Saturday, 30 September 2017


I've been inspired to write about competency this week. What is it? How do we measure it? Who decides if someone is competent?

This post is inspired by a Twitter discussion with Sea of Change Film who were asking what qualifications were needed to design roads in the UK. The question was prompted about issues in a "shared space" scheme in Preston.

Now, as you may know, I don't like the catch-all term "shared space" because each situation and each street is often different, but I get its use by campaigners where they are trying to highlight some common accessibility issues (especially for people with visual impairment) such as;

  • Lack of controlled crossings (signals and zebras),
  • Lack of kerb upstands,
  • Lack of contrast between footway areas and carriageway areas,
  • Lack motor traffic reduction where the other three points persist.
Anyway, this is not a post about the subject, just an introduction to set the scene on one particular angle on what I think competency might mean (and I'll come back to this later). Before I go on, I must recommend that you watch the Sea of Change film (especially if you are a street designer);

OK then, competency? A dictionary definition is;

Having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.

Immediately, the word "successfully" is open to debate because success means different things to different people. One measure of success could be measuring a completed project against its stated objectives - how well did we solve the problem? The pitfall here is the one of defining the problem in the first place. Let's use the example of Exhibition Road in London. I'm using it partly because I'm being provocative and partly because it is a "shared space" scheme which relates to the introduction to this post.

For those who don't know Exhibition Road, it is one of London's big tourist destinations with the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and others situated along its length. Following a long development phase, the street was transformed from a "traditional" wide London street of narrow footways and lots of (motor) traffic lanes into something that provides far more pedestrian space and at a high level, a far nicer public space.

The scheme also included a complex reworking of local streets in the area to get rid of various one-way systems. So was it a success and were the people involved in its design "competent"? 

  • A forward looking streetscape 
  • Retain character
  • Cater for growing numbers of visitors
  • Cater for residents’ needs
  • Maintain vehicular route 
  • Improve pedestrian environment
  • An accessible space
  • Cater for servicing and transport needs
  • An inclusive design
As the project was being developed, there was a judicial review lodged by Guide Dogs against the use a level surface (nominal footways and carriageways at the same level, without kerbs) and this ended with the local authority working with Guide Dogs and others to change the design to provide tactile strips to demarcate "safe" areas that people with visual impairment would know to be car-free (and hence the judicial review being put on hold).

In terms of the defined objectives, I'd suggest that most have been met and on that basis, the scheme could be argued as successful. However, given that Guide Dogs and others are still against some of the design principles used (despite the compromises made), the scheme won't be recognised as successful by many people and it is arrogant to think otherwise. Most recently, the street has been made one of the Mayor of London's Quietways and by this, I mean the letter 'Q' has been painted on the ground;

The photo was taken at 7am on a Saturday which is a stark contrast to how busy the street during the day;

Transport for London gives Quietway objectives as;

Linking key destinations, they will follow backstreet routes, through parks, along waterways or tree-lined streets.

The routes will overcome barriers to cycling, targeting cyclists who want to use quieter, low-traffic routes, providing an environment for those cyclists who want to travel at a more gentle pace.

When measured against those objectives, I'd argue that Exhibition Road is a failure as it's not a quieter, low traffic street by any means.

Therefore, I would advance that "success" is in the eye of the beholder. Exhibition Road is a success in terms of its transformational impact on an important international cultural destination, but it's not a success for some of the people who might want to use it (and who now are nervous using it). Therefore, success might also a frozen point in time - in other words, something deemed successful at the time might be measured differently later, especially if something new is being tried that doesn't perhaps fit with the original objectives?

In street design, is it ever possible to have a set of objectives that meets the needs of anyone with an interest in the scheme? One of the Exhibition Road objectives was to maintain a vehicular route - this means a through-route and not just access to those who need it. By setting this as an objective (knowing what the likely traffic flows would be), was the objective on inclusivity ever going to be fully met? Does this mean that for street design, objectives need to be set in a hierarchy of priority?

Looking back (which is easy from my armchair) I would have asked more questions about the objectives. If remaining a motor traffic route was immoveable, then the design should have been different and there would have been compromises against the vision on how the street should look. For example, maintaining a kerb for people with visual impairment would have meant those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters would have needed regular crossing points with flush kerbs; although this could have coincided with humped zebra crossings to give help people with visual impairment.

