Saturday, 18 June 2016

Negative Feedback

Does background negativity and fear of objections hold us back in our designs? It's an interesting question to explore but it is probably one reason why it's so difficult to make change happen, but some "radical" street elements have been with us for decades.

UK design standards are a hotchpotch to say the least and half the time I'm sure designers don't refer to them anyway (although much is not worth using in my view). Many contradict each other and be wary of an old document, it is invariably out of date (often, but not always). But, a "book of rules" is very comforting to many and they wrap themselves in technical cotton wool. I use the word standards in a general sense, as much of what is written is actually guidance which means that if you have a better idea, nothing stops you pursuing it.

If you are working on a scheme which will be subject to public consultation, there is always the thought about how it will be received and I wonder if fear of a negative reaction keeps people from pushing for change? In a world of budgets, deadlines and approvals it is often easier just to play it safe with the nice comfortable solutions we have always known because it doesn't rock the boat too much and we get our scheme built in time and to budget; it doesn't really matter if it is crap as nobody is measuring that.

If we look at some of the things seen as radical in terms of walking and cycling, we can always find examples of there it has been done before which deals with the "not invented here" mentality. Continuous footways (and indeed cycle tracks) is a case in point. Dogma tells us that at a junction, we must connect two carriageways together and despite the wishy-washy "guidance" of the Highway Code for motorists to give way to pedestrians crossing the side road, car is king. 

Suggest a continuous footway so that the driver must enter and negotiate pedestrian space and you are looked at with incredulity; it's an utterly alien concept. But, it's not of course. Think about vehicle crossings over the footway using a dropped kerb. It is so common for single dwellings, we don't see it; most drivers understand this is them crossing pedestrian space, they have to wait until it is clear before driving. Scale it up to a car park serving a block of flats and nobody bats an eyelid. Yet do it for a side road at a main road junction and all of the excuses under the sun are made why it can't be done. Well, it has been done and is increasingly being done

I happened to be discussing a difficult road layout with a developer team recently. To be fair the layout was difficult because they were squeezing in the dwellings (it's their job), but it gave an opportunity. Some time back, I recommended they dusted down Manual for Streets. I know I said beware of aged documents and MfS is nearly a decade old, but it completely changed the way we think about urban (and mainly) residential developments in terms of road layout and the advice remains contemporary

We could see the need for providing just enough road width to get a refuse truck around and by using one-way loops (for motors) turning heads were eliminated. It was also agreed that if the road was laid out with some detailed thought and by using well-placed trees, we should be able to make any on-street parking self-enforcing in terms of not blocking access roads. 

We also looked at threading continuous footways through the site, including the access points which connect to a 20mph road in a conservation area. The urban designer on the team then "got it" in that as well as dealing with access and circulation, putting pedestrians first with continuous footways would actually make the development more attractive and in keeping with the conservation area - a triple win in my book.

On the subject of development, I'll just mention road adoption (roads taken over by the local authority to maintain and manage, but built by developers). Local authority development engineers are simply folk. They want new roads which will last many decades with minimal maintenance. They want new roads which don't facilitate speeding or people parking everywhere as it generates complaints from new residents - that negative feedback again. 

They like to cling to their standard details and from a construction point of view it isn't so bad - vehicle areas being tarmac with the money spent where people are walking is a fair starting point. But layout should be up for grabs as we only need a refuse (and fire) truck to get through as well as letting people access any parking they may have and this means challenging the safe and easy status-quo otherwise we risk more bland 1980s style identikit estates.

How about the controversial "floating bus stops" used with cycle tracks? These are all new fangled and pushing at the envelope, right? Look around suburbia, there are countless examples of floating bus stops, it's just they are not by cycle tracks, they are by service roads and as far as I am aware, there isn't even a whiff of controversy - perhaps this is because they haver been around for decades and people don't give them a second look Why haven't we built more cycle tracks and floating bus stops? It's probably because we have been sticking to the comfort of painting lanes on the road which give up at bus stops because we are scared about the negative feedback from building tracks. Let's be honest here, most roads with cycle lanes carry so much traffic that we should be building tracks.

