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.

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.