HOME ZONES: RECONCILING PEOPLE, PLACES AND TRANSPORT

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Director, Whitby Bird & Partners, on 12 March 2002

The speaker had toured Europe, especially Holland, Germany and Denmark, to survey their methods of reconciling pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles in towns.

There are two ways of viewing the space between houses - the public realm: it may be a Traffic Zone or a Social Zone.

A Traffic Zone is a single-purpose, regulated, impersonal, uniform, predictable area devoted to improving the conditions for, and increasing the throughput of, motor vehicles, by separating vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists.

A Social Zone is a muti-purpose, variable, personal, unpredictable, culturally diverse area intended to improve the quality of life and prosperity of people and businesses living in the area, by allowing vehicles to mix with pedestrians and cyclists safely.

Why should highway and traffic engineers be allowed to dominate the public realm of towns? We have three choices - accept the current methods; introduce more, and more advanced, technical devices; or, change our attitude to the problem and rely on people's common sense; after all no one aims to kill or maim someone else.

It is interesting that the human body is capable of withstanding, without serious damage, an impact at a speed of 30 km (18 miles) per hour, and, up to this speed, can see other people and objects clearly. This is an inherited characteristics deriving from our animal hunting past, 30 km/hr being the fastest a person can run downhill. For this reason, 30 km/hr was selected as the speed limit for home zones (werfheg' in Dutch) on the continent, translated into 20 mph for the UK. Home zones are based on the use of eye contact for communication between people, and common sense then determining each persons actions.

This makes traffic signs, lines, signals and control mechanisms unnecessary. Drivers will appreciate that it works - when traffic lights fail, the traffic sorts itself out by eye contact and common sense at a reduced speed without accidents happening. The method could be applied to a district, not just a road junction, provided the 30 km/hr speed limit was adhered to. A `gate', like the old entry in the city walls, is needed to define where the district starts and ends, and could best be in the form of an arch or sculpture related to the character of the district.

The present use of road signs - `Do not cross when the red man shows' at a pedestrian crossing - is largely insisted on by lawyers to protect the local authority from negligence claims. Such signs, with their posts and lighting, destroy the ambience of the area and are ignored by the people they are aimed at. Even flashing speed limit signs outside schools are ignored by 60% of drivers.

The design of road systems - widths, radius of corners, arrangements for crossing streams, number of traffic lights at a junction, size and wording of signs - was originated in the 1950s and the philosophy associated with them has not changed since, but traffic has.

Urban space is too valuable to be used for only one purpose. With the introduction in the UK of home zones, a beginning is being made to changing the law to accept the latest philosophy that the public realm is valuable to everyone and should be shared and visually improved by removal of unnecessary traffic signs. The home zone regulations need to be extended to many more and larger areas.

Discussion

How do cyclists fit into the proposal? When you get a sufficient number of one class of people, pedestrians or cyclists, using an area they can affect the attitude of other users. (Stall Street on a Saturday). To build up the number of cyclists it will probably be necessary to provide dedicated cycle paths initially, which can later be removed.

It is no use `waging war' on car drivers; they have to agree to the concept.

It is unnatural and very difficult for authorities to remove regulations, but not driving and drinking and not smoking in public places has been achieved by social pressure, and leadership from prominent personalities, including Council members, could encourage civilised behaviour by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Principal routes into towns, with freight vehicles, deliveries to shops and commuter traffic create problems because of the volume of traffic. It may be that timed or charged use of these routes is the only practical way.

Donald Lovell