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Why do traffic engineers make everything ugly?

Paul Finch

There seems to be a connection between bad policies and disfigured streets, which appear to be getting worse, says Paul Finch

I was disconcerted, to say the least, to see what has happened in King’s Parade, Cambridge, (pictured). The unbelievable crudeness of the traffic management kit, a near-deliberate insult to its architectural context, has to be seen to be believed. Why do they do it?

Cambridge img 6865

Cambridge img 6865

Source: Lisa Melvin

King’s Parade, Cambridge

A parallel in London is at the Palace of Westminster, now protected by a security barrier with go-faster stripes, another symbol of the absolute failure of engineers to do anything with elegance and grace when there is a far worse alternative to hand. No wonder Norman Foster calls it the ugliest thing in London.

The plethora of colours, lines, zig-zags, kerb stripes and crudely designed signs explaining what they mean on streets and pavements across the country is further evidence that, when it comes to the built environment, our interventions are, in visual terms, what a tin ear is to musicians.

Is it something taught, do you imagine? ‘Take an ordinary street and turn it into a meaningless agglomeration of signs, symbols and messages,’ the exam question must run. The supplementary, of course, is to sneak in a hard-to-detect ‘buses-only’ sign, so you can fine ordinary motorists millions of pounds as they inadvertently enter a wrong lane.

The madness of bus lanes that are mostly empty most of the time has always baffled me. They represent a line of thinking similar to a pub landlord saying to staff: ‘It’s 5.30pm, so people will be leaving their office and coming in here. Why don’t 50 per cent of you take your break?’

Why on earth would you reduce the capacity of any system at times of maximum demand? 

Why on earth would you reduce the capacity of any system at times of maximum demand? Does this happen in any other walk of life, and if not, why is it assumed to be wonderful in respect of traffic? Even black cabs are often prevented from using bus lanes these days, even though on average buses have fewer than 10 passengers at any time.

You never know exactly what is going through the minds of the surface division of Transport for London, so excellent in their management of the Tube and overground systems. All their smart thinking in respect of anything with rails seems to be reversed in their policies for roads.

They have imposed fewer and worse connections, cuts in capacity, licensing of 70,000 Uber-style vehicles and massive investment in massively underused cycle facilities. I welcome more and better facilities for cyclists, but it should be a provision of ‘both … and’, not ‘either … or’.

There seems to me to be a connection between bad policies and disfigured streets, which seem to be getting worse, rather than better. It also involves an abuse of language, usually a sign of a bad policy (cf  ‘affordable’ housing). When the so-called ‘Congestion Charge’ was introduced in London, anyone with half a brain could see that it was no such thing, but simply a road tax. That is why diplomats from overseas countries refuse to pay it. The charge has not reduced congestion, which is now worse than when it was introduced, partly because of the mismanagement described above.

A good example of congestion in action is the three sides of Trafalgar square where traffic pollutes away in order to allow ‘street life’, unfortunately devoid of specific local character or cultural merit, to take place in front of the National Gallery. 

By contrast, wonderful architecture can act as a border and traffic barrier. Think about Wren’s Temple Bar, for example. The Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects, which recently received its royal charter, is restoring Wren’s landmark as its own hall. Perhaps the company could have a think about applying Wren principles to our visually illiterate street design. Starting in Cambridge.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Paul, 'ugly' is in the eye of the beholder. I prefer to use 'ungainly' or 'clumsy'. 'Visually illiterate' is also good

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  • Agree!

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  • Paul, agree with you. Protecting spaces and places from VAW attacks is necessary, but unfortunately there is a tremendous gap between security and urban designers, and far too little collaboration to make creative, nuanced, discreet, and effective solutions. This is why we see suboptimal measures everywhere installed in a haphazard manner caveated with ‘something is better than nothing.’

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