Saturday, 5 April 2014

Clutter Buster

Brace yourselves, I agree with eric pickles on something. yes both you and I are now feeling sick. actually, we agree on a very narrow area of life and that is street clutter.

Blue paint, unnecessary pedestrian guardrail and an advert board.
Three bits of clutter. Not sure the lights hanging above the road do
much for the street scene either.
It has taken us decades in many cases, but we have managed to stuff our streets are full of clutter. It is a combination of "official" stuff such as signs, guard rails, bins, bollards, road markings and dare I state it, blue paint (at least in London). This could also include advertising boards and hoardings where planning permission was granted. Then we have the unofficial stuff like the shop advertising boards, bin bags left on the footway or cars parked everywhere (Eric and I probably part ways at that point).

Of course (and as usual), Pickles was out to criticise local authorities. It is his hobby and I doubt he has ever taken the time to try and understand why some of the things get put in our our streets. If we are really going back to the basics, then we could do a lot worse than always asking ourselves the following question when planning elements of a scheme or reviewing an existing layout:

"does it perform a useful job?"

If the answer is no, then you probably need to remove it. Let's think about some examples. Pedestrian guard rail (PGR) is the obvious one. Nominally installed to keep pedestrians safe, PGR has covered our streets and may things more dangerous in many cases. If people are safely penned in, then they cannot wander into the path of traffic. On the flip side, drivers get used to pedestrians not crossing the road and so begin to ignore the fact that they are there.

OK, see through PGR has been provided, but I
wonder if it was really needed at all?
PGR can be useful in some limited circumstances. I have used it right outside school gates on busy roads not to keep the kids from running into the road (is there any actual evidence of this lemmingesque behaviour?), but to stop people accidentally stepping into the road during the crowding one can get at the school gate. Of course, this use of PGR does not deal with the busy road or the lack of capacity on the footway but we sometimes we do have to just deal with the symptom. I am not happy about it, but it is life - especially in skint local government.

I have covered desire lines before and really that should be the starting point which means PGR is not needed. Where people crossing a road are made to come off their line, PGR might be useful within a high speed environment, although if people can easily walk round it then it is a waste of time. The problem is that it can also be a trap for people on bikes. Oh and it is not designed to prevent vehicle impacts despite the amount of times I am ask to put it in to protect someone's garden wall.

Traffic signs (and I include road markings) are over designed and over used. Much of the problem is the complexity of the rules governing their use which leads to over specification as many designers do not understand how it all works. There are some signs we do need such as for speed limits, parking controls, banned turns, no entries and the like - actually signs which regulate are required because they give effect to Traffic Regulation Orders (Traffic Management Orders in London). I would also add that signs are relatively cheap and nobody likes a sign more than a local councillor who wants to see to be doing something!

Chapter 4 of the Traffic Signs Manual - what a read!
Warning signs are so overused I wonder if they have much effect any more. Some are useful such as "traffic signals ahead" on a high speed road where visibility is not quite perfect and indeed at traffic speeds above 50mph they are (almost) mandatory (the guidance states they should be used rather than must be used). In a normal 30mph urban situation they really do not need to be used.

The "zebra crossing ahead" sign seems to be put in as a matter of routine by many people without any reference to guidance. Again, it should only be used when there is a specific visibility issue - possibly the crossing is over a hill. Of course is this a sensible place for the crossing? It might be on the desire line and to improve visibility by moving it might mean people don't use it. The other thing is that the sign does not look like a zebra crossing and many people are not actually sure what it means.

On the entrance to a side road, speed limit signs don't need to be lit.
Sometimes traffic signs need to be lit. Normally, if the road is an A-road and is lit, the signs will be lit to help them stand out from the generally levels of illumination (if that make sense). Apart from some regulatory signs in most other situations, signs don't need to be lit but some designers just specify lighting without checking. Speed limit signs are a good example. If the limit changes part way along a lit road, then the speed limit signs need to be lit. If the speed limit changes at the entrance to a side road, they don't need to be lit, but it is amazing how often side road signs are lit.

Apart from the energy and maintenance costs associated with signs which don't need lighting, there is the extra clutter created by the lighting units and the wide-based posts which take the power supply - simply not needed.

