Thursday, 14 February 2013

More Libertarian Magic

In January, I ventured up to Westminster for a panel discussion on the concept of shared space road schemes. A very pleasant evening it was too, not only due to unexpectedly bumping into - and later catching up over a beer with - Mark Wadsworth*.

Regular readers will know of my professional and personal interest in transport, but shared space also proves that trusting people works far better than over-reliance on state wisdom. Hence why I described a test scheme in Portishead as "libertarian magic" in 2010.
Firstly, it's quite clear that, whenever tested, projects such as Portishead's are not just mildly successful, they are almost faultlessly so. 
Secondly, prior to their implementation, most don't believe it possible. 
The former is proof that humans are very capable of interacting with each other with courtesy, the problems occur when a hierarchy - and with it, a superiority - is prescribed by a third party. The latter shows how deeply ingrained the figment of the state (and its delegated local administrators) as sole arbiters of our safety has now become. 
Libertarians believe that people are innately social, that they can interact harmoniously with minimal authority. Statists believe that no-one can be trusted to wipe their own nose without someone being paid to instruct them. Libertarians like people, statists fundamentally distrust them. 
'Shared space' schemes not only suggest that libertarians have a valid point, they also show that by taking the same line in other areas, society and behaviour may well be improved for the better. Which is a 'good thing', surely.
During the evening, I met Martin Cassini* who later presented this film showing the recent transformation of Poynton's town centre. It's more smile-inducing libertarian magic, so please prepare your favourite beverage and take 15 minutes to watch it..

Now, I know Mudgie isn't keen on this - as he was quick to point out on Twitter at the time - but there were many Poynton residents in attendance who had made the long journey down from Cheshire after having been won over by the beneficial effects on their town. They were full of nothing but praise and enthusiasm.

The local councillor also gave an insight into his battles to get the proposal through in the first place, including "three days of abuse" after inviting the public to visit the town hall and ask their questions. Such a shame since his motivation was hearing first hand refusal of outsiders to visit and shop in the town solely because of traffic problems. This does go to show, though, that the idea of the state allowing more autonomy is now so counter-intuitive to the public that it is very difficult to sell, no matter how successful the end result. 

I know that there is a village near me which could benefit greatly through shared space, and I expect anyone reading this with an open mind could think of somewhere nearby for which it could also be beneficial. It has cut accidents in Dutch towns, as well as in the UK such as Ashford in Kent, and famously in Central London's Exhibition Road. In all examples, traffic jams were also reduced.

What's not to like?

I was reminded to search for this film on YouTube after reading Jackart's excellent article yesterday on road usage and the abuse of statistics.
The driver has assumed he owned the road for too long. The roads must be taken from the driver and given back to people, whatever means of transport - shoe, bike, motorbike, horse or car, they choose for their journey.
Quite. And shared space does that very well. Hopefully we will see a lot more of it in the future.

* I also had a chat with Jeremy Irons and was delighted to finally meet John Adams, but they didn't come to the pub so Wadsworth gets the nod as MVP of the evening (his vitriolic swearing is a joy to behold).


Lysistrata Eleftheria said...

Have just watched the film, DP. It's fantastic. And I found myself with a real lump in my throat when I saw pedestrians waving thanks to drivers, and drivers slowing down for others. There are real lessons in this inititiative which have far wider implications than this effective road traffic measure.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Exactly my feelings as I watched it for the first time. :)

JonathanBagley said...

This experiment was carried out from necessity in Beirut in the mid 1990s, as there were no traffic lights or pedestrian crossing lights. At the time it struck me what a good idea it was. It does work fantastically well and you get a sense of belonging to a community. More recently, when the roundabout in the town I live in was refurbished, all the white lines disappeared for a few weeks and, more crucially, all the surrounding street furniture was taken down. The lack of clutter made an enormous difference. You could see what was going on and the approaching cars all magically seemed to know they had got to a roundabout and what they should do.

