Vulnerable road-users

Letter from Paul Johnston, registered blind, to Ben Hamilton-Baillie:

Poynton, 2nd November 2015

Dear Mr Hamilton-Baillie,

I wanted to write and let you have my impressions after returning to Poynton and my continuing feelings after living back here.

I am registered as a blind person, having lost all the sight in one eye, and 90% in the other. My eyesight is worse than when I first lived in Poynton years ago.

The changes to Poynton, and especially to Fountain Place, have completely transformed my life and my impression of the town and my ability to get to the shops and village centre.

Previously the centre of the village was just an area of waiting traffic. The junction was controlled by four or more sets of traffic lights. Cars and trucks were held back with revving engines until the green light gave them the go-ahead, when they would surge forward regardless. Across this mayhem, pedestrians had to make their way as best they could – which for me was very uncomfortable and hazardous. Even Park Lane, the shopping street, was dominated by traffic and a no-go area for us blind people.

On my return to Poynton after years away, I was amazed by the change. The traffic now flows smoothly and slowly through the village. The centre has much more space for pedestrians and seems larger – more open. The traffic seems to move through without blockages or raised tempers. I can tell exactly where I am thanks to the clever use of materials – the various surfaces reflect light differently, even when wet. I can detect road edges, walkways and crossing points.

When I approach a crossing, traffic stops for me to cross, and I just walk across. I usually raise my hand in thanks – the traffic moves on and I continue on my way. This feels the civilised way to be – this is exactly what it says on the tin – this is shared space.

Poynton has been given back to people like me. It is an attractive place to be, as I can tell fro the shops and cafes doing well. The housing market is vibrant – this is where people want to be. I am very happy to be back here in Poynton.


Paul E Johnston

Edited email exchange with Kay Kelly about blind people’s experience of Poynton. Kay is director of Walthew House near Manchester. Her remarks are in black, mine in red.

Any policy initiative risks problems in its early stages. It’s a mark of the genius of this approach that it solves many more problems than it causes. The record since inception is NO personal injury accidents in the zone, whereas before, there were numerous “accidents” involving pedestrians. I put accidents in inverted commas because most “accidents” are not accidents. They are events contrived by the standard rules and design of the road.

Shared space is a traffic engineering concept …

If anything, it’s an anti-traffic engineering concept. Its aim is sociable space-sharing, which it aims to achieve through streetscape redesign. Through my campaign, Equality Streets, I wholly support that aim, because the current priority-based system is anti-social. But I think in order to achieve egalitarian space-sharing, we also need culture change, re-education and legal reform.

Put simply, roads and pavements aren’t defined by kerbs

Shared space and shared surfaces are distinct concepts. You can have kerbs in shared space. My preferred compromise – 30° rubberised kerbs – came from Professor of Inclusive Environments, Peter Barker (guide dog user). It solves the orientation problem, helps wheelchair users, and it provides an escape route for cyclists who might otherwise get crushed against high vertical kerbs. Peter appeared in my 2008 Newsnight report: see/hear him here. He doesn’t mention 30° kerbs in the clip – he mentioned it to me later. (Note: FiT Roads was the campaign name before the change to Equality Streets.)

We had difficulty navigating around cars parked on the area in front of the shops, making it difficult to know where it was safe to walk and we found it impossible to locate the small drop that delineates the start of the area where vehicles travelling up Park Lane go. There are courtesy crossings, but we couldn’t find these without help. We walked out into the roadway more than once.

The problem is that adherence to old regulation is being applied to a new world, one that has arrived without an introductory or transition period, and without a programme of driver re-education (let alone guide dog re-education). Poynton represents the future: public realm design which says No to domination of public space by vehicles. (That domination produces a “need” for traffic regulation, but regulation treats the symptoms, never the cause of the danger that results from domination legitimised by priority.) In the transition period, I see an argument for on-demand signals, or zebras. But in the welcome absence of standard regulation in the form of inefficient, dangerous, gas-guzzling traffic lights, drivers will be watching the road and other road-users. That spells genuine safety. When they are free from the burden of obedience to signals, drivers will give way to blind people, whenever they walk out, courtesy crossings or not.

