Saturday, 9 February 2019

Sign Make It Better: Duke Street, Chelmsford

I generally have little sympathy for people who are 'caught out' at 'point' restrictions because on the whole they are laid out logically and to miss the restrictions takes quite a lot of effort.

However, sometimes they are not always clear and despite the signs, people still drive through. A 'point' restriction is in essence a line across the road over which only some people are allowed to travel (or if we are being pedantic, it could be a very short section of road). Bus gates are a common type of point restriction and the are used to give passengers a journey time advantage over general traffic where drivers have to take a long way round.

A news item caught my eye today regarding a bus gate at Duke, Chelmsford. Essentially a driver has successfully had a PCN (penalty charge notice) overturned by the Traffic Penalty Tribunal on the grounds that the signs were inadequate. An adjudicator apparently visited the site and felt that although the signs for the bus gate were large, they were with other signs which made the installation cluttered.

The driver is a psychologist who thinks there are too many signs for a driver to process at once and that drivers are getting trapped in the area and "panicking". So we don't have enough signs, but we have too many at the same time. Essex County Council has said;

Before turning on enforcement cameras in 2017, we increased signage at all junctions, sent more than 3,000 warning notices and painted the words "BUS GATE" in five-foot high letters on the road at both entrances to help make drivers aware of the restrictions.

I do like the sarcasm at the end of the statement in relation to the five-foot high letters!

So what is going on because there are actually plenty of signs in the area and there are indeed five-foot letters saying "BUS GATE" painted on the road. Perhaps more to the point, why am I having an off day by having any sympathy at all?

Chelmsford is a typical UK city which has become a victim of car-centric spatial and transport planning. There are lots of big roads around the place and lots of congestion and the pace of development in the area doesn't seem to be letting up as some of the old industrial areas become out-of-town-but-in-town retail parks. 

However, there is quite an important cycle/ bus/ rail interchange at Chelmsford Station which sits on Duke Street. The bus gate has been placed at a low bridge where the railway crosses the street. As an interchange, there are lots of local and long-distance bus routes converging on the station, there are taxis and private vehicles being used for drop-offs/ collections and the large cycle parking facility helps add to the transport mix.

The bus gate itself actually allows passage by buses, cycles, taxis and motorcycles and the headroom of the bridge restricts larger vehicles (maximum height of 3.8m). The bridge is also narrow and so it operates as a "priority pinch point" which has relevant traffic signs and so therefore, it is fair to say that there is quite a bit going on.

I think the issue with the layout is perhaps less about there being too many and too few signs, it is an issue with both the design of the immediate road layout and how the wider network operates. On the approaches to the feature, the roads are laid out to move motor traffic as efficiently as possible and so from a driver point of view, it is easy to see how people can be swept up by making progress, rather than realising that the layout is changing.

Take the view on Victoria Road South, which is just round the corner;

Victoria Road South is the A1099 and takes traffic from the A1060, a large dual carriageway which skirts the south of the city centre, and feeds it north in the city centre. Victoria Road South is dualled for a short section, then it gradually narrows. The station is signed from the A1060 and so people who don't know the area are going to be relying on the signage.

As you can see on the image of the map sign above, you can see that the station can be accessed to the side road to the left after negotiating a left then immediate right turn at a double mini-roundabout. There is then the ability for general traffic (and taxis) to stop to drop off/ collect people.

Back to Victoria Street South. The map sign does warn of the bus gate (and height restriction) and so perhaps some of my sympathy is misplaced. Perhaps. Turning left at the mini-roundabout takes you into Duke Street and you need to remember to turn right at the next mini-roundabout to get to the station. Another sign is provided to help you;

For some reason, the mini-roundabout traffic sign hasn't been put in here (it should have been, it is a requirement). If you do manage to see the direction sign, you are again warned about the bus gate and height limit ahead, although the arrow on the sign might perhaps be taken as an instruction to proceed ahead at a glance?

If you get it wrong and carry on ahead, you'll be approaching the bus gate at the railway bridge;

As you approach the bridge, you can see that you have priority over oncoming vehicles (circled in red) and the bus gate can be seen at the bridge with signs circled in blue. As you reach the point of no return, you could turn left and then do a U-turn in Park Road, although it (through design) doesn't really seem to be a place one should drive into;

So we end up with people driving through. If the person knows the area, then perhaps they should know better. If they don't well, perhaps we can see how they go to this point.

