Good streets are not just about strategic ‘place-making’; we also need to give more attention to improving mundane operational practice in street maintenance to make them work better for people. The devil is often in the detail; here are some examples from Edinburgh of poor practice that is all too common in day-to-day street design and maintenance. Of course, these kind of things in themselves have only a small adverse impact on streets, but multiplied hundreds and thousands of times, they make walking less attractive and safe. Putting this right is an opportunity to make streets better bit by bit - and at little or not cost. There is a role here for quality management processes and professional bodies like IHT, but most of all we need to develop a culture that places a higher value on good streets and a quality public realm.
This bin store for flats has its very own tactile paving: someone has thought “dropped kerb, so we need tactile paving”. This signals to a blind person that this is a safe place to cross the road. Of course there is no crossing here - the tactile paving leads to a row of parked cars on the other side of the street.
While I welcome the removal of redundant signage poles on pavements (better of course, don’t install them in the first place), where they are removed, this should be done properly. This means no remnant stumps, and pavement surfaces should be fully re-instated. On a recent visit to Glasgow, a ‘Walkable Communities’ participant from the continent commented on an example: “How do they get away with this??”
Bollards are generally used to deter pavement parking, and in many places, may be the lesser of two evils in performing this function. So it is regrettable to see the common sight of bollards adjacent to other street furniture (often signage poles)…assuming the pole is was put in after the bollard, the bollard could (should) have been removed. And I understand that the mail box to the left is also redundant (thanks to @Paul)
Here is another bollard issue - the pavement here (Bruntsfield, Edinburgh) was recently repaired to a good standard having been in poor condition. The work stopped just short of an obsolete bollard which was on an old kerb line. Since the bus boarder was installed some years ago, the bollard has been a redundant relic, pretty much in the pedestrian desire line. Why wasn’t it removed when the paving was re-laid?
Thanks to http://bullshitbingo.net, I’ve devised this bingo card for spotting pedestrian problems with the street. I hope that this might be a fun way of helping people to notice problems with the street from the walking viewpoint; any feedback very welcome!
Many of our streets are littered with signage poles. A significant opportunity to do something about this lies in the latest version of the statutory guidance Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (TSRGD). This specifically aims to reducing signage clutter, particularly eliminating the need for signs mounted on poles to show parking and loading restrictions. Perhaps most irksome of all are the dozens of bare poles which carry no sign at all. These will have carried parking or loading signs at one time, but they have for months - or possibly years - been bare, serving no purpose other than to obstruct pedestrians. I counted five such poles in one kilometre stretch of Slateford Road. These can now all be removed entirely without undermining the traffic orders that regulate the parking and loading restrictions in place. Will Edinburgh - and other councils - seize this opportunity to clean up our streets?
I strongly believe that the best way to encourage people to walk is to make streets nice places to walk in. But our streets are full of obstacles which make using them less pleasant, easy and safe places to use. Walking is the most inclusive, sustainable and healthy way of getting about and it is fundamental to getting our cities towns and villages working as communities. If we removed the clutter on our pavements, it would be a real ‘quick win’ to encourage more people to use our streets more often.
This is my current top ten ‘hates’ of clutter encountered on the streets, mostly from near my home in Edinburgh. I could possibly stretch to a top 20 I have missed out some obvious candidates like waste bins, unprotected scaffolding and minor irritations like urban runners (the Royal Mile is not the place to go for a run)…
Number 10: Flappy cables
This is a relative new menace to our streets - cables hanging from buildings, often flapping loose in the wind. Often they are attached to nothing, and probably serve no useful purpose. They don’t do much aesthetically for a street either, but no one seems to see them as their responsibility…?
Number 9: Guardrails
New street design guidance - both locally in Edinburgh and nationally - has a presumption against railings. But they seem to hang on tenaciously, more frequently stopping people go where they want to than protecting them, I think. I was pleased to see them being removed in Tollcross last year - and less pleased to see them then replaced by a brand new new lot. Our risk-averse engineering culture means they are here for a while yet…
Number 8: Phone boxes
I have already complained about the curse of unnecessary phone boxes, which are really just advertising boards. So I’ll not harp on about them again. But along with cash machine kiosks and other such stuff, they (mostly) need to go.