People often have lomg-held views on how our roads should be laid out and operate (whether a user or a designer). On the whole, people have accepted business as usual and unless a yellow line or a hump is proposed outside their house, many people have never expressed a view, regardless of their usual mode of transport. Designers, highway authorities and elected people have gone along with it because it is easy and comfortable. 

I say let's shake the tree, bring on the negative feedback and then proceed to dismantle it. Change won't happen every time, but we can chip away at long held views and very so often we'll get something different and better built which we can point at and start to feed a positive feedback loop.


  1. Is there anything you can think of in the UK that would be genuinely Dutch design that you'd like to import but genuine rules that you can't get around (not guidance, which as we've discussed, you can ignore if you choose) prevent you from doing so? I can't think of anything Dutch that is so fundamentally against the traffic regulations where I live that it would be unlawful for the engineer to use. Some nitpicky stuff like nearside signals with arrow shaped red aspects, or speed limit signs, but pretty much everything physical on the ground and the way it works would be legal by law where I live. Even I don't know about whether simultaneous green is allowed or not though.

    Ever since you adopted Dutch ideas (which was when BTW?), has your boss or engineering group said no to it (and didn't change their minds later)? Or has what you said been accepted (unless it went against the law via some old regulation #359243-2589-243082-09504923 RIOU-EIL) even if it went against guidance?

    1. As Andy says below - sim green would be great! The stuff I have been looking at is inspired by Dutch and Danish stuff I have seen, but adapted to to the sites I have been working on - I've been interested for a couple of years and it has taken that long for stuff to gradually get to site (in a small way)

  2. Apparently 'simultaneous green' for signalised junctions (even without running peds at the same time) is absolutely out in the UK (I believe TfL did float the idea to the DfT). That's something that should be available, particularly given the likely volumes of conflicting cyclists we'd have in the UK compared with the Netherlands (also bearing in mind London's - and presumably other cities which implemented high quality infra - high cycling volumes are very tidal, so true conflicts between massed streams of cyclists would likely be minimal).

    Andy R.

    1. People at TfL are still pushing as it is essentially the same as a Toucan (ish)

    2. That lightbulb moment in my head just went on. Remember those diagrams you made of what it would look like a while ago? You also made a model with the protected junction with the normal design that isn't usually used with simultaneous green. Where cyclists make two stage right turns. You could have something that is just about simultaneous green if you let all of the cyclists go at once, because you can correctly claim that you aren't letting them cross at right angles in the middle of the intersection, you're allowing them to effectively go in a roundabout sort of way, but only on a green light. Not quite like we would want ideally, but it should prove to the DfT that cyclists can manage themselves given the chance. You could even tell the police to not fine cyclists who cross at the normal simultaneous green angles, in a wide curve, if you want.

      What other projects have you done by now that looks pretty much like how the Dutch would design something? Any blog posts going to focus on those soon?

      Also, remember this picture: How about challenging the actions of TfL and probably the DfT on the grounds that by not providing safe cycling, safe places to walk in the countryside, trains that even a child can use (5 year olds take the bullet trains in Japan), they are discriminating against your daughter, and everyone`s kids, because the only effective way to get around most of the country is in a car, something that of course you have to be old enough by law to do, in the UK`s case, 17, and because of course your kids need to get around and have a desire to get around (I`m almost going mad about almost being able to drive a car on my own in a country where that`s largely the only effective way, and not quite being there), and you are not always capable of providing this transportation for your children (you and your wife get hit by a car and break your legs and can`t drive or cycle or take the bus, you get shot at by some right wing nationalist claiming that cars are the best, etc), that they are failing to provide fair transportation which they have under the ECHR Protocol 4 which means that one must have the right to move about freely once they have the legal right to be in a particular country.

      By the way, my dad is having a hard time thinking that cycle infrastructure is pragmatic. Thanks for being a good dad for your kids. We could use more of people like you. And to be able to put up with the idiocy of TFL, I still don't know how you do it.