Sunday 12 March 2017

Balancing Act

"We have to balance the needs of all road users" is an over-used phrase which can be found in consultation summaries and is often used by politicians to counter claims that active travel hasn't been enabled.

Language is of course used for communication, but it is easy to misrepresent what someone has said and in some cases, people will deliberately misrepresent to make their point. It is therefore useful to have a look at the definition of the word "balance";

So, from the basic Google search we get;

1. an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady. "she lost her balance and fell"
synonyms: stability, equilibrium, steadiness, footing "I tripped and lost my balance"

2. a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. "the obligations of political balance in broadcasting"
synonyms: fairness, justice, impartiality, egalitarianism, equal opportunity; 

1. put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall. "a mug that she balanced on her knee"
synonyms: steady, stabilise;

2. offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another. "the cost of obtaining such information needs to be balanced against its benefits"
synonyms: weigh, weigh up, compare, evaluate, consider, assess, appraise, estimate "it is a matter of balancing advantages against disadvantages"

The use of the word where our streets are concerned is pretty much universally selected by people who are either scared of tackling the current approach or as cop-out to maintain the status-quo by those with something to gain from it.

Victoria Embankment before CS3 was built.
Is this street balanced?
The "even distribution" argument is that which is often applied to so-called shared space (which is a terrible catch-all term in its own right) where it is expected that everyone will be able to share nicely and that all road users have equal weight (they might have equal rights to be there, but might is right). This of course is just not true - a person walking does not physically possess the same weight as a lorry being driven and a fit young male will approach the same street far differently than a young child or someone who is frail and cannot walk very fast. If balance was truly in accordance with the misrepresented position, then we'd see our A-road high streets full of people crossing where they want (and with no stress) and people cycling everywhere. We don't see this and so this use of balance is nonsense.

This has roots in the misrepresentation of equality. Again, the term is often abused to mean that everyone should be treated equally; everyone on the same footing if you will. This is of course nonsense because on the street, if we assume that everyone is equal, then how come we can have someone drive aggressively and then hit a child? True equality comes from enabling everyone to have the same opportunity. On the streets, this means we must use engineering to ensure those who need help and protection get it and in doing so, we actually make things better for everyone. This is what balance actually means. Changing our street layouts and networks so that "a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions" is absolutely what we need to do.

What about the use of the verb? To balance a street or to "put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall" again speaks volumes. If we have reached a situation where we don't have the steady position where all road users feel safe using a street, then it cannot be in balance. I like this part of the definition as it hints at physical change. Take a painted cycle lane on a busy road. The fact that a driver can easily enter it means that we don't have a steady position and the "fall" is that the lane doesn't offer the constant protection that a cycle track would. As the paint wears out, the position falls further whereas the use kerbs and dedicated traffic signals create the steady position.

So what about a situation where we close a road to drivers - haven't be gone beyond balance? The simple answer (in the context of what I have written above) is yes in terms of "road users", but no in terms of "street" users and this brings about a different point which is around the difference between the "place" and "movement" function we often hear about. In coming to a balance which allows everyone to feel safe and comfortable, we have brought in the needs of those not using the street to move through. This may include those living or working there in terms of wishing to have a quiet, non-polluted street; it could include a cafe wanting to have tables and chairs in the street for customers and it could be outside a school where we have to use radical physical changes to enable walking and cycling to it.

This brings us to where we "offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another"; this is when consultation results and decision-making should be more honest. The balance argument, as I have suggested, comes from the point of view that everyone is equal, regardless of view or need, but this argument is nonsensical. What people are really saying is that they have looked at the arguments, users and needs and attached a value to each of them. They have then offset those those arguments, users or needs. Of course, if one's position is that walking and cycling should be enabled, one will be accused of trying to skew the balance, but as I have explained above, there is no balance because those users simply do not currently feel safe and comfortable.

I'd be happier if people said "we've analysed the consultation and based on feedback, we have decided to prioritise the provision of on-street parking and the use of the street by people driving through" - at least it would be an honest position and not some doublespeak using the word "balance". You are of course entirely at liberty to disagree with me and suggest that my post is not balanced. However, please consider your starting point which has to be the proposition that most streets are fundamentally unbalanced. 

The discussion scales. Whether we're talking about a residential street which should be quiet, but is full of drivers avoiding main routes; or a motorway where communities are severed and a bridge is needed; the question of balance holds. My advice to those seeking to "balance the needs of all road users" is to examine your starting position, because more often than not, you are actually arguing for the unbalanced status-quo and your use of the word "balance" is therefore entirely disingenuous.

Victoria Embankment after CS3 was built.
Is this street balanced?

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