Another long cane user who is also hard of hearing added, “A van was parked opposite one of the crossings, which was very confusing. I didn’t know whether I was still in the road. Also not being able to hear fully I found it very difficult to get my bearings.” For the guide dog owner, the visit was equally challenging. She explained, “Guide Dogs are trained to walk in straight lines following the kerb and to stop when they come to the edge of the kerb and the start of the road. The most dangerous time for a guide dog owner is when there is heavy snow on the ground as these reference points are much harder to locate. It’s going to be like this every day for guide dog users in Poynton! Our dogs are also taught to recognise proper pedestrian crossings so mine had no idea how to locate one of the courtesy crossings.

It needs to be appreciated that Poynton is trying to reclaim the public realm for people on foot. It is seeking to restore a balance between the movement and social functions of the space. If it succeeds, and by and large it is succeeding, it will tame the traffic and shift the balance of power in favour of the vulnerable road-user. It might seem a tall order, and I agree that the stretch by Waitrose has not achieved the much lower speeds that are evident elsewhere, but otherwise, as stated, people must trust drivers to act according to social context. If drivers see a blind person wanting to cross, of course they will give way. As the wheelchair user says in the video: “Drivers stop the minute they see me”. The roads are designed so that crossing can take place anywhere. The onus is now where it belongs: on the motorist to beware the walker. Now the driver has no green light to license speed or aggression. Just as the vulnerable road-user must learn to assert their equal right to the road space, so drivers must and will learn to proceed with caution.

We met with John McGowan from East Cheshire Council’s Highways Department. He said that they were planning to retrain local guide dogs, but could offer no explanation of how this might work. For visitors with guide dogs from out of the area, Park Lane is a definite no-go area.”

If your readers can think outside the box marked “priority”, and trust that the redesign elevates their status and lets them cross at will, Park Lane will become an easy go area. John McGowan is a good man, and he explained that his original remark was quoted out of context. Of course he cares about safety for the vulnerable.


… We have used it to design the scheme to reduce the speed of vehicles to be that 20mph limit which is reasonable for drivers and safer for pedestrians”

As you know, there are no special speed limits, and average speeds are below 20. Free of distracting signals, drivers are free to watch the road and act according to their inner lights, i.e. empathetically.

Another partially sighted member of the group commented, “We could see no speed restriction signs … “

No speed signs treats motorists as adults, trusting them to drive by context instead of by numbers …

… and the traffic was really whizzing by.

Clearly this is unacceptable. When I was filming I was dismayed by the speed of some of the traffic going past Waitrose. Everywhere else, speeds were low, but some vehicles, including buses, on their way out of town, were driving too fast, and neglectfully, in the time-honoured fashion dictated by the delinquent rules of the road which grant dominion to the driver. I would have designed that junction to emphasise pedestrian equality (if not priority), to tell drivers they don’t have priority but must approach carefully and take it in turns, giving way to the vulnerable road-user and/or anyone who was there first.

We waited ages at the courtesy crossing for a car to actually stop.

Traffic doesn’t need to stop, indeed this is one of the advantages of shared space/Equality Streets over standard control. Instead of enforcing consecutive queueing, it allows simultaneous filtering at low speeds and low revs – vastly more efficient and eco-friendly. Often, drivers will only need to slow down to let someone go. People need to assert their equal right to the road space, then all road-users will merge more or less in turn.

The tactile paving area is maybe only 10 inches wide, so it’s much too narrow to mark the area where the traffic is. Also, when it’s icy a kerb is enough to stop a car skidding at slow speed – there is nothing at all to stop a car hitting a pedestrian now.

