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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 29th August 2009
Do safety measures always mean to safer places? asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

Last week’s thoughts about reclaiming the pavements for pedestrians lead ineluctably to the consideration of how vehicles can be prevented from ending up where they should not be.

Ripon has no shortage of examples. A quick tour round the Square offers signs, kerbs, differentiations in road surface, bollards and guard rails. They are all there to play their part in separating traffic from pedestrians – not just preventing the vehicles from parking on the pavements but also to ensure that moving traffic is not a danger.

To have so many different forms of protection may be excessive, and may not actually be as useful as it appears. There is strong evidence to show that moving traffic will actually go faster when there is an evident barrier between the road and the pavement. Stand in the Square and watch the traffic. Apart from the vehicles that sit and wait for a free parking space (probably costing more in fuel, time and pollution than they save) the traffic for much of the time moves faster than the permitted 20 miles an hour. Some of that is undoubtedly caused by a perception that, as they come into the Square by the Wakeman’s House or along Queen Street, drivers see the guardrails. There may be some improvement now that the 20 mph zone has been extended along North Street to beyond Coltsgate Hill – though only if the limit is properly enforced.

Guardrails are also used to stop pedestrians crossing the roads except where the planners think they should. Research has shown that this can, in fact, cause more problems. People will try to circumvent to rails by walking on the carriageway, or even by leaping over – both of which are patently dangerous.

The Department for Transport’s ‘Manual for Streets’, which provides guidance for the local authorities that have a responsibility for street design and safety, says that ‘Guard railing should not be provided unless a clear need for it has been identified.’ It fails, however, to say exactly how that need is to be demonstrated. There are mechanisms they can use, including Swept Path Analysis, which helps to work out how much space is needed by turning vehicles. But showing need is as much about perception as about analysis, and, especially in these litigious times, the authorities understandably err on the cautious side – hence the proliferation of ‘safety’ measures.

Yet the ‘Manual for Streets’ is clear about the vital need for balance. ‘Streets should not be designed just to accommodate the movement of motor vehicles,’ it says. ‘It is important that designers place a high priority on meeting the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, so that growth in these modes of travel is encouraged.’ We have all seen places where the vehicle is king, and where pedestrians are relegated to being second-class citizens, plunged into subways or forced over tall footbridges to get where they need to be. As another publication ‘Streets for All’, jointly published by English Heritage and the Department for Transport puts it, ‘In recent years, safety measures relied on physical barriers to segregate pedestrians from vehicles. This has resulted in streets that are dominated by vehicles.’

Modern thinking has moved away from this. There are very successful examples around the country where guardrails have been taken away, and where pedestrian safety has improved. In Norwich, for example, the townscape was greatly improved by introducing new, guardrail-free streets, along with other measures like widening footpaths and crossing points, using better kerbs and distinctive surface treatments to demarcate pavement from road, and even planting trees to soften the view. The result was a reduction of traffic accidents involving pedestrians from 44 in three years to 21 in the next three.

It takes a leap of faith to remove guardrails and other ‘safety’ measures, but it can have beneficial effects, not only on the look of a place but also on its safety record. Drivers slow down, pedestrians take more care and don’t try to subvert the system, and the whole place becomes calmer and less stressful. Isn’t it time Ripon was free from these barriers?

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