Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads. They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.
In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village. The reason? Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast. Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.
Not so calm
It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years. It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming. And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.
The road safety results? Well, we don’t know. No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.
Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents. The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures. They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village.
Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time.
The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed. You can see the results in the pictures.
What’s the problem?
These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path. It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.
That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely. For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident. For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.
Politics over safety
One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame. After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ rapidly sees voters fleeing to his rivals. This means he must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something. Ideally, “something” means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs.
In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment. That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals. Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous. Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues. Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.
As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:
“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”
Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness. Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too.