Shared surface plan for Exhibition Road axed in favour of ‘safe space’

By Andrew Forster

Pressure from disability campaigners and a critical road safety audit have prompted the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to drop plans for a fully shared surface on Exhibition Road. Andrew Forster explains the council’s novel plan to delineate pedestrian and vehicle space

The controversy over the re-design of Exhibition Road in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea showed no sign of receding this week as an alliance of 28 disability groups said the council’s decision to backtrack on plans for a full shared surface did not go far enough.

The council’s new design for the street separates the space into a number of distinct ‘zones’ and proposes a tactile strip to alert the blind and partially sighted that they are leaving a pedestrian zone and entering an area where vehicles circulate. But the disability groups, led by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, say the council must implement a 100mm kerb to delineate the footway from the carriageway.

RBKC’s cabinet rejected that idea last week and the signs are that councillors are prepared to tough-out the flak in order to deliver a scheme that will transform the street serving many of London’s top visitor attractions – including the Natural History, Science, and Victoria and Albert museums.

The council wants contractor Balfour Beatty to start work on the £18.8m project later this year and have it completed in 2011. Transport for London is providing £11.6m, RBKC £6.1m, and Westminster City Council £1m.

How the plans changed

The original re-design of Exhibition Road, drawn up by consultant Dixon Jones in 2004, envisaged a shared surface with a chequerboard pattern of pink and grey granite paving. Motorists and pedestrians would use eye contact to ‘negotiate’ with one another as they moved through the area.

It was arguably the most ambitious shared surface scheme to have been proposed in the UK. “There is no executed scheme which is directly comparable to Exhibition Road in terms of the length of the road and the number of visitors it attracts,” RBKC’s director of transportation and highways, Graham Swinburne, told members last week.

The council estimates that the street attracts 11.5 million visitors a year. But it’s also a busy traffic street and, even after traffic management changes, peak hour traffic flows are expected to be of the order of 600-700 vehicles an hour – much more than the limit of 100 vehicles per hour at which Manual for Streets suggests pedestrians are comfortable to share space with vehicles.

As well as being criticised by disability groups, the original plans ran into trouble with the scheme’s road safety auditor, consultant Peter Brett Associates. Its stage 2 report stated: “The design should ensure that there are sufficient visual and tactile signals to enable pedestrians to be aware of the carriageway area.”

Responding to the concerns, Kensington and Chelsea modified the plans, adopting the concept of a ‘safe space’ for pedestrians within a shared surface scheme. This is an idea developed by urban design consultant Ramboll Nyvig in work for Guide Dogs.

A cross-section of the new plans for the southern (busiest) end of the road (see illustration) now sees the first four metres on the western side designated a ‘pedestrian zone’. The next eight metres towards the centre of the road will be a ‘transition zone’, accommodating cycle parking, blue badge parking, some residents’ parking and bus stops. The following seven (or eight) metres will be a ‘vehicle zone’ accommodating two-way traffic and the final four metres on the eastern side will be a ‘pedestrian zone’. Neighbouring Westminster City Council is currently revisiting the design of the road north of Prince Consort Road junction.

RBKC’s cabinet last week agreed to modify the plans further with the introduction of delineators to separate the pedestrian zone from the transition zone on the western side of the street and the vehicle zone and pedestrian zone on the east. Swinburne said the expected traffic volumes meant that it was “essential that the space used by vehicles is delineated”.

The council’s chosen delineator is an 800mm tactile paving corduroy, similar in style (though of better quality) to that used to delineate the footpath and cycle path on shared routes (pictured). This will be complemented by an adjacent visual signal created by black painted cast iron grills covering the drainage gullies.

“The DfT’s advice on guidance tactiles does not advise on whether or not corduroy profiled tactile paving can be used to delineate between pedestrian and vehicle areas in single surface schemes,” Swinburne and planning director David Prout told councillors. The council has, however, successfully lobbied for the effectiveness of a corduroy paving delineator to be tested in the final stage of TfL/Guide Dogs research on ‘safe space’ delineators underway at the Pedestrian Accessibility and Movement Environment Laboratory, University College London.

Guide Dogs has told the council that the tactile paving will merely add to the confusion of guide dog users. “Guide Dogs tell us that the principle of guide dog training is that the guide dog user gives him or herself up entirely to the guidance of the dog,” said Swinburne and Prout. “If a dog crossed the delineator, the guide dog user would follow, irrespective of whether or not he or she was aware that they were crossing a warning tactile.” But the officers say “common sense” suggests that in such a situation, a confused guide dog user “would stop and ask for help”.

“Officers are of the opinion that the proposed works do not make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for guide dog users,” said Swinburne and Prout. Furthermore, they said the interests of the 5,000 guide dog users in the UK “need to be balanced... with the very real benefits of a vastly improved environment for the 11.5 million visitors a year.” The council believes the proposals are a “wholly proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” and are not in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Pedestrian priority

Kensington and Chelsea plans to post a 20mph speed limit on Exhibition Road. No traffic calming is proposed – the council instead expects that drivers will observe the speed limit because of the granite road surface and the special appearance of the street.

RBKC also wants the DfT to formalise priorities on shared (and single) surfaces by authorising ‘Single surface – pedestrian priority’ signs. “The regulation which would enable the sign to be enforceable must include that vehicles must give way to pedestrians,” said Swinburne and Prout.

Such signs will define liability in the case of accidents and would be “a major step forward”, they said. “The current lack of clear advice from the DfT and the outdated guidance and legislation is a hindrance to the implementation of shared surface schemes.”

They said the council risked liability in negligence “where it creates a ‘trap’ for an unwary pedestrian/motorist (i.e. the single surface scheme) or where it assumes a particular duty of care in relation to the highway user (i.e. in this instance to vulnerable highway users such as the partially sighted or the blind)”.

“The council therefore needs to consider all reasonable avenues (eg signage, delineation, speed limits) to minimise such liability.”