At the extreme low speeds in fully-functioning shared space, cars will not skid. All these comments stem from fear of the unknown. There needs to be more trust and recognition that these changes are positive, not negative. Far from reducing safety, they enhance it.

The feeling of the group was their needs were not understood and that they felt unwelcome, one member commenting, “It’s like going back in time, like they want blind people back in an institution, not out and about like everyone else.”

This reaction is regrettable but unfounded. We want blind people to accompany us into this future which is about authentic safety through equality, awareness and mutual tolerance! Liberty from intrusive regulation produces equality which produces fraternity. Free of external control which dictates our every move, people rediscover their humanity and make common cause with other road-users.

We also received a response from Cllr Howard Murray, who represents Poynton East and Pott Shrigley, which read, “The writers have somehow managed to ignore every single positive improvement we have made to the physical environment that existed previously. They have failed also to mention that we have consulted with a Disability Advisory Group, containing people with a wide range of disabilities and not just the sight impaired. We have acted on, and designed into the scheme, many of their requests and suggestions. The failure to make any mention of such improvements and consultation devalues the piece rendering it no better than tabloid sensationalism.”

Howard speaks from the hip, so to speak. Knowing how much time and trouble he took to research and consult on the scheme, I can sympathise with his frustration at the glass half-empty response. It’s sad that blind people are unable to see the scheme, because it is the visual transformation of the space which is most striking and delightful. Remember how miserable the space was before? How it cut the village in two? I think blind people need to have it described to them in great detail, and they need practice using it. I have no doubt that soon they will find it is a far safer and more congenial place that it was. For one thing, they won’t have to wait at traffic lights or permission to cross. They will be able to cross when and where they wish. Their lives will open up.

Members of the Talking Heads group were somewhat taken aback by this response, pointing out that they couldn’t actually see the positive improvements, they only experienced the difficulties!

Ah yes, I see you make the same point here (as I made above)

Shared Space – the Saga Continues

We’ve had a lot of feedback on our article on the new shared space environment in Poynton. There isn’t space to print it all, but at the time of writing, people are still complaining that traffic is travelling too fast up Park Lane and not stopping to allow pedestrians to cross; that the traffic at the junctions is a free-for-all

Too fast up Park Lane – if you mean outside Waitrose, I agree, as discussed above. Free-for-all is good: it means no-one has priority, except – if anyone – the vulnerable, and no-one has to pay artificial deference. When people get the hang of it, they will act sociably and courteously, and take it more or less in turns as in all other walks of life.

and that cars are continuing to park on pedestrian areas.

To make a useful suggestion, I need to see where these vehicles park. Are the pavements wider than they used to be, so is there a positive trade-off?

We’ve also been speaking to Guide Dogs, which as an organisation has spoken out on shared spaces as being ‘potentially dangerous’

Conventional traffic managed areas are not only potentially dangerous, they are intrinsically dangerous, unlike shared space which is intrinsically safe, given the culture change I advocate.

and ‘no go areas’ for blind and partially sighted people. They are reporting that one of their mobility instructors has been working extensively in Poynton with a guide dog owner and finding the shared surface ‘impossible’. Guide Dogs campaigns’ team has now taken up this issue, so we’re not alone in fearing for the safety of visually impaired pedestrians in Poynton.

The problem is the GDA and everyone involved is treating shared space in the same way as they treat roads governed by standard regulation. Shared space/ Equality Streets are based on common law values of equal rights and responsibilities. By contrast, standard traffic control removes responsibility and puts it in the unthinking, unblinking “hands” of automated systems. In South Africa, traffic lights are called robots. That’s how traffic managers want us to behave: as robots programmed to move at their command. Standard traffic control is anathema to civilised values. Its diabolical “accident” record of 25,000 killed or disabled on our roads every year is testament to the abject failure of priority and automated systems of control. Standard traffic control is AUTOcracy. Shared space/ Equality Streets is DEMOcracy.