You are here: trying (and failing) to lose myself in the city

IMG_5244I’ve been training for the Hackney Half Marathon and have been enjoying the chance to be alone, to explore the canals, rivers, back streets and parks of the city, and to think. The more I run, the more I’ve been thinking about the limits of my freedom as a runner, or indeed walker of the city. I’ve been thinking about the subtle, yet still powerful, ways our movements and interactions are being managed and planned.

These frustrations first surfaced in the countryside, during a run in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire where I grew up and my parents still live. I was looking forward to escaping the confines of the towpaths and to being immersed, perhaps even a little lost, in woodland. So I dug out my Dad’s Ordnance Survey map and traced a route I cycled as a teenager along the old Severn and Wye railway line.

But I could have been spared this effort. It turned out that Pedalabikeaway, the local cycle centre, had come a long way since I lived in the area and now offered hoards of Lycra-clad men a variety of colour-coded, skill-sorted, time-tested, effort-planned routes around the Forest. Once I had parked, signs informed me that the ‘Family Cycle Trail’ followed a similar route and showed in precise detail how far I would travel, how long I would be away and how much effort I would expend.

And that information kept coming. Large yellow signs (a far cry from arrows on small wooden posts) regularly updated me, right down to the number of minutes it would take to get back. I was disappointed that I was compelled to look at each sign and waited for the next one to appear. Once I got back, I remembered the experience more as the completion of a route than a morning in the woods.

Some of my best memories in the Forest were of getting lost, retracing routes, asking strangers for direction, discovering the unexpected, or finding a phone booth to call my parents for rescue. Could this be possible now if all options are engineered? Even if cyclists fancied going off-route, these diversions were carefully marked out and each given a name to describe the ‘skills’ it would test.

And this was supposed to be my break from the tyranny of constraint in the city. Here it’s much worse of course. We press buttons to gain permission to cross roads; we retreat to pavements and quiet pathways to escape traffic; we become a blue dot pulsing on a smartphone app; our trajectories mapped out ahead of us as a colour-coded line, ready to change if any surprises get in our way.

I understand that we need routine, structure, signs and signals to help us negotiate the complexity of urban life. I also realise that information helps. I remember terrifying taxi journeys when I first arrived in London when I didn’t have a mobile phone, let alone Googlemaps to tell me that I was indeed travelling home and not to my death. Transport for London’s Legible London signs (pictured above) were designed to encourage walking in the city. And I appreciate that the Forestry Commission has to cleverly manage the impact of cycling on the Forest, which means planned routes are necessary.

I also appreciate that a few friendly signs are nothing compared to the increasing power of CCTV, uniformed guards and rules in today’s public spaces. After all, it’s not hard to ignore a sign and follow our own paths.

But that doesn’t mean these subtle forms of control have no influence. Economic geographer, John Allen’s analysis of the Sony Centre in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz (2006) offers an interesting exploration of a related subject. He shows how urban planners use the layout and design of this public space not necessarily to manipulate, but to seduce, “offering choices around movement and patterns of interaction, yet at the same time limiting those very same movements and interactions in broadly scripted ways”.

My route around the forest was certainly scripted, as are my runs along the Regent Canal where Legible London signs reveal not only where I will be in five or fifteen minutes, but all the temptations I’ll see along the way. I am concerned that this desire to script public spaces erodes our capacity for surprise, innovation and novelty. I’m not calling for the death of signs, but I wonder whether we could be trusted with a little more wherewithal, a little more intelligence to mark our own paths, our own directions.

But we also need to take control ourselves, to switch off in order to lose ourselves a little. I plan to do just that … once I’ve logged my routes via my GPS-enabled running watch, recorded my speed, traced the Hackney Half Marathon route and beaten my personal best … I promise.

Postscript:

Those who have read my previous blogs might argue I’m contradicting myself here. Surely any traffic filtering scheme is another form of control, another script. I agree and would prefer people relied on instincts rather than engineering tools to make roads safer. The trouble is that our streets were designed with freedom in mind, but solely in terms of the freedom of auto traffic and not other road users. To reverse this imbalance perhaps we need to take more drastic steps in order to demonstrate how streets might look as social spaces rather than engineered spaces for movement. Road closures might be too heavy-handed, but I’d like to test them to find out.

