The wrong way to design for people

Over the past few weeks we’ve been gathering information about the dangerous barriers that were installed on the new Bar Hill and Swavesey active travel / non-motorised user (NMU) bridges. A new rationalisation for the barriers was sent to us, completely different from the one we received before. Now we know that the officially recorded observation is the following:

‘There are no measures in place to slow cyclists, in particular descending the NMU route (on both sides of the NMU bridge), particularly those descending southwards on the southern side. This has the potential for an increased risk of conflicts between other NMUs (pedestrians) on the route.’

For some reason, the design engineers took this observation and decided that the answer to a ‘potential for an increased risk of conflicts‘ was to introduce dangerous hoop barriers that now guarantee increased risks of conflicts between users, crashes due to the barrier and exclusion of disabled cyclists from the route. We are still trying to find out more about that thought process.

person obstructed by barrier and forced to wait for me to pass
A pedestrian obstructed by the new dangerous barriers near the Bar Hill bridge. He was generously waiting for a cycle to pass through on this occasion, but the conflict was caused entirely by these metal hoops unnecessarily installed by Highways England.

In contrast, this week,  came across a very insightful tweet from a designer who works for the Dutch transport consultants Mobycon:

‘Engineers are trained to rely on more engineering to solve safety “issues” but at low speed it’s actually not about adding stuff. It’s about relying on psychology.’ — Lennart Nout

I think that describes this situation very neatly. The design team for the pathway was informed about a potential risk, yes, but it is a risk that is normal on any surface shared between different users. However, the response to the risk was abnormal and far over the top. Walking, cycling and horse-riding all occur at low speeds, compared to driving, even when there is an incline involved (and this is a gentle incline, all things considered). Each pedestrian, cyclist or equestrian is a human being, a simple fact that seems to have been forgotten. The sharing of space in a considerate manner is a matter of human relationships. The big mistake that the design team seems to have made is to try and bluntly wedge in an engineering-based ‘hard’ measure as a poor substitute for human interaction. As a result, they have taken a ‘potential conflict’ and inflated it into clear and present danger.

The sharing of space in a considerate manner – as on this Midsummer Common path – is a matter of human relationships.

Good design is much more elegant than this. Good design encourages people to treat each other as human beings and not as ‘obstacles’ or ‘conflicts’. Good design makes it easy to ride in a graceful and considerate manner. Good design is always fully inclusive and accessible to all people, of all ages and abilities. Cycle routes and active travel pathways should not be overengineered because human beings are not machines.

Good design is the cornerstone of Local Transport Note 1/20, which specifically forbids crude barriers such as chicanes precisely because they can have such terrible (unintended) consequences. The approach to managing conflict in the government’s new cycling infrastructure manual is much more focused on providing high-quality and suitable space for all users, careful attention to detail and, most importantly, engagement with the stakeholders.  The Highways England and County Council officers who designed and installed the dangerous barriers did not follow this approach, and that is how we ended up in this mess.

TAKE ACTION: sign our petition to Cambridgeshire County Council and then write to tell your county councillors that it’s time to stop making dangerous changes to active travel routes. Instead they should ensure that inclusivity and accessibility are the first and foremost thoughts, and that the county will commit to using Local Transport Note 1/20 from now on.