Sharing the Beautiful Everyday Journey

As recipients of the 2016 Built Environment Research Fellowship – awarded by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 – DSDHA have investigated the nature of London’s urban mobility, taking into account often overlooked aspects of aesthetic and psychological order. Building on this research, we have devised a methodology for the design of safe and pleasant urban ‘journeys’, with the specific aim to improve the quality of London’s public spaces by making cycling as well as walking more pleasurable and accessible modes of transport.

Since the modernist period the automobile has rolled into the city and conquered space at the expenses of pedestrian areas and public space. All this while the incessant rise of car ownership and car culture has been altering both human perception and the experience of everyday life in the urban environment – as the excellent work of Alison Smithson in ‘AS in DS’, Venturi/Scott Brown in 'Learning from Las Vegas' and Lynch/Meyr/Appleyard in 'The View From the Road' well documented in the '60s and '70s. 

The Issue of Conflict 
More recently new road-users have started to compete for their space in the city. Cyclists, in particular, have dramatically changed the experience of moving through London, with bicycles now being the fastest means of transport within the inner city. However, beyond its documented logistical, health, environmental and social benefits, cycling is also causing huge conflict on our roads. 

This is partly because, in integrating cyclists and pedestrians, the attempt has largely been to replicate 20th century planning models, scarring our city with a mesh of flyovers, segregated pedestrians and cycle paths, to keep different road-users separated as much as possible and with little consideration given to the psychological and human experience of moving across the city.  

This model – we believe – is fuelling tensions and ruining the urban setting. Moreover, due to its lack of flexibility, all this expensive infrastructure is at risks of becoming obsolete with the introduction of autonomous vehicles, which, without a doubt, will force us to question a lot of assumptions on urban mobility.  

The Issue of Scale
It is important to remember that London, is not like Amsterdam and Copenhagen – cities with a more ordered, coherent and compact layout. The sheer scale of the UK Capital inevitably results in longer commutes: real ‘journeys’ taking one through different urban conditions across the city’s 32 boroughs, plus the City of London, each with its own political and administrative identity and with a street pattern that changes moment by moment, straight to winding, leafy to truck-thronged, wide to narrow. 

In many ways London’s network appears as the reversal of Dutch planning principles. Dutch cities tend to have extensive areas of Shared Space at their core: with motorists, pedestrians and cyclists acting as one and proceeding at moderated speed within the historic centre. Segregated routes, either Motorways or Cycle Superhighways constitute the ‘exception’. They connect one historic city centre (essentially a macro Shared Space) to the other and to transport infrastructures such as airports and train stations, allowing road users to move between them at greater speed. 

By contrast, the Cycle Superhighways and Quietways of the Central London Grid cut through the historic core; the first segregating cyclists from motorised traffic, and the latter excluding them from most of pedestrianised areas in and around London’s cultural infrastructure: i.e. its major monuments, landmarks and attractions. 

A More Inclusive Urban Environment
In this complex road network, the issue of conflict between different road users becomes most evident at the junctions. Take for instance Blackfriars Bridge, where Quiteways, multiple Cycle Superhighways’ segregated routes converge and meet with highways as well as with hordes of pedestrians flocking out of the underground and railway stations. 

At this highly engineered segregated junction a substantial amount of road signs, traffic signals, roundabouts, crossing points and kerbs regulate the flow and dictate the pace of different transport modes whilst keeping them strictly separated. This is hardly a place of positive encounter, with tension and stress level typically very high and any sense awareness of the setting diminished. This type of junction is typically the territory of one type of cyclist: the lycra-clad who favours speed over the appreciation of his (it is usually a 'he') surroundings and shows a braver and more aggressive attitude. 

Non-segregated junctions – such as Leonard Circus – represent an alternative. Here the Quietways typically converge with other networks and a more diverse population of cyclists (not just the lycra-clad) negotiate their space and pace with either pedestrians or motorists. We have concentrated our study specifically on these typologies of ‘shared space’, which we believe are key to create more inclusive public spaces. Yet at the moment they are but ‘islands’ within the Central London Grid and, in part because of their sparse nature, are perceived as interruptions to the network of designated cycling and transport routes and, precisely for this, are criticised by users and stakeholders. 

