The secret life of the street – and what we need to know to make future streets work

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For a couple of years now I have been banging on about the need for a debate on future streets (i.e. about how best to reconcile the complexities of all the different calls on street space – or more accurately the space between the buildings).  So I am pleased to see that this is an issue that has now caught fire with two projects under the ‘future streets’ banner (one from ITS Leeds and one from UCL) as well as a London conference on future streets that we are sponsoring.

On Tuesday I took part in a seminar at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) on the outcomes, so far, of the ITS project which will hopefully result in guidance for authorities.

I thought reconciling the different demands on road space was complex before I went into the room. However, I left the room realising it was even more so than I had initially thought. I went in thinking that streets need to accommodate the different needs of different types of vehicles – buses, taxis, bicycles, powered two wheelers, cars, freight and logistics, as well as the different types of users including people with disabilities, and different objectives such as clean air, crime reduction, thriving high streets, reduced carbon emissions, provision for electric vehicles, provision of connected and autonomous vehicles, healthier streets and more…

However, all these are in principle broad brush issues. What the seminar taught me was that there are so many other variables – for example dealing with the unusual (funeral corteges, removal vans, deliveries that take time such as beer to pubs, skips). There is also street furniture, the paraphernalia that shops and cafes put in front of their premises, street beautification (raised planters, etc.), and emergency services needs. And all these complex needs and variables play out differently on different streets and at different times of the day.

ITS had an A3 sheet with a closely typed list of factors to consider (which got longer by the end of the day) when looking at the street of today – never mind the streets of the future. All of which suggests firstly the need for a more sophisticated and holistic approach to street management (rather than single issue, for example ‘we need to get a lot of EV chargers in ASAP’). Secondly, there is a need for more people to observe how each busy street operates now, to think deeply about how to make it work better (what trade offs need to be made on the basis of what priorities) and then make it happen (not forgetting the need for on-going management, enforcement, maintenance and adjustment).

future streets long list (jonathan bray)

Here are five further thoughts from the day…

  1. Parking and loading regulation is shouty, complicated and often ambiguous (what happens if you park on a cycle lane? What is the status of the shop forecourt in front of the shop but behind the curb line?). This can lead to people going round what they see as the regulated parts of the road space (even free parking bays) and parking on what they see as sitting outside the regulated areas (including pavements). Bus lanes can often be something that people see as very clearly a regulated and enforced space – which leads to the phenomena of people not driving in bus lanes even when they are not in operation. Some drivers are perhaps pavement parking out of consideration for their fellow drivers (i.e. to make space for them to park or pass) without thinking about the impacts on pedestrians. All of which suggests there could be a need for more research into the deeper reasons behind what makes drivers do what they do (including etiquette, peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, etc.).
  2. A lot of British streetscapes are so ugly and dilapidated that drivers may be making the unconscious decision that some ugly parking behaviour isn’t going to make them any worse.
  3. Physical signs and lines to regulate the road space create clutter, are not always read or understood by drivers and are inflexible (i.e. it is difficult to change the use of space at different times of the day or to allow two or more different functions for the same space). Digitalising the allocation and regulation of road space (including through geo-fencing) would make sense in that it would be clearer, more flexible and less ugly. However, the extent of data sharing necessary (and the knock on concerns about data ownership and privacy) is daunting.
  4. The current limitations on taxi and PHV pick up and drop off are few and mostly unobserved. If taxis and PHVs grow further then the problems caused by dropping off and picking up anywhere will grow. And how will taxi share work in practice if multiple taxis are trying to pick up / drop off different people from the same area of curb space?
  5. The enforcement of parking and loading regulation is constantly demonised by the media and by some politicians. But then the case is rarely made for it in a positive and pro-active way, and its complexity, ambiguities and its officious language and branding isn’t helping. Is there a need for a comprehensive rethink about how parking and loading restrictions and enforcement is communicated to the public as something that is there to help streets thrive and keep moving in a safe way? This is something that might relate to further research into how drivers feel about the regulation of streets.

Roll on the Future Streets conference on February 12. This is a topic where we need to revel in exploring all its complexities before we can make progress.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group.

You can find out more information and register for the Future Streets conference here.

 

My night at NEF – CAVs, data, carbon and the future of transport

Took part in a Chatham House roundtable at the New Economics Foundation last night which, mostly ended up exploring the fault lines between a vision of the future of transport centered on moving as rapidly as possible to the vast majority of journeys being made by electric, shared and autonomous cars – and those who thought that vision was either unachievable or highly undesirable, or both.

It made me think this (or in some cases steal the thoughts of others)…

  1. There is a big gulf between those who see transport from a tech / venture capital perspective and those whose background is in wider urban and transport policy. Indeed they are very rarely in the same rooms together. The former look at transport from the outside and they see one vehicle dominates – the car. So that’s where the heroic engineering and renumerative opportunity lies for transforming transportation – and at a global scale. With that clear objective set then everyithing else is about cracking any problems that lie in the way to the goal of fixing the car (ie making it electric and autonomous). And given the amount of money at stake, their faith in technology and their own abilities – they are confident that all problems can, should and will be cracked. The people from a wider urban and transport policy perspective see cities and their transport network as complex systems of which the car is one element – an element which is problematic per se. So you don’t start with the car as the be all and the end all of transport policy because that clearly makes no sense. The global nature of the ambitions of the tech / venture capitalists also makes the gulf even wider as what might work on the empty straight roads of 1950s US suburbia might struggle with being the answer to the future of transport on the constricted road network of European cities with their roots in the 1500s. However is there somewhere within this zone of mutual incomprehension for a space for thinking about how tech could fit with where the reality of the transport needs of denser older major cities where space for any kind of road vehicle is becoming steadily more constrained and where there is a wider vision for healthier streets?
  2. Is the above a first world problem in that it would be easier to establish a whole new mobility system based on the tech / venture capitalists view that the future is about electric, shared, autonomous cars in newer, or even new, cities in developing countries – where city layout, politics and regulation could be more receptive?
  3. In the Eighties there was a brain drain into a deregulated financial sector which ultimately gave us the crash and the strange and frightening world we now live in. Is there now an equivalent brain drain into a tech sector which was never regulated in the first place? And are we living with the consequences of that right now from fake news, and election meddling to lack of control over our personal data and the rise of unregulated internet monopolies? If so what do we do about it? In Estonia the Government uses secure technology to hold citizen’s personal data for them in a way that makes public services easier to use and cheaper to provide. In London there’s talk of cities establishing something that sounds similar – city data trusts. Could these approaches be part of the answer? Or at least part of a more urgent debate?
  4. The carbon footprint of the energy sector is transforming for the better with amazing rapidity in the UK but the same is not true for transport. Will the pressure increase for this to change? At the same time (and there’s a lot of fog of war here) the shift to electric vehicles seems to be picking up pace dragging even the more reluctant elements of the automobile sector with it. Will that lead to panic by Government over loss of fuel duty revenues and could that lead them to react by seeking to slow the shift?
  5. One more on CAVs. One of the big emerging obstacles to full CAVs that the techies / venture capitalists will need to crack if their dream is to be realised is attitudinal. As in just because people could do something that technology allows them to do  – they might not actually want to do it. So, for example, if CAVs need to be shared (given that if everyone had their own nobody would be able to move very far in them without being stuck in a traffic jam) then how do you get round the fact that if there’s one thing that people hate its being in a small space (like a lift) with strangers (even if its only for a minute). Are people really going to want to make the beloved lift experience into their day to day travel experience?

Jonathan Bray