My point with signs and indeed road markings is to always start with nothing and only put in what is needed. If this was the approach, streets would look so much better. The big problem with all of this is managing parking. The UK takes the approach that one may park where one likes unless there is a restriction and to restrict parking, we need more traffic signs and road markings, only we don't.

The Traffic Signs (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations and General Directions 2011 made some changes which can help reduce sign and line clutter in both town centres and residential areas.

Although around for a while with permission from the Department for Transport on a case by case basis, we are now fully able to use Restricted Parking Zones. Done properly, the entry points to the zone has a sign giving the restrictions and repeater signs replace the yellow lines. 

Parking or loading bays can be "marked" with paving designs or bollards, although the parking bay signs are still required. The large sign on the left is an image of a RPZ entry sign which basically tells drivers that parking and loading is banned in all places except in signed bays. The yellow sign is the repeater sign which replaces the double yellow lines and kerb blips for the loading ban. 

Although the signs are needed, the visual impact of the road markings is removed totally. The image (from Google) is Chester City centre which has a RPZ in force which has indeed done away with road markings. At the end of the zone, a "zone ends" sign is needed, but that can go on the back of the entry sign.

For self-contained areas operating permits, we can get rid of all of the parking bay markings. The two signs on the right of the above image are the entrance/ exit signs which are used. Again repeater signs are used in the permit area (they would have been needed for the bays anyway) and if there are places where no parking is allowed, then sections of double yellow lines are needed. I have been involved with one scheme like this which restricted 4 roads which were accessed from a single point. So easy.

The bus flag did not need planning permission, but
when combined with the shelter and lamp column, it
is all rather crap for pedestrians and bike riders on
this shared-use track
OK, what about non-local authority clutter? On-street advertising is something I really detest. Whether it is an advert board (A-board) put out on the footway by a shop (often without permission or licence) or a permanent advert stuck in the middle of a shopping centre, they not only create visual clutter, they block the free flow of people walking. Many adverts require planning consent and this is one area Mr Pickles does have oversight with.

There is guidance available and I suggest campaigners read it and challenge their local councils on their enforcement and licencing policies. Briefly (and subject to various rules) there are things which don't need planning consent such as bus stop timetables, for sale signs and A-boards on private forecourts for example; everything else does.

A strange middle ground exists with some poster sites known as "4-sheet" which is the size of bus shelter adverts (which you see on the end panel). They mustn't be lit and mustn't be larger than 2.16 square metres. They must be on a purpose designed structure for the poster panel and have permission from the highway authority (S115E of the Highways Act 1980). Of course once the poster is lit, then it requires consent.

OK, my ramblings are a little cluttered, but I think you get the gist - things need to earn their place on the streets and I haven't even commented on how rows of parked vehicles create clutter! I will leave you with a story on how a traffic sign did solve a clutter problem.

As a vestige of privatisation, British Telecom has a "Universal Service Obligation" to provide telephone call boxes for social and community reasons. The other telecoms operators are not saddled with this (apart from Kingston Communications by a historical quirk) and so poor old BT lose money on the call boxes because of falling demand, cost of maintenance etc.

Before - the old phone box
So, to offset the cost of providing call boxes, they have been working with advertising companies to sell the space available on them. With a normal call box, a non-illuminated post of less than 2.16 square metres can of course be put up without planning consent.

But this is not big enough for the advertisers and so BT is working with the advertising industry to provide large, lit poster panels which have a telephone attached. The argument is that the structure does not need planning permission as it is for the telephone and as BT has powers to install a call box, it does need highways permission to install it. They only need planning consent for the lit advert.

After - the advert panel aimed at drivers
(the phone is on the other side)
There has been debate in planning and legal circles whether this is within the law, but I don't know if it has been challenged - if you know, please do let me know. 

In my example, we had a call box which was replaced with one of these poster-phone combinations. The problem was that not only did is substantially reduce the footway width it ruined the visibility at a T-junction just behind it. Pulling out of the side road, one had no view of traffic on the main road.

I met the advertiser to explain the concern and it was like water off a duck's back on the basis that there was nothing we could do - you have to understand, planning permission for the poster itself was very hard to refuse - technically it was the structure that was the issue and that was lawfully installed using BT's powers.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.
I dealt with numerous resident and councillor complaints which just sucked in time. The planning and legal departments ummed and aahed and so eventually I concocted a plan. The advert panel is hinged at the top and so opens up for the advert to be changed. What I did was to arrange a traffic sign to warn people on the main road that there was a side road ahead and to replace the obscured cycle route warning sign.

