The accumulated wisdom of two generations of road engineers grappling with traffic in towns has been turned on its head by the Design Manual for Urban Roads issued jointly by the Departments of Transport and Environment.
For decades, the ruling thesis among engineers has been to channel relatively fast-moving traffic along a series of distributor roads fronted by nothing more than blank walls while insisting on housing layouts with numerous cul-de-sacs that are difficult for people to get around.
Guardrails were also favoured to corral pedestrians in what look like sheep pens in the middle of major junctions and even at their edges. Zebra crossings, where pedestrians have absolute priority, were replaced by push-button requests for a sliver of “green man” time.
What all of this did, the manual says, was to “inadvertently transfer risk from motorists to more vulnerable road users”, making spaces that “feel” safe for driving at speed hazardous for walking or cycling because they induce a “false sense of safety” among drivers.
More car dependent
"The elimination of access and frontage along roads was introduced to reduce risk, but it serves to encourage speeding. If the design of a street creates the perception that it is safe to travel at higher speeds drivers will do so, even if this conflicts with the posted speed limit," explains the
“Blank walls and fences restrict surveillance and movement. If pedestrians feel isolated within a street because of its characteristics, they are unlikely to use it, are unlikely to avail of the services within it and consequently will become more car dependent . . . ”
Now, the manual is telling local authorities to get rid of guardrails, provide more zebra crossings, “de-clutter” streets by removing traffic signage and permit commercial or other non-residential buildings to flank distributor roads, making them less hostile to pedestrians.
“The streets of our cities and towns, suburbs and villages, should be safe, attractive and comfortable for all users [including] pedestrians, cyclists and those using public transport. It also includes people of all ages and abilities and is equally relevant to residents and visitors.”
The National Roads Authority's Design Manual for Roads and Bridges "shall not henceforth apply to urban roads and streets other than in exceptional circumstances", it states, adding that these would require "written approval . . . from the relevant sanctioning authority".
The 165-page Design Manual for Urban Roads sets out to shift the emphasis "from more conventional approaches that are concerned with the movement of traffic to more sustainable approaches concerned with multi-modal movement and streets as places".
It says a focus on improved street design “will contribute to better value for money, social inclusion and reduced carbon emissions” in diverse and walkable urban neighbourhoods. “Streets and roads should join rather than separate places and communities.”
The Design Manual for Urban Roads puts cars at the bottom of the road-user hierarchy (below pedestrians, cyclists and public transport), but says this "should not be interpreted as an anti-car stance", rather that motorists "should no longer take priority" over the needs of other users.
Putting in ramps to slow traffic "doesn't address the broader issue of what elements of the road design or street network encourage speeding" and the overall issue can only be addressed by taking a "holistic, design-led approach", as in Britain and much of Europe.
It cites the example of Kensington High Street in London, where a “major de-cluttering” exercise removed all guardrails and minimised signage and road markings. On completion, vehicle speeds reduced and accidents fell by 43 per cent within two years.
Drivers and children
The manual says guardrails "create a false sense of safety" for
drivers and pedestrians, “block intervisibility between drivers and children”, result in pedestrians being “trapped” on the carriageway and “create a collision hazard for cyclists” on nearby cycle lanes.
“Guardrails should not be used as a tool for directing and/or shepherding pedestrians,” it says. “Guardrails should only by installed where there is a proven or demonstrable safety benefit, for example where people may inadvertently step onto the carriageway.”
Designers are also being advised that the use of one-way streets – another legacy from the past – should be “approached with caution” as they “promote faster speeds”, except where more space is provided for pedestrians and cyclists, as in West Street, Drogheda, Co Louth.
The manual says left-turning lanes “generally offer little benefit in terms of junction capacity and increase the number of crossings pedestrians must navigate. They also allow vehicles to take corners at higher speeds, exposing pedestrians and cyclists to greater danger".
It also says large roundabouts, such as those in Galway, "are generally not appropriate in urban areas" because they give vehicles a "continuous right of way". Local authorities are being encouraged to replace them with signalised junctions in any major upgrade works.
“Designers must broaden the scope of issues that are considered . . . Whilst the movement of traffic is still a key issue, there are several others, including a ‘sense of place’, which are of core significance to the creation of safe and more integrated street designs.”
“Organic layouts”, derived from the street patterns of the past, are also favoured because of the benefits of “variety and intrigue” they provide. In this context, the manual cites with approval the Poundbury development in Dochester, Dorset, by Britain's Prince Charles.
It also hails the transformation of Dorset Street in Dublin by the introduction of trees and new lighting, saying it "demonstrates how better outcomes can be achieved by shifting away from convention and embracing a more inclusive and strategic approach to design".
“This manual offers designers the rationale and the tools to enact the change required by broader Government policies. Implementing such change is highly challenging”, it says.
However, the authors insist that “such change is achievable”, based on numerous examples of best practice.
To date, however, only one local authority – South Dublin County Council – has a street design manual. It was drawn up 10 years ago for the developing area of Adamstown, near Lucan, with the aim of creating a positive and inclusive sense of place for the community.
Drawn from Fingal, Kildare and South Dublin county councils, the authors of the Design Manual for Urban Roads call for a "plan-led approach" involving engineers, planners, architects, landscape architects and other urban design specialists and more consultation with the wider community.
In future, the design of roads in our cities, towns and suburbs will no longer be left to engineers alone.