DP said...

Dear Mr Puddlecote

Big government needs endless reasons to regulate - that's what it does. With regulation come offences and lucrative fines, not upon real criminals who don't pay them, but on the honest man in the street.

Follow the rules or you'll be fined. Take away the rules and things work better - for the public, but big government would soon be out of a job if it caught on.

Regulations are taxes: they put up costs, they waste people's time. Time is everyone's most valuable commodity - one day they will run out of it


Curmudgeon said...

I’m certainly not against the principle, and I’d agree that the roads are in general very much over-regulated. However, I do have reservations about its application in this particular location, primarily because the A523 is a former trunk road carrying a very high volume of traffic.

It’s generally recognised that traffic often in practice sets its own rules of behaviour which don’t necessarily accord with road markings or the Highway Code. This can mean that, even if no priorities are indicated, a junction can end up being colonised by the dominant flow. In the early days of motor traffic, there were no official priorities on the roads, but you would still find traffic on the “main road” asserting priority and that from side roads finding it very difficult to emerge. Hence the invention of traffic signals which were basically a means of rationing priority. I think it was the 1930s before the principle of giving way at major roads became law.

If you put a shared space crossing on a busy dual carriageway that had 30,000 vehicle movements a day, and 100 pedestrians wanting to cross, the pedestrians would simply not get a look in. You need a critical mass of pedestrian activity for a shared space scheme to be workable.

Also, any highway engineer will tell you that, while a roundabout may encourage co-operation and give-and-take, the maximum capacity of a well designed signalised junction is in fact higher. Shared space schemes will reduce the potential throughput and therefore, where traffic volumes are high, may increase congestion. That is a concern at Poynton where the A523 is simply too busy.

It’s often said that traffic flows better when traffic lights fail, but I recently encountered a situation at a busy signalised crossroads which normally allows each direction a good couple of minutes to really get going, but when the lights were out was reduced to a slow, tentative crawl resulting in gridlock on all surrounding roads and massive tailbacks.

The previous signal controlled junction at Poynton was notorious for producing long tailbacks, partly due to the high volume of turning traffic which degrades the effectiveness of a signalised crossroads. I’ve been through the new scheme on a few occasions and the traffic has always seemed to flow reasonably well, but I haven’t experienced it at rush hour which is the real test of how well it works.

I can think of many other locations, such as my local shopping centre here, where there’s more of a balance between vehicular and pedestrian activity and something similar would work a treat. But shared space isn't at all suitable for main roads with high speeds and traffic volumes.

There’s an extensive discussion of the Poynton scheme on the SABRE forum here – shouldn’t be too hard to work out which contributor is me. Actually my later comments are more favourable than my initial ones.

Jocelyn said...

I just watched the video. Truly inspiring. I was very moved when I saw pedestrians waving to drivers, drivers slowing down for others, and elderly and disabled people feeling free to get around safely and confidently. It just goes to show that people are naturally considerate and co-operative towards each other and don't need a lot of rules and regulations to force them to do what comes naturally - in fact those in authority, those who feel that people need to be regulated - THEY are the problem! Excellent video and an excellent idea. The town itself looks much more attractive too. This restores my faith in humanity.

Alan Bates said...

I used to live in Portishead and I can recognize the issues and I'm delighted that things have improved so much. Portishead is linked to the M5 at Gordano Services, just South of the Avon Bridge. The high speed link then ends up in a crowded little dormitary town for Bristol. Recipe for problems.

