Last night was a bad news night. Doyen of shared space, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaker, practitioner, father and friend, died of cancer on Sunday. He coined the term “shared space”, later preferring “low-speed environments”. Hans Monderman died aged only 62. Ben made it to just 63. He leaves a huge hole and an important legacy.
So the Duke has apologised for the “accident”. But it wasn’t an accident. It was an event contrived by the rules of the road, specifically, main road priority. The Duke was a victim, as were the others involved. If junctions were all-way give-ways, the “accident” would never have happened. So it’s not for the Duke to apologise, especially as he was further disabled by blinding sunlight. It’s for the DfT, along with local traffic authorities, traffic managers and successive Roads and Transport Ministers to apologise – for subjecting us to a lethal system. Of course they never will.
The government’s clean air strategy aims to halve harmful emissions by 2025. It plans to ban wood burning stoves and ammonia from farm fertilisers, but abdicates responsibility for vehicle emissions to Local Traffic Authorities. Equality on the roads is the solution. It transforms road safety and efficiency (as I’ve explained to numerous LTAs), it can save the public purse tens of billions, and it more than halves emissions, more or less immediately. How? By eliminating the wasteful stop-idle-restart drive cycle produced by traffic control.
On most things to do with street design and road-user relationships, Ben Hamilton-Baillie and I are of one mind, but we diverge on one point. He says street design alone can achieve the desired behaviour change – from war to peace, intolerance to civility – however you like to phrase it. A clash the other day between me on foot and a driver illustrates my call for a change in the rules of the road to precede or at least accompany changes in street design. It was at the entrance to a supermarket car park. The driver was coming out; I was walking across the gap between the pavements. I was there marginally first, so didn’t break my stride. He drove on, forcing me to stop, so I slapped his side window with the palm of my hand. He stopped in the middle of the road, remonstrating with me for hitting his car. I stood my ground, saying he was an oaf for not giving way. Jaw jutting forward, he got out and came at me. I said, “Are you going to hit me?” Meanwhile, traffic had stopped, bystanders were gaping, a bus was making a big deal of passing the obstruction … He said, “No, but you shouldn’t hit my car,” and backed off. As I often say in such situations, I said he was in the wrong, but I blamed him less than I blame the rules of the road which promote intimidation and neglect of vulnerable road-users. DfT, Jesse Norman, et al, take note.
This woman, a talented musician, was attacked outside her home. She was crossing the road with her child, when she was hit by a car. She managed to push the child to safety. She needed 21 stitches in her head. Would this “accident” have happened if equality, not priority, was the basic rule of the road, and if the onus for road safety was on the driver instead of the pedestrian? Not in a million years.
A government paper announces funding for local authorities to ‘tackle air pollution’. One of its grotesquely overdue measures is to ‘adjust traffic signals to cut congestion’. So the paper is an open admission that traffic lights contribute to 40,000 premature deaths a year from poor air quality. How overdue are these proposals? Half a century ago, when I started driving, it was blindingly obvious that woeful timing of traffic lights at Knightsbridge, for example, caused permanent congestion. It’s identical today: hardly any green time for traffic heading to the West End. Ministers and the DfT miss an equally vital point: traffic lights – symbols of the dysfunctional system of priority – help cause 24,000 casualties a year from “accidents”. I’ve had replies from the DfT claiming priority is necessary because it lays down clear rules. Its support for its own lethal system reveals the pitiful depths of its ignorance and negligence.
Last year there were 240 deaths from drink driving. Richard Allsop of the RAC Foundation estimates there would be 25 fewer deaths if the drink-drive limit were cut from .08 to .05. The story made the news, but the numbers are negligible compared with the casualties caused by the lethal rule of priority, which never make the news (despite my efforts). Those “accidents” are routinely attributed to driver error – a travesty of the truth.
It’s well-known that dirty urban air causes lung, heart and developmental damage, but increasingly it’s being linked to brain damage. The Times didn’t break the news but covered it on 19 September under the front page headline, “Dementia soars in areas hit by pollution”. Countless cases of dementia could be avoided by cutting air pollution from traffic. Because most of it, through a trick of chemistry, is invisible, governments get away with inaction which amounts to manslaughter.