Using highway authority powers, the sign was installed right in front of the advertising panel so that it couldn't be opened to change adverts and coincidentally, the sign completely blocked the view of the advert. The advertiser was not happy and threatened us with action. My answer was that as highway authority, we had the power to install the sign and we only did so because of the junction visibility being blocked. Eventually the advert was removed and we took out the sign. Sadly, there is no call box at all now, but the point was made - I do question the conscience of advertisers placing things to attract driver's attention, but that is a post for another day.


  1. Great post. I have had a productive meeting with a TfL street manager recently in regards to removal of poor cluter. Not so much too many objects (although this is an issue) but more the way they are placed on the road. 2 legged sign posts are not cool!

    1. Most things can be dealt with by some careful thought. Rather than a sign post with a sign centrally mounted in the middle of the footway, we can often put the post at the back and side hang the sign.

      We can double up with bins and traffic signals on lamp columns and we can leave out many road markings and signs anyway!

    2. Interesting stuff. I've become a bit of a declutter aficionado recently and have been contracted to carry out some work on the TfL network for exactly that - decluttering in conjunction with capital footway renewals.

      One part of this is looking to replace two posts with one where practical (and where the required foundation area is free from stats).

      Looking forward to the new TSRGD being released next year which should relax a lot of the onerous requirements on lighting, as well as signs that must accompany markings (for example we technically cannot have a cycle logo without an upright sign, nor a 'dragons tooth' speed hump without the accompanying road hump sign).

      Good things are happening!

  2. I think part of the problem with street clutter (and as it relates to space for cycling) is the guidance in Chapter 1 of the Traffic Signs Manual stating the edge of sign faces - and by implication all street furniture - should be a minimum 450mm from the edge of the carriageway, so as to be out of the way of large vehicles which may overhang the footway (cycleway).

    Presumably for similar psychological reasons as drivers experience 'kerb shyness', a 76mm diameter signpost placed 450/500mm back from the kerb reduces a 1.5m footway to less than 1.0m practical width, and the same obviously goes for a cycle track; perhaps more so.

    Placing everything at the back of the footway as a default - and for signs or traffic signals this may mean using more expensive cranked posts or cantilever structures - would, I think, do a great deal to remove the feeling of clutter and the perception of the footway or cycleway as an obstacle course.

    Andy R

    1. I certainly advocate looking at putting things at the back of the footway as a starting point. Not always possible, but mostly possible.

  3. Hi could you easily point me in the direction of the section in TSRGD that lets us change speed limits at side roads without lighting the signs? If not I'll research it but thought you may have it to hand. Thanks

    1. Have a look at the "speed limits" section in Chapter 3 of the Traffic Signs Manual (link below) for full details (p105 onwards).

      Para 14.54 onward (p128) deals with lighting of speed limit signs. It isn't brilliantly clear, but terminal signs on trunk roads and principal roads ('A' roads) need to be lit if within 50m of a street light. It is also recommended they be reflectorised.

      Terminal signs not on truck roads, not on principal roads and of course unlit roads don't need to be lit, but they should be reflectorised, although common practice is to light them when the speed limit changes part way along a road anyway.

      20mph Zone signs can be lit or reflectorised (if lit, recommended that they are reflectorised too) and in practice 20mph Zone signs are bigger than usual speed limit signs and so people don't light them even where the limit changes along a road.

      20mph limits are different to Zones and so the rules for trunk roads and principal roads apply.

      Essentially, light signs on main roads where the limit changes and the road is lit (and reflectorise the signs), including 20mph limits, but not Zones.

      Don't light in all other situations!

      It is not easy this!

    2. oh the link

  4. I found a great website, partially dedicated (partially dedicated?) to decluttering road signs, making them more intuitive, implementing the Vienna Convention fully and metricating road signs. I like the guy's ideas.

    1. Fascinating! I'm not holding my breath on a metric changeover, but it would make sense on so many levels!

    2. Look into this website. It talks about what the signs could even look like: