what is intended. In the attentionscape of the driver, the preoccupation is firmly tied to the visible rules of the road. They enable drivers to get from A to B. But they also desensitise drivers to the ‘real’ street environment around them. The mother with her buggy, the fallen tree, the changing weather conditions – form a backdrop which receives less and less attention.
As observed by the Dutch planner, Hans Monderman:
“We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”
I am reminded of the research work that I once did with a colleague at Reading University (Aranda and Finch,2003 (1)). We needed to know how formal interventions in construction site safety affected recorded accidents. The surprising outcome was that safety improvement measures did not in fact translate into reduced incidents of accidents on-site. Why? The explanation lies in our human response to perceived risk. If we make an environment appear safer, we compensate by doing riskier things.
In the world of driving, by introducing road markings, signage and traffic lights, we may actually be amplifying the risky behaviour of drivers. Quite the reverse of what was intended. This idea of ‘Risk Propensity’ was not unique to our study. It explains why the introduction of Anti-Lock Braking Systems (ABS) in Canada, Denmark and Germany did not give rise to any measurable improvements in road safety. The drivers of vehicles fitted with ABS tended to drive faster. Similarly, when Swedish drivers changed from driving on the left to driving on the right in 1967, there was a marked reduction in traffic fatality for the following 18 months. This was because drivers perceived an increased danger and were thus taking more care.
So what happens if we actually make our roads ‘feel’ more dangerous? Do drivers start to drive more carefully? Take away the chattels of traffic engineering (clearly demarcated curbs, signage, pedestrian crossings) and we begin to see the results. The design strategy known as “shared spaces” does exactly this. It removes the comfort blanket of familiar cues that ordinarily enable drivers to switch to autopilot. Instead, negotiation of crossings rely upon eye contact between pedestrians and cars. Moreover, pavements disappear, being replaced with small delineations between pedestrian and car zones. For partially sighted and blind people the use of tactile surfaces is intended to indicate the pavement boundaries and crossing points.
But does it work? Shared spaces are emerging throughout the country. Examples include Poynton in Manchester (4), Ashford in Kent and most notably Exhibition Road in London. It builds upon a long tradition of ‘shared space’ urban planning in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia. The result has been a reduction in the number of road casualties. Despite appearing to be more dangerous, the increased threat prompts drivers to reduce speed and look around at their immediate environment. Some have argued that the introduction of ‘shared spaces’ is a paradigm shift in the way that highway engineering is undertaken: it leads to radical insights and a counterintuitive approach to planning. Indeed, it seems to be reversing all of the received wisdom of highway engineering.
‘When faced with a safety problem, most engineers tend to install something additional. My instinct is always to take something away.’
Hans Monderman, Dutch planner and pioneer of ‘shared spaces’.
Shared spaces are certainly a radical approach. Ever since Colin Buchanan’s report on ‘Traffic in Towns’ in 1963 segregation has been the key concept. This has involved separating the ‘highway’ and ‘public realm’ throughout the UK. But anyone visiting an arterial suburb such as Prestwich in Manchester will realise that this approach has failed us. Traffic simply passes through it. Drivers may choose to stop off at a Kentucky Fried Chicken or Marks & Spencer’s but always with a single intent. There is no desire to browse or engage in the public realm as a pedestrian. As a result, the public realm is impoverished, simply serving as a car park or access road for goods vehicles.
Even as a disabled wheelchair user I was excited by the concept of ‘shared space’. For once the possibility of an attractive public realm integrated with traffic flow could be considered as a possibility. But it seems as if I do not represent the dominant view of disabled users. In particular, the blind and partially sighted are highly vocal about such schemes. Some of the links given below highlight the opposition of partially sighted people who feel that their concerns have not been addressed at the planning stage. For them, the shared space is perceived as a ‘no-go’ area. Perhaps then, the statistics on reduced accidents do not tell the whole story. Maybe we are forgetting to tally the other casualties: those that can no longer use the space or those that have to endure the increased stress levels as they negotiate crossings.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Perhaps the first stage is to acknowledge that modern approaches to highway engineering have failed pedestrians and the public realm. Maybe the best outcome of ‘shared space’ planning is that it has prompted a rethink. Traditional approaches involving signs and highway clutter have only created barriers to reading contextual clues. We are asking town planners to go back to the drawing board – because what we have inherited is ugly and alienating. It prevents us from participating in the public realm.
The opposition to recent shared space initiatives may reflect the poor implementation of the shared space concept. The allure of a radical planning approach may have distracted adopters from the practical details. Over 30 years of experimentation in mainland Europe has given rise to expertise which needs to be carefully transplanted in the UK context. Undoubtedly, the driving culture in the UK is ‘less forgiving’ and perhaps we are asking for a cultural change as well as a physical change.
So if we are going to lift the lid on highway engineering, let’s do it from a grass-roots perspective. Let’s challenge the basic tenets of the planning process which seems to be working roughshod over three aspects of justice:
- procedural justice (let’s make sure we hear the concerns of all stakeholders including the disabled in the planning process and accommodate their concerns)
- distributive justice (let’s make sure that highway engineering serves the interests of the public realm (streets) as well as the highways (roads) – encouraging more people to get out of their cars and explore the possibilities of becoming part of the community)
- retributive justice (if we are to explore the concept of shared space, let’s be clear about who carries the can when socially irresponsible behaviour leads to intimidation or accidents.) In our existing culture the principle of ‘might is right’ has invariably given the upper hand to “drivers”.
Pedestrians more than anyone have witnessed the blight caused by modern traffic engineering, which does little to protect them. There has certainly been a failure to consult with vulnerable groups (notably the visually impaired) in the development of schemes (both old and new). The gusto with which a new generation of town planners have thrown off the shackles of the Buchanan era may have been excessive. But it offers the hope of a new and often counterintuitive approach to the problem: the problem of cars and pedestrians coexisting, yet enabling the public realm to thrive.
(Yet another approach to dealing with the increasing traffic congestion in UK cities has been put forward by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (8). It seems that we can all start crossing pedestrian crossings faster and in so doing save drivers’ invaluable time. Maybe the ‘goose-step’ is the kind of marching style that he had envisaged. I think us disabled colleagues might have problems in moving in synchronicity to this.)
**The European Blind Union (3) have put forward guidelines that highlight the needs of partially sighted or blind people in modern street design).
(1) Using Repertory Grids to Measure Changes in Risk-Taking Behaviour
(2) A review of simplified streetscape schemes
(3) Access to safe streets for all
(4) Poynton Regenerated
(5) Lots of Cars and Trucks, No Traffic Signs or Lights: Chaos or Calm?
(6) A Farewell to Pavements
(7) Science, Ethics and Shared Space
(8) Hurry up and cross Boris to put green man on a timer