Wednesday 19 November 2014

You Can't Polish A Turd...

Not a very professional post title I know, but attempted turd polishing is everywhere and besides, it is one of my favourite sayings which I use to counter some of the management-speak cobblers often used to justify public realm schemes.

A couple of trees which might help reduce speeds when they get a
bit bigger, plus they look nice in a relatively quiet side road.
First on my faecal-flossary hit list; doomed to my smallest Room 101 if you will, is the street tree. Now I am not some evil destroyer-of-trees, I love trees. Especially fruit ones. Especially if I can ferment the fruit!

Trees can transform a street from a concrete jungle to a minor oasis. They can be used to visually narrow a street (to slow drivers) and on the whole, trees seem to make people happy. Street trees do have a service life like any other kit and so they need to be the right tree. They need replacing from time to time and sometimes, they might need to come out to allow something to be built.

My ire is not with the tree, but the people behind turd polishing projects which try and take an urban motorway, stick a few trees in and then call it a "City Boulevard" in an attempt to suggest the route now has importance as a "place", rather than for movement. I am not against planting trees in this kind of place per se, but to try and suggest the route is anything other than an urban motorway is disingenuous.

The Mayor of London has been sticking in a few trees in recent years as part of his 2012 election manifesto. As the 5th point out of 9 of a "plan for a Greater London", planting trees was more important than transport (8th). Why do we want more trees I hear you scream? Well, there is a helpful set of reasons which I suppose are fair aspirations on their own, but given the number of new trees involved it really does seem to be window dressing to me. Tackling climate change by planting a few trees is as ridiculous as spending £30bn on a 22 mile tunnel around the Capital - I guess the Mayor likes to present schemes to specific audiences, depending on their views.

You also hear about schemes to "greening the <insert name of massive road>". These schemes try and use trees and other landscaping which are the "low hanging fruit" which can make streets more liveable (my own bullshit wording). In reality, it is about smearing a veneer of green space over what remains traffic dominated toilets where nobody would want to sit eating their lunch watching the lorries thunder by.

The Embankment in Westminster with the traffic turd flushed away
for one magical day a year.
Then we have "special events". Take the Ride London Freecycle. Please don't get me wrong, it is a cracking day out with the kids and it gives a glimpse to how a city could operate. 

The problem is that it is just one day a year, with temporary road closures trying to polish the turd which is cycling in Central London. The elephant in the room (now doubt fouling himself) is that with things like this we are trying to kid ourselves that cycling is for everyone in our cities, when in truth, once the road closed signs are thrown back onto the lorries, you are on your own (so long as you have your wits about you of course).

Paint makes it better.
How about 20mph speed limits? What could be wrong with those? Again, I am a fan and I would love them to be the default in urban areas. In the last few months, I have cycled around the City of London quite a few times and recently, most of it had a 20mph speed limit imposed. Do I feel any safer now? Of course not. The City has gotten out its road marking crews and tried to paint the turds into slowing down.

I am sorry, I also have to have a pop at other places looking to impose 20mph limits in this way. Unless the nature of the streets are changed, then we are still asking people to walk and cycle around heavy traffic (flow and size). Have you seen York Way on the Islington-Camden border?

We might get there in time if more urban areas adopt a 20mph speed limit in the absence of leadership from the Government; and if it becomes the norm. However, many places with this limit are still awful, despite the trees.

Well at least they are not cycling on the footway, this is a single
surface shared-space after all. Mind you, nobody is having a picnic
where the traffic is running.
Next, how about some multi-million pound, grand-master, stool-shining? I bring you Exhibition Road (yes, London again). 

If the traffic wasn't there (and it kind of isn't at one end which has restricted movements - pun intended!), then it would be a great setting for the world-famous museums. Instead, it remains a traffic-choked Central London rat-run and car park for the lunatics who run private cars slap bang in the middle of a city of 8 million people. If you walk up the street, the footways are crowded and people don't "share the space" with the cars, lorries and buses, unless they are feeling particularly brave (shared space will be a future post).

Finally, we have Seven Dials in London's Covent Gardent. This is almost one of my favourite London places at the moment. Interesting shops, a layout to give a road safety auditor stomach cramps, 300 years of history and a great atmosphere. It is almost one of my favourites, but it is ruined by black cabs and delivery vans pelting through the space, heedless of the pedestrians milling about. There are also the parking bays around the area which take up space which could be used so much more effectively (note the car-shaped bike rack which uses parking space more efficiently).

In this case, the turd polishing is more subtle, it is the way in which the place is celebrated as a wonderful place to visit while conveniently ignoring that it is yet again ruined by the people driving through it - I am not referring to the people who need to be there to make a delivery, but the rat-runners trying to avoid the traffic-choked main routes of Theatreland.

It is almost a nice place.
Turd polishing happens at so many levels and in so many ways that you could probably apply the concept to any argument to make your point. In my case, I am trying to show that the common denominator is that we are always trying to hide or ignore the fact that so many of our urban areas are utterly ruined by (often through) traffic. If it is an arterial road, then perhaps we need to accept it for what it is and either provide alternatives for people to avoid it as pedestrians and cyclists, or do a proper job and change it for ever by giving people real protection from traffic.

If we have traffic choked residential streets or places like Seven Dials, the answer is not to slap down some 20 roundels on the road and hope for the best, it is to filter out the through traffic in conjunction with a lower speed limit.

All too often we think that a bit of fancy paving and some trees will do the trick when it won't. Of course you can't polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.


  1. Seven Dials is the easiest place in London to solve. Four bollards in a line through the centre of the roundabout between the corners of Mercer St (South) and Earlham St (West) and Mercer St (North) and Earlham St (East) gives you access to everywhere, but blocks all the rat-runs.

  2. Exactly - sometimes it would take very little indeed to deal with rat runs!

  3. Absolutely bang on. There is no 'place' for people when it's dominated by motor vehicles.