Friday, March 6, 2009

America before streets were civilised

Some Reflections from 2017
Looking back at 2009 from the closing days of Barack Obama’s presidency, it is sometimes surprising to appreciate how much has changed in the relationship between people, places and traffic, and to grasp the effect of the dramatic policy change that took hold back then. Aware that successful cities are judged on the quality of their public realm, policy makers began to transform city streets from soulless arteries for vehicles into spaces shared equally by pedestrians, cars, taxis, buses, bicycles and every kind of social activity. Given the huge benefits that sprang from the multiple use of public urban space for safety, movement, accessibility, and economic vitality, it is now hard to recall how different typical streets once looked.

Until 2009, they looked like everywhere else. In those days. the roadways providing running space for vehicles were carefully separated from pedestrian spaces. Kerbs, steel barriers, bollards and paint markings reinforced this separation. Different organisations looked after the two worlds that this segregation created, one managed by “traffic engineers”, the other by “urban designers”. Traversing this divide required specific crossings controlled by traffic lights, buttons and beeping signals. Standardised signs, traffic islands, poles, control boxes and illuminated bollards littered the spaces between buildings. Behaviour in the roadway was controlled by the state via cameras, and normal social courtesies were discouraged.

Inspired by pioneering examples from Europe, and particularly by the work of Hans Monderman from The Netherlands, people suddenly realised that all this highway clutter was no longer needed. Without traffic signals, signs and markings, traffic flowed slowly and more smoothly. Congestion diminished. Casualty rates, particularly for children and vulnerable pedestrians, declined sharply. Shops flourished as pedestrian footfall increased, with people negotiating their way through slowly moving traffic using informal communication and courtesy. Bus companies reported more reliable running times. Every street in America began to reflect its history, context and purpose, reflecting the richness and diversity of the country’s huge geography and infinite variety.

Only the most busy traffic arteries remained segregated, such as the freeways and major arterial highways. All the remaining city streets became “shared space”. Back in 2009, most found the change surprising and a little daunting. It seemed almost perverse and counter-intuitive to take away rules and regulations, signs and signals, and to rely on people’s commonsense and adaptive skills. And yet, just as crowds seem to develop an intuitive choreography in busy complex spaces such as railway station forecourts and departure lounges, so drivers and pedestrians engaged in a new respectful relationship at busy intersections. Speeds remained below 20 mph. Delaying a bus or lorry became a serious social gaffe. Eye contact and hand signals became more sophisticated. Driving behaviour adapted to the times of day and rhythms of the city, with quite different styles when schools were coming out, when the bars were closing, or when streets were empty before dawn. Pedestrians walked where they wished to walk. Bicycling became the norm in the low speed, smooth flowing streets. Taxi drivers still grumbled. Traffic signal engineers were retrained as park keepers and window cleaners. Civility flourished.

So many changes in the past eight years, but none more significant for the quality of everyday life in America as the moment when engineering merged with creativity and commonsense.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, ben@hamilton-baillie.co.uk
Hamilton-Baillie Associates Limited, www.hamilton-baillie.co.uk
Bristol, United Kingdom

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See www.messages.newmobility.org for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

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