Naked streets, floating bus stops – and how cycling infrastructure can endanger the blind

A "floating bus stop" on Whitechapel High Street, London. The blue lane is the newly installed segregated cycle lane. Image: Ross Atkin.

This week one of the 3,500 blind and partially sighted people who live around Whitechapel High Street in London will step outside and attempt to reach their bus stop. To get there, they’ll find that they have to cross a lane of fast moving cyclists, over whom they have no formal priority and whose silent approach they are unable to detect. According to Transport for London’s (TfL) own research, only 15 per cent of cyclists will stop for them.

For these people, the disappearance of some plastic roadworks-barriers and the sudden, permanent separation of bus stop from pavement, will be the first indication that any such change had been mooted, discussed, planned, designed, or consulted on.

According to TfL, the government body responsible for the changes, “consultation” had indeed taken place for a month in late 2014. Obviously the blind and partially sighted people who are actually affected by the scheme were not asked directly: indeed, scheme designs were never even converted into a form they could access.

Instead their interests were entrusted to the RNIB, Guide Dogs and the Thomas Pocklington Trust who met with the designers directly. Of these organisations only Guide Dogs bothered to formally respond to the consultation with the vigorous and unequivocal conclusion “that the current design could impact upon visually impaired people”.

With so little formal opposition, and with a deluge of automatic template emails from the London Cycling Campaign, website TfL proceeded speedily to construction on Whitechapel High Street. Work on other busy central London high streets swiftly followed: the plan is to create a giant cross of “segregated” cycle routes, running 12 miles in one direction and four in the other. Between them these routes will include over 50 of these “floating bus stops”, with numerous other bus stops removed altogether.

This phenomenon is not confined to London. Floating bus stops are already installed in Brighton and planned in Cambridge, Manchester and Bristol, as part of a £114m investment by the government.

A brief history of our streets

To understand how we got to a situation where floating bus stops seem like a good idea, virtually unopposed by organisations representing people with sight loss, we have to wind the clock back to the turn of this century. At that time, there was a growing awareness amongst street designers that a narrow focus on traffic engineering was destroying high streets, creating unpleasant environments where pedestrians were penned in behind guardrail and vehicles ruled.

Completed in 2003, the refurbishment of Kensington High Street quickly became the poster child for a new “Naked Streets” movement. This movement advocated minimising the use of road signs, guardrails and other features that formally separate road users, in order to slow down traffic and give pedestrians and cyclists greater priority.

By 2007 some designers were pushing the “Naked Streets” agenda further. The refurbishment of New Road in Brighton further reduced the separation between road users by removing kerbs, creating a single level surface. This approach to street design became known as “Shared Space”: the argument was that, when kerbs are removed, vehicles begin to behave as guests. Closed at one end and totally dominated by pedestrians, on New Road this actually happens.

Things started to go wrong when plans were proposed to apply a level surface to Exhibition Road, the street connecting west London’s large museums. Concerned by the impact the removal of kerbs would have on blind and partially sighted people, Guide Dogs took the scheme’s sponsors, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to Judicial Review in March 2010.

Eventually a compromise was reached: the scheme was built with 800mm wide bands of tactile paving standing in for kerbs. By the road’s re-opening in February 2012, and it’s conspicuous failure to affect vehicle speeds to the extent its designers had promised, the “Naked Streets” movement had already started to fizzle out. Level surface schemes, in situations much more appropriate than Exhibition Road, were being quietly dropped up and down the country.

February 2012 also marked the ascendance of separationist cyclists with the start of the Times“Cities Fit for Cycling” campaign, instigated in response to the tragic injury of journalist Mary Bowers outside their East London office, as well as the London Cycling Campaign’s “Love London Go Dutch” campaign which argued explicitly for segregated cycle infrastructure. Not wanting to miss out on the campaign buzz, all five leading candidates in the 2012 London Mayoral election promised to implement the “Go Dutch” demands. Traffic engineering was well and truly back on the agenda, and TfL engineers began designing the segregated routes being installed at the moment as if they had never heard of ‘Naked Streets’.

Lessons not learnt

The floating bus stop is a natural consequence of an approach that seeks to optimise a street for one kind of vehicular user at the expense of others. In that sense, it’s just like those miserable car-centred designs of the 80s and 90s we had been moving away from.

Don't cross now. Image: Ross Atkin.

High Streets serve important functions for all kinds of people, so need to be the best compromise between their different needs. If we are going to achieve this we all need to adopt a less absolutist, ideological position. We must work together to understand one-another’s needs and engage with the practical realities of design. We must work from evidence and, where this isn’t available, we should be prepared to spend some tiny fraction of the millions we spend building these schemes to gather it.

Engaging with practical realities means that urban designers need to admit that Exhibition Road has not worked – and that the removal of kerbs and controlled crossings was the wrong thing to do there.

At the same time, sight loss organisations need to acknowledge that, in some circumstances, like New Road Brighton, a level surface can genuinely be the best compromise.

Finally, cyclists need to acknowledge the negative impact that segregated routes have on other vulnerable street users, and accept that, on most high streets, there are more effective ways to keep them safe.

Streets are complicated, and designing them is difficult. Designers are only able to find the best compromises by understanding how different people use then. They will only be able to do this when organisations representing different street users engage constructively with one another.

Ross Atkin is a researcher and designer with a keen interest in public space accessibility. He has been shadowing disabled people as they make journeys since 2009 as part of research projects for CABE, the RLSB, Centre for Accessible Environments, City of York, Future Cities Catapult and Bath and North East Somerset Council. He tweets as @rossatkin.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.