Street play: I’m an optimist, not an idealist

I was dismayed when Twitter followers recently suggested that I was either a neglectful mother or hopelessly nostalgic in thinking children might still play on the pavements of streets with low traffic levels. These comments were, for me, further evidence that society is too comfortable with the car controlling the street: so comfortable that it has become impossible to imagine anything else.

I acknowledge that it’s not just traffic that has driven adults and children off the doorstep and into more insular ways of living over the last 30-50 years. Changes in working patterns, particularly for women; the rise of suburbanisation and high-rise living in the 1960s; the boom in screen-related activities for children; and a growing culture of fear, or stranger danger, among parents have all played their part. But study after study have shown that the greatest threat to safety and life on streets is traffic.

What’s more, the power that the automobile exerts isn’t purely a material fear of accidents. As I outlined in a previous post, a whole range of cultural and material developments also persuade us that cars rule. Everything from education campaigns, reportage of accidents, lollypop ladies, kerbs, and children’s TV  all cajole us into thinking that streets are unsafe and best for moving through as quickly as possible.

But I’m convinced this mindset can be changed. If we tore streets apart, then surely we can fix them. And I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this. I have been interested in a growing number of experiments and innovations that show an interest in re-imagining what streets are for. Take for example the Paris Plage, where the banks of the Seine are turned into a beach during August, or the Bristol Waterslide that transforms a steep street into a giant waterside during the summer; or PARK(ing) day when people pile money into parking machines to take over and reinterpret parking slots for a day. These are not cases of replicating life in the 1950s, but trying to re-imagine or re-create spaces that demonstrate an alternative.

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Paris Plage (Source: Zoey Hihberger 2014)

This was why I became interested in ‘play streets’ and decided to study this UK initiative for a MSc dissertation last summer. This concept, conceived by two parents in Bristol, encourages residents to apply to their local council to close a street to through-traffic for a few hours every so often. Residents manage the closures themselves and children come up with the games.

I was fascinated by how quickly the idea spread: from one street in Bristol in 2009 to more than 250 streets nationwide playing out regularly today, including around 40 in Hackney. Was this evidence that communities were up for change and for bringing life out onto the street? The play streets I visited (and ran on my street) were positive experiences: adults enjoyed the opportunity to talk with neighbours and children delighted in reclaiming a space that was usually off limits. If any residents had concerns about the scheme, organisers told me that these soon evaporated once the play streets were up and running. I also became convinced that street play was more engaging and more imaginative than play in the playground.

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Our ‘play street’ in 2015

Yet while I think play streets are a compelling demonstration or performance of an alternative, I’m unconvinced of their potential for long-term change alone. It’s a shame that residents have to go to such administrative lengths, erect ‘Road Closed’ signs and wear high-vis vests to enable something that could be everyday and normal. I am also concerned that the initiative reinforces today’s culture of containment in parenting by removing all risks and providing yet another supervised space for play.

This is why I’m also interested in how informal changes can influence long-term behaviours: how small, everyday acts such as leaving a front door open or sitting on the doorstep while children play change attitudes about what can happen in streets.

I’ll admit I haven’t done a great deal of this with my children in the past. Even on our relatively low-traffic street, I have been too wary of supervising three small children on my own. But other children do occasionally play on the pavement of my street. Now my youngest are almost four, I’m hoping they will spend more time scooting and pottering with neighbours on the pavement.

And I’d like to see this opportunity extended to more streets. There are a number of ways of achieving this. Most of all this comes down to communities taking up the challenge, of course, and having the interest and energy to bring life onto the street.

But councils can trigger shifts in mindset and behaviour by enabling low-speed, low-traffic environments. I welcome the roll out of 20mph speed limits and believe this could go even further/slower on residential streets. A great deal could also be achieved through street design. Back in the 1990s, councils redesigned around 100 UK streets under the Home Zones project so that roads and pavements became shared, social spaces. Yet, despite research demonstrating the scheme made significant impacts, the scheme was withdrawn in 2007 largely as a result of the high costs involved.