One place that hasn't been mentioned is the Channel Islands.
Both Jersdey and Guernsey have "filter in turn" at specified junctions. For example, where there are 2 roads going into 1 (a Y junction) you go alternately (unless of course, there is no traffic from one of the roads). I don't know the current situation but when I was last there on-the-spot fines were issued for those few who broke the law. In the slow moving, crowded, Channel Islands ity worked really well.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

As the video says, it's not a new idea. It was the natural order years ago, so your Beirut anecdote doesn't surprise me.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Spot on, DP.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

I'm glad you joined in as 140 characters are a bit limited. ;)

It's also good that they put this film online so you can see what I did on the day. I'd kinda agree that there are some junctions are not suitable while others definitely are (Jeremy Irons said the same during our short discussion), but I think public sector bods set the bar too conservatively. Possibly why I believe this experiment is important to ascertain where the boundary truly lies. If you, as a local, think it a bridge too far but indicators seem to show it is better - even marginally - than previously, then it has been well worth doing.

Cheers for the forum link you posted, I'll read it over lunch tomorrow when I have more time. :)

Dick_Puddlecote said...

There is definitely an aesthetic to it, the new space outside the church was good to see. Not just for funerals, either, I expect brides will find that very attractive for their drop off point. :)

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Regarding Portishead, I heard today that it was all too scary for them and they have now installed a roundabout. So sad.

Not only does it require the public being won over, it also needs councillors with some cojones to back it up.

DaveAtherton20 said...

As I wrote in my article: "I have experienced this (shared space) in Luton of all places. The sensory overload is severe and instinctively you slow down and you have to make a conscience decision as to where you have to be and how you interact with other road users if driving.

In Groningen, in the Netherlands, they knocked down a primary school wall and extended the playground across the road. “The only barrier between children and vehicles is now a low, one-rail fence decorated with colored balls. There are no road markings, signals or signs. Bright yellow benches extend into the road area. It’s as if motorists are driving through a playground. The result was no accidents and a 7 MPH reduction in speed.”

In 2007, a separate study by the Dutch Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden University of Applied Sciences found “a significant reduction in the number of total injuries” in the Laweiplein after remodelling in 2003. Accidents fell from eight a year to just one in 2004 and 2005 respectively, despite larger traffic and pedestrian volumes.”

Redintheface said...

Finally, common sense and a shift back towards self-determination. People can think for themselves, how amazing! I loved the film, it shows all the best that can come from truly courageous thinkers in a local council. We need more!

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Thanks for adding that, Dave. The Dutch experience is very useful to remember considering the number of cyclists on their roads.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Precisely. It's a shame that it takes 'courage' now to consider something beneficial, but slightly different.

Mark Wadsworth said...

The problem is that this whole "shared space" thing works far better than the so-called experts let on - all it takes is for traffic lights to break down and everything is 100% better.

See, I can express myself without swearing.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Aww, spoilsport. ;)

Isn't it funny that if you speak to any driver about their experience when lights are out, they will always say how great it was. Yet if you suggest it be a permanent feature, they'll babble on about safety?

PeterKenneth24 said...


Martin Cassini said...

Curmudgeon is reluctant to acknowledge that self-control (as distinct from interventionist traffic control) can work at busy junctions, especially if they are designed to express a social context, but his faint praise is undermined by the obvious success of the Poynton scheme. The A523 is not a “former” trunk road, it’s a trunk road. He claims that priority emerged out of nowhere. Wrong. It was imposed in 1929 at a meeting in Scotland Yard chaired by Police Commissioner, Sir Henry Maybury. At that meeting, the RAC pushed through the most catastrophic decision ever to inflict our people in peacetime: the distinction between major and minor roads, and the granting of superior rights – priority – to main roads at the expense of side road traffic and walkers. Roads became so dangerous, and so many people were killed, that police on point duty were installed to break the priority streams of traffic so other people could cross in relative, but not guaranteed safety. Soon the police were replaced by cheaper traffic lights. Thus, with stupefying ineptitude, and at staggering continuing cost, traffic regulation addresses the manufactured symptoms of our road safety and congestion problems, never the cause – priority. Poynton also exposes Curmudgeon’s claim that pedestrians would not get a look-in at a shared space junction carrying high vehicle volumes. And he misses the point about Ben Hamilton-Baillie's genius in reducing multi-lane approaches to single lanes, thus calming traffic and doubling the space for people on foot. Note also there are quite a few free on-street parking spaces. With Portishead, Dick, it wasn’t that they found no control “scary”. As is clear from my little film, the locals loved it (I wanted to add a link to the film, but can't see how to do it - it comes up if you google Roads FiT for People). But the lumpen transport chiefs, who turned down my invitation to go the whole hog and rid Portishead of all its moronic traffic lights, lacked the vision to pursue authentic reform. What every community needs is a councillor with the vim and vision of Poynton’s Howard Murray. He overcame the oh-so-reasonable resistance of the Curmudgeons of this world. By the way, the level of debate at the Sabre forum recommended by Curmudgeon seems lamentable to me, apart from one decent comment by “Derek”. Perhaps I should sign this Curmudgeon 2, but I'll sign as myself, Martin Cassini