From the other side, things might be a little more straight forward as there isn't a double mini-roundabout to deal with, but we do have a map sign telling us about the bus gate ahead and that the next turning on the left is for through traffic;

As one approaches the left turn, there is another sign point ahead to tell us about the bus gate, although there is a bus stop which might mean you can't see the sign;

If you miss this sign, you end up continuing to the station, but one could turn around in the bus interchange, although there being lots of buses might put one off from doing so and in fact, one might even just be following a bus thinking it is part of general traffic flow;

Finally, we have the bus gate with the sign telling people to give way to oncoming traffic with the bus gate signs circle in blue;

One thing which is missing in Google Streetview is the BUS GATE road markings, although the image with the BBC report shows that they might not be that conspicuous in a wet road surface (which is a road marking issue).

Interestingly, Google Streetview shows us how the area looked. Go back to 2009 and there isn't a bus gate; there is a no entry sign right on the mini-roundabout with an exceptions sub plate (which at the time wasn't a standard sign) and a dubious yellow access sign;

From the other side, we have a similar "no entry" arrangement at the bridge;

I'd be willing to bet that the old layout might have stopped more people coming through because the no entry sign is more recognisable than the bus gate sign in by view. The context with the no entry approach (despite not being permitted at the time) is you cannot come through here, except these vehicles. The bus gate sign is these vehicles can come through but you cannot.

The reason this is newsworthy at all will stem from the fact that in 2019, we have now had 10 years of cuts to local authority funding and that some local authorities have taken on the civil enforcement of moving traffic contraventions which (I am not ashamed to say) raise revenue; although it is ploughed back into the enforcement/ highways/ transport service. The media love a story of a driver getting one over on the enforcing local authority who are just making money out of the law abiding motorist.

So, what is my take because I have just shown that the bus gate is, in fact, comprehensively signed. Well, I think this is a good example of trying to use traffic signs (including road markings) in a situation where nothing else is changed on a street and expecting behaviour to change. The problem with Duke Street is that the road layout invites people to make mistakes with the result being a heavy reliance of pointing at the signage to say that the people are at fault.

The better way to influence behaviour is by designing street layouts which are legible and readily understandable by users as what is being expected of them. The traffic signs are then used more sparingly and are just there really to give effect to the restriction. In the case of Duke Street, the best option would be to close the road under the railway completely so the restriction isn't needed, but it is a bus route and so that's not feasible.

We need to step back from the bus gate position and look at redesigning the road layout. For example, at the double mini-roundabouts we could get rid of them and simplify the junction to make the part of Duke Street serving the bus gate subservient to the A1099 (a side street) so that the "natural" route will be for through traffic to pass through and those accessing Duke Street making a conscious decision to turn off the A1099.

From the other side, there could be some separation to create a similar arrangement or even move the bus stop to the other side of the side road and change the sign to have an arrow pointing to the left saying "through traffic". There are probably other layouts which would help. I guess my message this week is that it is right to point and laugh at people getting fined for their own stupidity most of the time, but it is also worth pondering if the design approach in the situation has magnified or aided the stupidity.

With big thanks to the 2 Wheeled Wolf, we have an update on the sign situation fresh from the site contained in a Twitter thread, here.

So, here are a couple of the photos from site;

This is Victoria Road South which replaces the first image in the post. There is now a panel at the top mentioning the bus gate with a tweak to the through traffic message.

This is the view of the bridge from the Park Road side. We can now see the bus gate signs now have yellow backing boards to make the more conspicuous and we also see the "BUS GATE" carriageway marking.

This is from the bus turnaround side of the bridge - again, the yellow backing boards have been deployed along with the carriageway marking.

Finally, a view a bit further back with the through traffic sign that I suggested might help (as long as the view isn't blocked by a bus). Have a look at Wolf's thread for the full set.

So, where does that leave us? Perhaps I was being too charitable - but even with all of these signs, people are going through. Some will be taking a chance, but what about the rest - poor drivers or does the design play a part? So much for what I know!


  1. TSRGD has thoughtfully provided a more appropriate signage option Prohibited Traffic. Surely more realistic, as well, since this could never be seriously offered as a through traffic option, via the bypass roytes.

  2. I suppose one point that should be made is that 'bus gate' is a technical term that many people probably don't know. We're so steeped in it that it is hard to imagine the mindset of people who don't ever think about buses, but no doubt there are many in places such as Chelmsford.

    'No Entry' signs and writing on the ground are something that everyone understands, I think, but 'Bus Gate' requires the person to (a) know what a bus gate is and (b) that it means do not enter if you are in a private car.

  3. As someone who's lived & worked in Chelmsford, I know this has been a Bus Gate since 2011 & those who regularly visit or live in Chelmsford know this exists & people think its perfectly to drive through it, hence why cameras were installed almost 2yrs ago with extra signs., IMO there is no excuse to go through. It's just pig headed drivers refusing to take a slightly longer route & deserve the fines. Essex Live though is pro-car & happily stir up the usual nonsense like one mentioned & has done since the Bus Gate existed there.

    Just wait til the next Bus gate is created, Essex Live gonna have a field day...