This is one of the reasons I support a trial of road filters across streets here in London Fields, Hackney (though encouraging a reduction in traffic levels and future-proofing for changes in commuting patterns, aka cycling, are reason enough for me). It might not work: the scheme might be too heavy-handed; it might make streets too quiet and less safe as some fear; it might displace too much traffic onto neighbouring streets (in which case it would need to be changed/dismantled).

But if it did work, if traffic chaos didn’t emerge and overall traffic levels did fall (as research suggests they would), could low traffic levels turn streets into community space again? I appreciate that a few road filters will not build a culture of street play overnight (so this should not be a measure of a trial’s impact). But I’m an optimist and would rather take this opportunity to test an alternative (and analyse and communicate what happens) than stick with the street-fearing status quo.

(Main photo courtesy of Hackney Council)

London Fields traffic: why testing alternatives is essential

Since I posted my first blog there has been some interest in my links to the campaign supporting potential road closures in London Fields (my only link is Claudia Draper who spoke at the pro-road-closure meeting  in February and who helped me set up a play street last year). So I thought I’d add some detail about why I’m interested in a scheme that challenges the domination of cars in streets.

Last year I completed a MSc dissertation looking at play streets, where residents occasionally close their streets to cars for play. I wanted to investigate how far this model could lead to a long-term shift in actions and perceptions of the street.

Car is king

My research soon revealed the difficulty in shifting those perceptions. Cities for too long have been designed around auto traffic and car drivers assume it’s their right to use the most direct and fastest routes. I have heard residents in E8 expressing fears about becoming ‘prisoners’ in their homes if the council did close roads to through-traffic (even though they would still be able to access properties, albeit on slightly longer routes). It is as if some prioritise freedom to drive over freedom to walk or cycle on streets.

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Historical accounts have revealed how the car won its enviable position as king of the street. As historians Clay McShane and Peter Norton have shown, the automobile’s dominance was not inevitable or the natural order of things, but the result of a hard-fought campaign by the auto world through the media, law courts and school safety campaigns pre 1930. Their aim was to create a social change and turn the car from a symbol of death into a symbol of freedom.

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And they won. Even those not in cars are convinced that the street is not for them. Consider all the traffic engineering equipment that teach us to keep away from the road, safely waiting at traffic lights or on pavements. Consider the school safety campaigns that encourage children and parents to hurry along streets, or the chilling road safety adverts that blame careless pedestrians, rather than automobiles, for not heeding dangers on the road.

A bold move

This is why I’m encouraged when I see cities bravely challenge the status quo by prioritising other road users. I noticed, with interest, plans to close the Seine to auto traffic in Paris and the mayor’s comments that the time has come to assume a decline in auto traffic. After all, there are estimates that cyclists will outnumber car drivers entering central London in the next few years.

I’m also encouraged by success stories in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Wolverhampton, Cambridge and Vauxhall Cross as examined in this European Commission report. The Enjoy London Fields group has also uploaded some video case studies here, some of projects in residential areas. I realise there are differences but there are some lessons to be learned.

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Pedestrians beware: TfL ad campaign

In each case, there was fierce opposition and a belief that idiosyncrasies would prevent the concept from working. But in each case, travel chaos did not materialise and a proportion of traffic disappeared.

Of course, it’s possible that road closures might not work in this area and I agree that other city locations might benefit even more from road closure schemes. I also appreciate concerns that traffic will be displaced onto neighbouring streets and increase pollution in school playgrounds.

But if road closures could lead to an overall reduction in traffic volumes and if these closures set in motion wider changes that reduced traffic on neighbouring streets, then I believe they are worth testing. I just can’t see how doing nothing is attractive to those who want to reduce pollution levels in the area.

Considering alternatives

I’m not in complete opposition to cars and understand they are (just one) part of the life of a street. I also acknowledge that other measures that reduce auto traffic are also critical. Vehicles need to be more fuel efficient; we need to move to a system of car sharing and not car ownership; cities need to improve public transport; and design roads that encourage slower and more careful driving behaviour (the list goes on).

But what’s appealing about the London Fields road closure concept is that it is so contentious. In being so it encourages debate and it conspicuously and quickly tests an alternative. Conversely, by doing nothing, don’t we run a greater risk by telling society that the car should endure as king?

 

London Fields traffic filtering: can traffic ‘evaporate’?

