Avoiding Responsibility

I read an editorial the other day inspired by a proposal to remove the white centre lines on a few roads: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/04/removal-road-markings-safer-fewer-accidents-drivers.

The author, Simon Jenkins, used this news to introduce the concept of shared space, pointing out that it was not a very new concept, but that its uptake in the UK is pathetically slow despite overwhelming evidence that the principles of design it espouses increase road safety. The reason, the article concludes, is because authoritarian traffic engineers and government regulators want to play with their ‘boys’ toys’ (which apparently include traffic lights, one-way streets and cycle lanes) rather than allow ordinary road users to take responsibility for themselves. And that ordinary road users ‘let them’ get away with it.

It was at this point that I took issue. I would say that at least as often as an overenthusiastic traffic engineer or signal programmer overcomplicates a junction, members of the general public have demanded a new signalised pedestrian crossing or more signs or new cycle lanes or even speed cameras. People are not ‘letting’ traffic engineers, transport planners and others overregulate their roads; they are asking them to do it. And this all comes down to both the reason shared space is safer: the reallocation of responsibility to road users; and the reason it is rarely implemented: the desire to avoid responsibility.

Why do I believe this is the case? Well, let me take a step back first. Although I am not entirely sure the evidence is as overwhelming as the article portrays, I have long been an advocate of shared space, properly designed, and its ability in a variety of forms to improve road safety for most types of users. In fact, I have been directly involved in works to ‘declutter’ streetscapes, removing pedestrian guard railings, bollards and excessive signage. I also managed the policy input, scheme development and public consultation exercises for an area of local shops with a history of traffic accidents that at one point some of us on the team hoped might be transformed into an innovative shared space. It wasn’t.

Yes, there was a traffic engineer who said people in the neighbourhood ‘weren’t ready’ for such innovation. And there were strong views in favour of more control, rather than less, as a response to new development in the vicinity. But there were also local motorists who spoke out against the changes and then contradicted themselves by asking for six pedestrian crossing facilities in this small area to cross a mere three roads. Did they not trust themselves to drive through without running over schoolchildren unless traffic signals told them to stop?

Avoidance of responsibility is a trend in various aspects of modern society. Why else would Donald Trump be the frontrunner in the Republican presidential election campaign in the USA? People say they like that he is a ‘man of principle.’ Or is it really that they like the way he agrees to take responsibility for making unilateral decisions so that they don’t have to?

Shared space is a concept that is ripe for proliferation. It makes the public realm safer, encourages pedestrians and cyclists, encourages people to take responsibility and interact with their neighbours. Ideas piloted in those fabled, progressive European cities have spread around the world before. Ideas like pedestrianised shopping streets or public bikeshare schemes. Can shared spaces do the same? I don’t think traffic engineers or transport planners can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. But local people unwilling to see change and afraid of responsibility could undermine improvements to their own streets and neighbourhoods. Perhaps the real responsibility of transport professionals is to educate them to respond otherwise.

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