Saturday, November 15, 2008

Get on your skates

...or any other form of non-motorised transport that takes your fancy, and head down to Ashford this week, where a revolution in transport is taking place.

There the Council has transformed a 3-lane fast-moving one-way system into a 4-lane, well, "space" where no one form of transport has precedence over another.

So a pedestrian crossing the road has as much right to do so as, say, a juggernaught thundering from Dover. Needless to say, the engineers are gushing like a parents of a newly-born, "We accept it will take a bit of getting used to but we believe that ending segregation between cars and pedestrians will make roads safer and more civilised" says Richard Stubbings, the project manager at Kent County Council.

Reading the story in Saturday's Times reminded me fondly of my stint as the Highways portfolio holder. This is the kind of initiative that would be lauded as good practice, and would apparently meet all of our Local Transport Plan aspirations. For a while, I'd be caught up in the enthusiasm. Then the implications in all their gory details would become clearer as I thought it through. It would achieve the status of "very courageous policy", (after Yes Minister), and the idea would be binned. It would not be one of the initiatives which the Council took forward to consultation and possible implementation.

I would put this scheme in the "courageous" category. That seems curious, when there's another well-known example in London's Kensington High Street which has been running for several years. If pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses and lorries can mingle there, then why not in Ashford?

The trial in Ashford, however, isn't a back street, or even a main thoroughfare, but the town's ring road. Darlington has piloted mingling different transport modes in its Pedestrian Heart, but these have all been non-motorised (with the exception of scooters for disabled people). Given its location, Ashford's scheme can expect to receive a substantial amount of through traffic from places where the rules of the road remain unchanged. The project will require signing of exceptional quality to be clear and unambiguous to everyone who uses the road daily.

It just needs one bloody minded pedestrian to observe, "they've got brakes, haven't they?" as they step into the road in front of an oncoming articulated truck,whilst the truck driver thinks, "They've got legs, haven't they?" for a collison to occur. And in these accidents, it's never the truck which comes off worst. Inevitably, schemes like this can attract this type of headline.

I have never been convinced that experiments which challenge the fundamentals of road culture can be trialled safely on a piecemeal basis. I wish the councillors and transport planners in Kent all the best, but I fear for this piece of utopian engineering.


Dave F. said...

I had to check the date when I read this, to check that it wasn't April 1st ... this 'revolution' in Ashford sounds like sheer madness to me...

miketually said...

I'm sure that shared spaces can work well in some areas, but a main road in a town with a lot of through traffic surely isn't one of those places!

David Hembrow has an interesting look at shared spaces on his excellent blog. He describes using one as the closest he's got to UK-style cycling since he moved to Holland.