nisakiman said...

Excellent bit of thinking there, and it obviously works well looking at the video.

I remember when I lived in central London in the late 60s, Hyde Park Corner (probably one of the busiest junctions in London) was unregulated and flowed surprisingly freely. Then they installed traffic lights, and the whole dynamic changed. Park Lane became a multi-lane car park and tempers regularly frayed. I always maintained that it was the worst thing they could have done. Like they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

One of the craziest traffic systems I encountered was when I was first in Australia. In Victoria the rule (at all junctions) was "give way to the right". This led to situations where you could be barreling down the highway at a good lick, and someone could pull out in front of you from a dirt road on your right with no warning, and if you hit them it would be your fault. It was a bloody nightmare. They changed it not long after I arrived to give some roads priority over others, which I have to say improved the situation no end.

However, to go back to the Hyde Park Corner example, when it was left to the drivers to sort it out on their own, they did, and far more efficiently than any traffic controls could. People were mildly aggressive (insofar as they would slowly force their way into the traffic flow), but also generally courteous (insofar as when it was obvious the vehicle entering the flow was quite determined, they would give way with good grace).

The problem we have these days is that the mindset of the lawmakers is that if they don't control us, we will run riot, which of course is patently untrue.

cfrankdavis said...

Amazing. And rather heart-warming.

But I couldn't help but think that, as a driver driving through this for the first or second time (and maybe even fifth or sixth time) I wouldn't have known what the hell to do, and would have watched other traffic to get some idea. Or maybe they have a double roundabout road sign on the approach roads?

Also, do the roads carry the same volume of traffic now as they did before? I think the figure was 25,000. If it's still carrying that much, it's a great success. But what if traffic has halved, and motorists are finding other routes?

Dick_Puddlecote said...

I thought I remembered Hyde Park Corner without lights, but I only started driving in 1985. Are you sure the lights were put in that early? Live and learn, eh? ;)

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Thanks for visiting, Martin.

The video for Portishead is embedded at the article linked above under "libertarian magic" in 2010.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Very good point. But I expect if it an A road that avoidance would be quite convoluted and perhaps prohibitive time-wise. Then again, if it's happening, it just goes further to prove that people are fundamentally able to order themselves for best outcome without being constantly nudged and prodded. ;)

Martin Cassini said...

Traffic levels are the same as ever. Uncertainty is no bad thing. It stimulates filtering (more or less) in turn: infinitely safer, more efficient and more FUN than regimentation and regulation. Signs - NO! Signs are a sign of failure to design roads in a way that expresses equality and a social context

nisakiman said...

You're quite possibly right there DP. I also lived in London in the 80s, so it could well have been then. Dates never were my strong suit!

Longrider said...

Which roundabout do you mean? They removed the mini roundabout in the town and replaced it with lights, which was a shame. At the end of the High Street they removed the lights and put in roundabouts. The harbour area is all shared space with some traffic calming humps. I take my students down that way when I'm training out at Clevedon. Good experience for 'em.

