IRISH COUNCILS ARE introducing new streetscapes based on the Dutch concept of shared space – but without much consistency in layout and dimensions, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind contends.
The trend has crept in relatively quickly over recent years, the organisation’s policy coordinator Lean Kennedy said – arguing that there’s little evidence of joined-up-thinking when councils set about planning these developments.
Ahead of the planned redevelopment of Dublin’s College Green, the organisation is making a plea for additional research and coordination by councils aiming to pedestrianise and modernise city and town centres.
The idea of lowering kerbs and other barriers between traditional pedestrian and road spaces was first developed by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman in the 1980s – based on the idea that the new layouts would encourage all road users to act in a more civilised manner.
And while improved behaviour has been observed in towns and cities around the world, Irish Guide Dogs says more research needs also needs to be done to assess how Irish drivers, cyclists and pedestrians behave and interact in such environments.
We all used to know how it worked – we’d have a roadway, the cars would go up and down and the cyclists would go up and down, and then there’s a kerb of standard height so that anybody who steps on or off it knows clearly if they’re on the roadway or on the footway.
While a range of improvements have been made to streetscapes around the country to accommodate wheelchair users, as well as people who are blind or deaf, the fact that these improvements are being deployed in different ways in different areas is leading to increased frustration – sometimes increasing dangers rather than decreasing them, Kennedy contends.
Kerbs were initially lowered at pedestrian crossings to allow for wheelchair users and parents pushing prams and buggies – a welcome development, of course, Kennedy said – but she argues that the blister pavement being placed on approaches to crossings is not being laid out in a consistent fashion, making journeys confusing for people walking with the aid of a guide dog or a long cane.
“We keep being told that kerbs are being replaced with tactile paving but research has shown there’s no reason to take away the kerb,” Kennedy said.
The kerb is the key indicator to pedestrians to know when they’re coming onto a road.
Irish local authorities seem to be copying each other as they revise road layouts in urban centres, she said.
“We’re finding these innovations are creeping in bit by bit – even though it’s meant to be pedestrianising areas, we’re finding in practise that it’s making the environment more inaccessible to people who are blind and visually impaired.
We need universities to get involved here – to start doing research where they look at shared space in Ireland and find out which is the best way to incorporate whatever traffic calming measures are required for a specific area.
Kennedy said that her group’s members had learned from experience that new traffic measures were creating major difficulties.
Even when it comes to something as simple as the control switch for traffic signals, there are inconsistencies, she explained.
“In every city and county they are different. There is no consistency – but they’re supposed to meet the needs of everyone, especially the people who are blind and visually impaired so they can hear them and they can find them.
There’s also people out there who are dealing with blindness and hearing loss – so it needs to vibrate as well so that when they put their hand on the button they can tell what to do by the vibrations.
It’s supposed to point you in the direction of the crossing too – some of the crossings aren’t in a straight line, they’re in diagonal line, and if we could just come up with one design that meets the needs of everyone and implement that at signal control switches around the country, that would be an immense benefit.
A 2011 study analysing shared space traffic layouts in the UK found that some claims made in support of the approach were overstated and that in some cases pedestrians felt safer in traditional urban environments.
When it comes to the planned redevelopment of College Green, cyclists have also campaigned for the introduction of barriers to demarcate who should use which surfaces – arguing that a defined cycle path is needed to improve safety.
New traffic measures for the area are due to be announced next month, according to Dublin City Council.
The addition of new Luas routes through the junction before Christmas resulted in pedestrian priority being reduced temporarily at crossings – and council CEO Owen Keegan said that if the situation was allowed to remain “the city will grind to a halt”.
Irish Guide Dogs says it has been lobbying councillors about the project. The recent changes to the pedestrian crossings at the junction “are another example of how people who are blind or vision impaired have yet again been forgotten in the design,” according to the group.
The charity argues that the current crossing system leads to “more congestion at the crossing, which can pose a difficulty to our clients who use a guide dog or a long cane for mobility support”.
The charity wants an ‘Inclusive Mobility Committee’ to be set up to work with local authorities at the design and planning stage for new traffic layouts, to make sure the needs of everyone are taken on board.
The Department of Housing, Planning & Local Government said in response to a query that it supported a more inclusive use of road and pedestrian space “as exemplified through our support for DMURS (design manual for urban roads and streets)”.
That document, which examines “contemporary national and international practices and thinking on shared spaces” was sponsored by the Department of Transport and the department of local government and published in 2013.