Do you think free space road designs, such as the one that’s been in situ on Exhibition Road in London for the last few years, could ever work on a broader scale throughout the UK?
It depends, surely, on the attitudes of the people who use, and occasionally abuse, the spaces in which they find themselves, does it not? Which means ‘yes’ for most of the time, but also a very big ‘no’ from time to time as well. And when the word ‘no’ applies to free space road thinking, the consequences will inevitably be grim.
The brainchild of former civil engineer, Hans Monderman, free space road design works on the principle that all drivers – and pedestrians and cyclists alike – will become more responsible for their actions if the normal architecture of the road is removed. Everyone has a right of way if there are no zebra crossings, traffic lights or guard rails to suggest that they do, in other words.
Instead, everyone ends up behaving in a more civil manner – in theory. Drivers drive more slowly, looking into the eyes of pedestrians before they cross; and in turn pedestrians don’t just wander into the road, headphones ablaze, oblivious of the perils of the road – because if they do they know it might be curtains. The space is shared by everyone in it, and far less accidents occur as a result. Which is great, of course, so long as everyone signs up to the idea, and respects it.
But what happens in a free space road design if you introduce an impatient, self-impressed BMW X6 driver into the environment, who gives not a monkey’s about anyone else on the road? Unfortunately, all the good intentions go straight out of the window, and what was previously a chilled bit of road rapidly becomes a minefield of pent up aggression, as drivers become frustrated, and then downright angry, because they’ve somehow lost ground to the next car. At which point horns begin to blow, cheeks become crimson, and brand new words explode their way into the ether.
Even Hans Monderman admitted that you will ‘never be able to change the behaviour of the 15 per cent of drivers who will behave badly, no matter what circumstances they may find themselves in.’
Yet the way I see it – in London especially but increasingly throughout the rest of the UK as well – it feels like that percentage is higher. I’d say a good 25 per cent of drivers where I live on the south coast are of the ‘don’t care, me first’ variety.
And the true irony is, we have MORE cameras, signs, traffic lights, zebra crossings, guard rails and detritus, telling us what we can and can’t do with our cars, our bicycles and our feet, than just about anywhere else in the UK. And we have WORSE traffic congestion as a result.
There is a solution, of course. Next time you could choose to let that person have that gap if they so wish. No problemo amigo, you just carry on. In the grand scheme of things, everything might turn out better if you do. And we might all reach our journey’s end, not just faster but feeling better about life generally into the bargain.
But not that bloke in his X6, don’t give him an inch. Don’t give him a centimetre – because he wouldn’t give a millimetre back to you. And how easily the system breaks down.