Longrider said...

Scrub that, memory playing tricks - there is still a roundabout in the town.

PeterA5145 said...

Right, I've put my other head on now. Given that I was trying to adopt a calm and constructive tone I think you were being unnecessarily antagonistic there, Martin.

"The A523 is not a “former” trunk road, it’s a trunk road."

No, it's a former trunk road. It was detrunked in 2002 and East Cheshire is now the highway authority. I also think I am the only person responding to this post, except maybe you, Martin, who has actually experienced this scheme at first-hand.

"He claims that priority emerged out of nowhere. Wrong. It was imposed in 1929 at a meeting in Scotland Yard chaired by Police Commissioner, Sir Henry Maybury."

And one of these reasons for this was dealing with the "dominant flow" issue which I described. Drivers were asserting priority even if they didn't legally have it.

Poynton also exposes Curmudgeon’s claim that pedestrians would not get a look-in at a shared space junction carrying high vehicle volumes. And he misses the point about Ben Hamilton-Baillie's genius in reducing multi-lane approaches to single lanes, thus calming traffic and doubling the space for people on foot.

No, I said that pedestrians would not get a look-in on a motorway or similar road with high traffic volumes and speeds. They do at Poynton as traffic is reduced to one lane and speeds are low. But that underlines one of the key problems with such schemes, that of limiting capacity and throughput.

I have no problem with schemes of this kind in low-speed, mixed-use urban environments. But the arguments for them ignore or downplay the fact that one of the key purposes of the road network is to be an efficient transport system, and if the principle is extended too far it will significantly reduce capacity and increase journey times. I take it you do not advocate that grade-separated junctions on motorways and similar roads should be ripped out and replaced with shared-space schemes. Or railway level crossings, for that matter.

I don't claim to be a libertarian, but libertarianism doesn't mean a complete absence of structure and order. A libertarian would (presumably) not advocate the scrapping of factory production lines or rules for sports. And I think in a libertarian society we would probably have some pretty good limited-access toll roads with speed limits well above 70 mph.

"By the way, the level of debate at the Sabre forum recommended by Curmudgeon seems lamentable to me, apart from one decent comment by “Derek”."

Possibly because you don't agree with it? There are plenty of folks posting on there who are very knowledgeable about roads and traffic.

Incidentally, I remember you dipping your toe in the waters a while back in this thread.

I would say there's actually a lot of support on there for adopting a less command-and-control approach to traffic management, but you seem to insist on regarding the issue as a totally black-and-white one.

cfrankdavis said...

One reason I asked was that It seemed to have taken about 6 months to build, and during that time traffic was restricted (one motorist complained in the video), and may well have been reduced in volume. As a motorist, I often re-route to avoid long term roadworks.

PeterA5145 said...

I would have thought a true libertarian looking at our roads would see the first priorities as getting rid of all the socialist paraphernalia of speed cameras, humps, bus lanes and cycle lanes.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Humps and speed cameras most definitely. Bus and cycle lanes I can understand more than traffic lights in urban areas.

The thing I like about shared space is that it makes people think more, which is important whether traffic is increased, decreased or remains constant IMO.

Baby steps, and all that. ;)

John Adams said...

Joining this discussion belatedly.

So far as I am aware, in terms of traffic flow Poynton is at the top end of schemes where it has been tried successfully. How much higher such schemes can go remains to be determined.
In a 2008 presentation I addressed the question ""Where and when is shared space safe?" -

I concluded with a few examples:
Safe: Campsites, Supermarket car parks, Italian hill towns, Old Amsterdam, Drachten, Haren, Seven Dials, Kensington High Street
Not Safe:M25, Westway, England 1920s, Bangladesh and Egypt 2008
And concluded that the safety of such schemes depends
• On prevailing safety culture
• On perceived status of pedestrians and cyclists
• On how the design of the scheme influences the perceptions of all road users