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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.