Number 7: Cycle parking
Cycling is on the increase: good. Bikes on the pavement are also on the increase: not good. Keep them on the road please, preferably in well-designed cycle parking. Or if cycle parking must be on the pavement, please put them in suitable nooks and crannies, well away from the desire line of people on foot…
Number 6: Vegetation
Overhanging trees and especially protruding hedges are everywhere. It is not uncommon to see the space available to people walking halved by encroaching shrubs. How often do council inspectors knock on a door and draw this to the attention of their owners? Never, I would think…
Number 5: (Highway) rubbish
Rubbish in the street is not nice for anyone, but can also be hazardous. Mattresses and such like are frequently dumped, sometimes blocking the whole footway. To be fair, my council (Edinburgh) usually removes this kind of thing fairly quickly, and it would help if people stopped anti-social fly-tipping. But worse is the rubbish left by the council and its contractors itself: the traffic cones and all the other highways rubbish that seems to perpetually litter our streets - sandbags, barriers, and such like. They are everywhere. And they shouldn’t be.
Number 4: ‘A-boards’
There currently appears to be a retailers’ “arms race” going on - more and bigger ‘A-boards’ and similar clutter filling up pavement space which is meant for people. The worst offenders often seem to be not your local independent shop, but high street giants like Sainsburys, Greggs and Costa. Check these out for size! No wonder Living Streets Edinburgh has started a campaign for a wholesale review of policy and practice.
Number 3: ‘Temporary’ road signs on the pavement
Into the top three now; yes these are my top hates at the moment: Roadworks signs on the pavement. They are supposed to comply with the statutory Code, but often don’t. They also often linger long after their original purpose has expired. Special mention must go to “diversion” signs…in my own street, I have seen a sequence of signs reading: “diversion”, “end of diversion” and then, surprise, surprise, “diversion” again. And worst of all are signs mounted in 900kg concrete blocks, taking up half the pavement which seem to be everywhere. Ban them; put temporary signs on lamp posts instead.
Number 2: Signage poles
I am known for my dislike of signage poles, I confess. Poles with parking signs, poles with signs directing you (ie motorists) to an amenity…above all, poles with nothing on them whatsoever. Design guidance couldn’t be clearer - signage should be minimised, and where it is needed, it should be mounted on lamp posts, buildings or other infrastructure. But old habits die hard. We are still sticking new poles everywhere, let alone de-cluttering our streets - every new initiative (safe routes to school, trams, parking zones) brings a new clutch of signs and poles…
Number 1: Pavement parking
And so to Number One. Parking on the pavement is not on. But in Edinburgh, while you are pretty much guaranteed a parking ticket if you overstay your time limit in a controlled parking zone bay, no one seems to take responsibility for vehicles parked on the pavement. Let’s hope the promised Footway Parking and Double Parking (Scotland) Bill will really put an end to this.
Have you ever noticed that there seem to be an awful lot of phone boxes in Edinburgh streets? (I’m not talking here about traditional red phone boxes, by the way: rather the unlovely, utilitarian payphone). In the age of the ubiquitous mobile phone, do we need so many of these square boxes in our already-cluttered pavements? I first became curious about this phenomenon while trying - successfully, eventually! - to get this redundant phone box removed from Tollcross as a result of a street audit for Living Streets Edinburgh.
Indeed, BT reports that a third of their pay phones have been removed, because most phone boxes lose money; calls from their payphones have fallen by more than 80% in the past ten years. But according to UK payphone.com there are 1,379 in Edinburgh. In South St Andrews Street, just off Edinburgh’s Princes Street, there are no fewer than seven payphone within the space 40 metres. Is it conceivable that there is ever a demand for all these phones at any one time?
Could this proliferation possibly be connected with BT’s partnership with street furniture and advertising giant JC Decaux? JC Decaux’s “StreetTalk” is a roadside advertising programme aimed particularly at young people which seems to use BT phone boxes as prime advertising sites. JCDecaux’s website boasts that “StreetTalk’s domination of the high street means that campaigns can get right in on the action”. Of course, phone boxes are not the only - or no doubt the worst - culprit cluttering our streets, but there is something objectionable, sneaky even, about a street advertising programme that masquerades as a public service.
Scottish councils have clear powers under the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 to remove obstructions from our streets. It would be nice to see councils using these powers more vigorously to reduce phone boxes (and all other useless things which clutter our towns and cities) to make our streets more attractive and easy places for people to use. The latest Ofcom guidance (5) on the subject I could find seems to be ten years old; it is mostly concerned with the process for removing phone boxes (to protect rural communities where a phone box might be a crucial lifeline). Perhaps Ofcom could provide some leadership here too?
“I hate the way everyone responsible for urban life seems to have lost sight of what cities are for. They are for people” Bill Bryson, Neither here Nor there, 1991 p61