Maintaining a kerb would have helped with making bus stops fully accessible (a kerb meeting a low floor bus). If cycling had been part of the consideration with the level of traffic (and mixing with buses/ service trucks), then we might expect cycle tracks. Of course, all of this "stuff" would have eroded the success of the streetscape aspect. In fact, had motor traffic been filtered out and reassigned at a network level, then the street could have been made a pedestrian and cycle zone.

Competency then. I have no doubt that the professionals involved in the Exhibition Road scheme were competent planners, designers, engineers and architects and they clearly had the ability, knowledge and skill to deliver the scheme. On the Quietway scheme, the answer has to be the same; just because one disagrees with project objectives, it doesn't mean those involved in delivery are not competent. With the Quietway, adding cycle tracks was never going to happen and so the complaint about the scheme must be lodged with the people at the top. One could argue that a competent designer must challenge an unachievable objective and that is true, it's just that we are rarely party to such discussions!

If ability, knowledge and skill define a competent person, what do they look like? At a basic level, the person involved must surely have a basic understanding of what they are doing. For example, in order to design a zebra crossing, the person should have designed them before, they should know the regulations governing them and they should have an understanding of how they fit into the street. In other words, dragging a person off the street and giving them a pencil is not going to make a competent designer!

A competent zebra crossing designer (as a technical person) is probably (but not vitally) going to have a relevant academic qualification. They are going to be able to demonstrate that they have had some relevant training and they will have a track record of designing zebra crossings. Of course, people have to start somewhere and so our zebra crossing designer will have designed their first one (or several) under the supervision of a more experienced designer and in accordance with a system of review so that their designs are checked and challenged. A very important aspect of the competency of our zebra crossing designer is that they will understand their own limitations. When a client approaches them and says "you're in the crossing the road game, can you design me a bridge", our zebra crossing designer will decline the commission if they are competent!

A person can also have all of the academic qualifications under the sun, but not necessarily be competent. Imagine a few years later, our zebra crossing designer has become an expert and in fact, they have returned to academia and they are now professor of zebra crossings; travelling the world to teach other people about the delights of zebra crossings. After a few years, the regulations have changed, construction methods have been refined; our professor hasn't actually designed a zebra crossing for a decade now and they've not kept up with developments. All of a sudden, our expert is no longer competent to design zebra crossings (although they will still be an expert in the principles because they have studied them at length).

Competency as a designer is a life-long undertaking, underpinned (often) by relevant academic qualifications which taught the person to think, relevant experience in their chosen field, evidence of continuing professional development and self-knowledge in terms of personal limitations. In highway (and street design) competency must surely also include a proper appreciation of the needs of the end user - an ability to see things from a user perspective and to recommend how competing demands can be compromised or knowing when they cannot.

I often read that the last people who should be designing our streets are highway engineers. I can understand where this comes from because most day to day highway schemes are delivered by highway engineers. They are generally not high profile and they are trying to solve a problem which may not always be properly defined and often using really poor guidance. They might also be stuck in a rut in terms of being able to think critically and understand their increasingly important role as advocates for end users.

I say (well I would of course) that highway engineers should be leading the design of our streets, but they should feel more empowered to challenge the objectives they are set, especially if they are in direct conflict with each other. The problem is, engineers are problem-solvers and to that end, they like to define the problems to be overcome and this often comes across as negativity. No wonder non-expert clients are taken in by the promises of snake oil street designs.

Designers can consolidate their competency by gaining a professional qualification and membership of a professional institution. In doing so, a line is drawn under their basic competency which they can then build upon. Again, a professional qualification doesn't make a person competent, they have to continue with professional development, but at least it can reassure a client that the person is worth engaging.

I hope I have made the distinction between a poorly defined set of project objectives and a designer's competence defining the success of a scheme. As with Sea of Change Film's concerns about a particular style of street treatment, the force of the concern must be aimed at the objectives, especially with the common theme of a superficially pretty street with no motor traffic reduction. It is the role of a competent highway engineer to understand the needs of the end user and be vocal where they are not met by a project objective.


  1. Good example with the kerbing of incompatible requirements, it can be easy to see the problems from ones own perspective and miss how they relate to the many other requirements that were trying to be balanced by the designer.

  2. As somebody working in public service, all too often the job is contracted out. The question of competency of the "specifier" becomes critical. All too often the person writing the spec for the job has no real knowledge of the thing they are "buying" so it is hardly surprising that the end product is less than satisfactory. In the case of Exhibition Road I assume it was specified by TfL (or borough highway engineers) so the original specification should have been adequate, subject to political input?