A Perspectival Shift
Drawing inspiration from the experiments of Smithson, Venturi/Scott-Brown and Appleyard/Lynch/Myer, we sought to shift the perspective on transport and public realm planning from a problem of engineering and efficiency to one of architecture, human health, safety and beauty. We conducted extensive research on the ground, on foot and on our bikes; as well as using geotagged technology to map people’s journeys. We then created a taxonomy of cyclists in London. 

Our point of departure was Transport for London famous road matrix, which classifies roads according to the prominence of their setting and speed on the vertical axis. We substituted these roads with the cyclist who are more likely to travel on them. This was meant as a bit of a provocation since, our analysis of current guidance highlighted that, despite the declared intention on the part of the Mayor to create a ‘more inclusive transport strategy’, encouraging a more diverse group of people to cycle and walk, the reality was that in these documents cyclists and pedestrians were always described as an homogenous group. It is no surprise then that in London most road types are dominated by the lycra-clad

We wanted to define cyclists's characters and attitudes, understand what they valued and what they feared when they travel. Particularly as different speeds of motion allow very different social and aesthetic experiences of the environment. For instance lycra-clad travelling at 20miles per hr from A-B, enjoys speed and is not too disturbed by the presence of fast vehicles, his field of vision is narrower and therefore less aware of the setting, his social interactions mostly happen though digital app such as Strava, where he records and shares his journeys with other lycra-clads. On the contrary a tourist on a boris-bike, travels at 8 miles/h, in groups, she is much more aware of the setting, frequently stopping to take pictures or talk to her companions. 

Our Methodology
Working closely with TFL and our mentors Alan Baxter, Bill Mount and Deborah Saunt, we then developed a 3-step methodology for the appraisal of existing junctions and the design of non segregated urban ‘journeys’ across London. This methodology is accompained by a set of visual tools which facillitate a kinetic understanding of the city, from different perspectives and, crucially, through time: across the day and the seasons.

The 3 steps of our methodology are the following: 

1_City Network 
First we understand the place of a specific junction within the wider transport network and in relation to recognisable monuments and landmarks. We also map the urban elements that govern traffic around that specific site (ie. one-way traffic lanes, bollards, CCTVs, traffic signs, etc.), then we record the movement of each road user to identify desire lines and predict the points where conflict might occur. 

The second step is to map the uses within each building in proximity of the site – understanding where shops, bars, restaurants, theatres, offices, parks, etc., are located and how their associated activities and operating hours affect the flow of people and goods at different times of the day or of the year. These activities are recorded at ‘peak’ and ‘off-peak’, throughout the day/night – using observation on the ground or CCTV cameras where possible. Sometimes these activities cause large stationary crowds to gather in front on their premises, like people queuing up in front of the food stalls at lunchtime for instance, and this sensibly reduces the available space for movement. 

The final step is to map the stress levels of different users approaching the site. A cyclists coming from a busy road, where she had to compete for space with cars and vans, would be considerably more stressed, and typically more aggressive, than another cyclist entering the junction from a segregated route or a pedestrian coming from an alleyway. It is often this disparity of mind-sets that causes conflict at a junction, as such we seek to design a ‘buffer zone’ in and around the junction that either stresses or ‘decompresses’ the users, helping them to reach the same mind set/speed at a junction, so that the negotiations of space required can take place without the aid of too much signage or road infrastructure. 

To create these ‘buffers’ we consider the effect of different surfaces on the users’ behaviour: a cobbled path for instance slows down bikes, but doesn’t affect pedestrians as much. Moreover by documenting an unfolding sequence of views for different characters, we determine the ‘imageability’ of a public space I.e. how clearly the space is perceived and what reactions this causes in its users. 

Furniture and planting are also elements that can affect the legibility of a space and affect the confidence (and therefore the speed) of different users groups. The same can be said of the presence of other people and vehicles: a variable that is not usually taken into consideration when designing urban schemes, but can shift hugely throughout a day, impacting both mobility and the character of a site.

Images: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown & Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas; Alison Smithson, AS in DS: An Eye on the Road
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