Saturday, 30 May 2020

Most Highway Infrastructure Is For Motor Traffic

It's a bold statement - "most highway infrastructure is for motor traffic", but bear with me and I'll try to explain.

It's pretty obvious that motorways are designed for motor traffic and in legal terms they are not places that people are allowed to walk, cycle or ride horses. Of course, motorways do connect with other roads where people are allowed to walk, cycle and ride horses, but attention is on getting motor vehicles to move quickly between the two. This is why we get this type of Walking, Cycling & Horse Riding (WCHR) provision which is the current Design Manual for Roads & Bridges speak for People Not Driving;

This is the junction of the M25 with the A12 and A1023. The WCHR provision for the clockwise on-slip is a couple of signs and dropped kerbs. The anticlockwise off-slip is signalised and has a toucan crossing, but only because of the need to manage traffic flow on the interchange's roundabout - the toucan was added when the slip road was widened from 2 to 4 lanes in 2008 which presumably meant it was previously harder for people to work out when to dash across.

The toucan crossing is not provision for walking and cycling, it's actually there as a result of the slip road being widened and the designers realising that an unsignalised crossing of 4 lanes of traffic is probably quite a tricky thing. The on-slip of 2 lanes is maybe fine for people cross in the designer's mind - the pair of warning signs are not provision for cycling, they are maybe a result of the designer's private realisation that the layout is awful - imagine the struggle that went on.

Of course, you may think my commentary is flippant - how else are we to manage interactions where people and traffic meet? For sure the problems with this layout have their roots decades ago when the decision was made to build the M25, but the widening scheme in 2008 was about capacity increase rather than making things safer for people crossing - we monetize journey time improvements for people driving, but improving the experienced safety of people crossing this severing infrastructure doesn't appear in the sums.

Looking at motorways is an extreme example, so lets go back to the start. There is debate and disagreement about why kerbs were invented, but my favourite one has to be around the ancient city of Pompeii. The streets had kerbs with raised sidewalks because the lack of sanitation meant the streets were open sewers.

In the photograph above which Jeremy Burge kindly provided for City Infinity's Joy of Kerbs guidance, you can see the kerbs and raised sidewalks and also stepping stones which helped people cross the road - stepping stones to get over the filth because there needed to be space on each side to get carts through. Perhaps there's an analogy with streets which are traffic sewers and zebra crossings!

It's a pattern often repeated whether it's the raised boardwalks of the pioneer towns in the Wild West of the USA or footways in the cities of the UK built a couple of hundred years ago. The use of kerbed footways protected people from the filth of the streets and indeed the widespread use of horses and horse drawn carriages which were't compatible with the soft bodies of people walking around.

Who is this footway for, people walking or people driving?

Fast forward to the 21st Century and if I asked the question of why we're building kerbed footways, I'd lay odds that most people would respond that they are provided for pedestrians because isn't that just obvious? What if I told you that in fact, we're building kerbed footways to protect people walking from people driving or perhaps to keep people walking and people driving separated? We're building kerbed footways for people driving.

Once we turn the logic onto its head then it leads to other questions. Is the humble pedestrian refuge walking infrastructure or motoring infrastructure?

Why do we put in a pedestrian refuge? It's obvious - it's to help people cross the road in two parts. But why do people need to cross the road in two-parts? Well, it's because the road is busy - oh look, is the penny starting to drop? Pedestrian refuges are a staple of "local safety schemes", those local authority investment programmes which look at collisions in an area and install "stuff" to stop them happening again. Of course, those same refuges then get hit by drivers which then costs everyone to keep putting right and the schemes are about the continued accommodation of driving.

Most Highway Infrastructure Is For Motor Traffic is everywhere when you start to think about it. Dropped kerbs are not for wheelchair users, they are there as a result of footways being needed to separate people walking and people driving; in fact it's dictating where wheelchair users may cross the road. 

The need for kerbs to help visually impaired people find the edge of the footway so they aren't entering driving space is the result of there being driving space in the first place. The tactile paving created as the compromise between wheelchair users and visually impaired people at dropped kerbs is only there because of driving space.

Then (inevitably) I have to mention cycling. The people who loudly complain about the costs of all those cycle lanes being built and not used at a cost of millions to the taxpayer have missed the point. Putting painted rubbish to one side, the proper cycle tracks built on main roads are motoring infrastructure. They are there to keep driving and cycling separated because that is the only way we can get most people who don't cycle to start cycling.

The photograph about is Blackfriars Bridge in Central London. Before this cycle track was built, the only people who cycled were the fit and the brave. Since being built it has created a transport choice for thousands of people. The costs associated with it are generally framed as being "for cycling", but in fact they are incurred as a result of driving - we need a significant amount of investment to help people feel safe and to physically protect them from people driving.

And so it goes on. Traffic signals are there because of driving. Traffic signs are largely there because of driving. Pay and display parking machines are there because of driving. Traffic calming is there because of driving. Even a significant majority of highway maintenance spend is required because of driving. All of this stuff is only necessary because of how we have enabled driving to be such an easy thing to do.

If one delves into old places where motor vehicles are banned or mainly banned, then we see different streets such as the old part of Deventer in the Netherlands which is pedestrianised and mainly lacking kerbs. Cycle access is permitted although people cycling through will go a different way.

Or how about a modern example closer to home such as Francis Road in Waltham Forest which is no longer a place to drive through and so has largely been stripped of it's motoring infrastructure other than where it's completely required;

Of course, I am not suggesting driving ends tomorrow because that would be daft (although I do want a low traffic future). We are still going to need cycle tracks on main roads, pedestrian crossings and modal filtering, but we should be bolder in our assertion that the costs of this infrastructure is largely because of the motoring culture we have and therefore the infrastructure is largely for motoring, not walking or cycling.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown how unfairly space has been distributed on our streets and so funding is being invested in pop-up space for wider footways, cycle tracks and modal filters. The usual suspects are pushing back against this, but again, it is absolutely clear that the investment is needed to stop people being chased off the streets by motor vehicles. This work is actually motoring infrastructure.

Yes it is a strange train of thought and it turns what we "know" completely on its head. But if you properly think about it, Most Highway Infrastructure Is For Motor Traffic.

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