My 4 year old wanted to go to “the dinosaur museum” and with this month’s Street Talks subject being “shared space”, a post on Exhibition Road seems in order. Many local authorities are looking at this in the hope that it can offer some relief from what I will call the “inter modal tension” on our streets.
We took the tube to South Ken and joined the throngs of tourists and families heading north over Cromwell Road toward the museums.
I should say right up front that my impression is that the scheme is very poor. Here’s why:
It’s not really Shared Space
My understanding is that there are many other measures that should be in place for shared space to be effective. Pedestrians and cyclists should dominate the space. Through motor traffic should be eliminated or greatly reduced. The fact that Exhibition Road remains a major through route, combined with all the parking spaces rather negates any positive effect that the design might create. A typical London half measure.
Ugly Ugly Ugly
The whole space has been clad in grey granite. Those of you who have been to Aberdeen will be familiar with the effect. There is a diagonal grid of lighter stone which is supposed to represent and reinforce the pedestrian “desire lines” but ends up looking like a giant Argyle sock laid down the road. The pattern looks totally out of place and does not relate in any way to the magnificent Victorian architecture that surrounds it. The chance to do something beautiful with all that contrasting stone, has been lost in favour of what looks a rather lazy design decision.
Does this look like a nice place to sit with your children after a museum session? Where is the shade? In the height of summer this is going to be like an oven. Why is there a seat right next to parking? It’s not really a bench is it….? The doctrine of removing street clutter says that you shouldn’t use bollards. However, sometimes you need them. The bench is doing the job of a bollard and in doing so, compromises its function as a bench. This is dishonest… people before traffic!
There were many chauffeur driven cars just stopped anywhere waiting with their engines running. The absence of road markings makes this perfectly legal. My 4 year old and I don’t want to sit right next to idling cars! Crap design.
It doesn’t work
The marking on the road surface does have an effect on behaviour… My son kept running along the lines, straight into the path of the taxis and vans! The whole experience was very stressful for me as he had no idea where he was supposed to walk. My boys know to stay on the pavement and we walk to school/nursery daily without problems. But here in this new “shared” environment, I couldn’t relax for a second. That is exactly how Shared Space is supposed to work…! Shame no one told the drivers who consistently failed to slow or stop as my little one wandered out. The council know that it’s not working too as they have had to put up signs telling motorists to give way. Those aren’t working either.
The surface is poor for cycling
The stone is slippery when wet and has already resulted in a number of cyclists falling. To be fair, the stone is faced with a rough pattern but this will wear away in time with all the heavy vehicles. I also doubt that the stone sets will remain flush and flat over time… we’ll see.
A massive missed opportunity
Oh what could have been….! All that cash to clad one of London’s most historic streets in granite and er… that’s it. Where are the trees? Where are the kiosks? Where are the fountains? Where is the “place” for all the people who come to this street? It could have been a really lovely place to hang out before/after going to museums or the Albert Hall. There is ample space to have provided two way traffic AND a really pleasant place to be. Think the Ramblas in Barcelona but with cars down one side. As it stands, it is really a car park with the odd unsheltered bench to demarcate the ends of the parking bays. But that is not the greatest tragedy… Where is the cycle lane? This was a golden chance to put in a cycle lane, extending the route that crosses Hyde Park to South Ken and beyond. Amongst the many flaws of the Cycle Superhighway scheme is the fact that the inner ends of the routes do not join up. Any chance to begin to create those connections should not be wasted. Obviously, one can ride down the road but it’s just another fast London road… where is the improvement for cycling?
Is it all bad?
Not at all… What has been done IS an improvement but the part of Exhibition road, to the south of Cromwell Rd., gives a better taste of how these schemes should work. The absence of parking and the fact that the through route to South Ken has been closed, means that this area is working much better. Pedestrians dominate and the two shopkeepers I spoke to said they loved the massive increase in footfall.
What is clear is that Shared Space doesn’t work without the raft of other measures that complement it. Principally that motor traffic must be limited or removed for the scheme to work. Local authorities are attracted to the concept but fail to implement the wider changes needed. Ultimately, the way to reduce the negative effects of heavy motor traffic is simply to reduce its access. There is just no getting around the fact that there are too many private cars in our city.
If you want to hear a pompous urban designer enjoying a totally uncritical fluffing from a supposed science journalist, you may enjoy this. Apparently, pedestrians are “natural Pythagoreans” who always favour the hypotenuse… Hence the Argyle sock pattern. What a knob.
My 4 year old put it well as we tried to cross the road outside the Natural History Museum, “Daddy, the cars aren’t stopping!”