My inner traffic geek was intrigued when flyers appeared through my door last year about plans to close roads in my area to through-traffic. Hackney Council wanted to turn Middleton Road, a residential road near London Fields, into a cycle “Quietway”, part of a network of low-traffic, backstreet routes across London.

To do this, they needed to cut traffic from the current average of 4,000 vehicles a day to less than 2,000. Under the council’s initial area-wide scheme, 13 junctions would be closed, allowing local traffic to access properties (albeit using longer routes), whilst encouraging through-traffic to take alternative routes along main roads.

The reaction for, but mostly against the scheme was vociferous. Petitions soon emerged and council-run meetings were overrun with furious residents concerned about the impact of traffic levels and pollution on neighbouring streets, as well as increased journey times.

Following this opposition, the Council abandoned the trial and launched a consultation (now on-going) into this initial concept (now referred to as ‘Option 1’) plus three other less comprehensive schemes.

Rebalancing streets

I’m not a cyclist and I’m not involved in the campaign supporting ‘Option 1’, but I do broadly support a scheme that re-thinks the balance of power on streets, and gives other users including pedestrians and cyclists greater, but certainly not all, control.

Some of those opposing the scheme worry about becoming ‘prisoners in their own home’, as one lady put it at a meeting organised by the campaign for the area-wide scheme this week. I disagree with this since local drivers will still be able to drive. I also believe the scheme gives greater freedom to a wider range of people, or wins back freedom for road users that have been neglected in the past. But more on this in another post.

Impacts on neighbouring streets

However, I appreciate residents’ concerns that streets that will not be closed to through-traffic (including Richmond Road and Queensbridge Road) will see an increase in traffic levels. These streets are already busy thoroughfares, not only for vehicles, but also pedestrians including children accessing a few schools and children’s centres along these roads. I agree that a dramatic traffic increase on these routes would be unacceptable and understand how residents have been close to tears when speaking at local events about the scheme.

Traffic ‘evaporation’

That said, I’m interested in the findings from research studies that show how schemes such as this don’t simply shift traffic to nearby areas or streets, but lead to an overall reduction or ‘evaporation’ of traffic. It’s worth explaining these findings as there’s a lot of miscommunication about them.

A 2002 study (by Sally Cairns and Phil Goodwin at UCL and Stephen Atkins, University of  Westminster) of 70 case studies worldwide, for example, demonstrated that ‘11% of the vehicles which were previously using the road or the area where roadspace for general traffic was reduced, could not be found in the surrounding area afterward’ (Cairns et al, 2002). In the more comprehensive cases, the reduction of overall traffic was much higher. So, when Nurnberg Rathausplatz closed to traffic in 1988 almost 25,000 vehicles disappeared from the altered routes every day, but less than 3,000 extra vehicles were seen on alternative routes. Measured over five years, there was actually a reduction of almost 12,000 cars on neighbouring streets as well.  Not all cases (especially in the short term) show such dramatic reductions in traffic levels on alternative routes, but in most cases, the increases gained on alternative routes are nothing like the losses on the altered ones, demonstrating that they simply do not not take the burden of all diverted traffic.

Wider effects 

What these studies show is that when road space is reduced, people make a wide range of responses such as choosing different modes of transport, travelling less often, travelling at different times of day, or taking different routes. For me, therefore, Option 1 is not just about creating a safe cycle route, but also about changing behaviours and rethinking what streets are for.

Of course this scheme must not work in isolation – it’s clear that additional improvements must be made on Queensbridge and Richmond Roads to make them safe, efficient routes. Plus there’s a whole lot more that can be done to get people out of cars.  It’s also clear that if this area-wide scheme did dramatically increase traffic levels on neighbouring streets, then it should be dismantled (given Hackney Council’s willingness to respond to the public outcry about the initial trial, I trust they would do this). But if there’s a possibility it can lead to a shift in mindset and behaviour, then surely it’s worth testing.

Setting out

I’m a journalist and urbanist living in London, in search of examples and debate around diversity and vitality in cities. I don’t know where this blog will lead, but I’m going to start with a local, and perfectly contentious, issue to spark some attention and debate.

This issue — the London Fields traffic filtering consultation — also reveals some of my research interests in how public space can be balanced for a variety of users.