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Exhibition Road – Curb your enthusiasm

One of the buzzwords in urban design these days is shared space, attempt to integrate the flows of pedestrians, cyclists and vehicular traffic.  Traffic signs are removed to encourage people to think – and cause drivers to move more slowly in the process.  Road and pavement are jumbled to give a sense of danger that, counterintuitively, leads to safer behavior.  People can walk where they want but will, according to theory, find a happy coexistence with bicycles and cars, even lorries.  An early and energetic proponent of shared space was the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who developed many of its principles and implemented them in various settings in Holland.

One doesn't have to be enamored with quaint Dutch villages to be won over by the concept of shared space.  Most people practice it instinctively.  Everyone who has ever jaywalked across the road of no or only slowly moving traffic has shared space.  Everyone who has ever slowed down slightly to let the jaywalkers cross has done so.  Such intuitive interactions make our roads safer and traffic of all kinds flow more efficiently.

Over the past few years, Exhibition Road has received a Mondermanian makeover meant to bring all the benefits of shared space.  The most visible result is that the curbs have been removed and with it the separation of road and pavement.  (Transport for London contributed nearly half of the construction cost and were allowed to retain the curbs at bus stops.)  The previously existing two lanes of traffic have been pushed to one side, the central row of parking spots, in turn, to the other, where most people walk.  Park benches are strewn among the parked cars.  There are but few trees, probably to appease residents of the upper end that have always seen the road as rightfully theirs to park their cars.

The visual effect of the makeover is disconcerting.  From a pedestrian's perspective, Exhibition Road looks as if it had been turned into a wall-to-wall parking lot with benches, as if the world's biggest Wal-Mart had decided to give its customers a bit of respite on their mile-long hike back to their vehicles after shopping for a month of victuals.  It is a monstrosity, dreary and dead.

parking or walking

Parking or Walking?

The street has been cobbled with blocks of imported Chinese granite that look as if traffic is going to rip them out within the next few years.  The road surface stretches almost seamlessly between the walls of the buildings on either side, drab and foreboding.  Exhibition road has become a limestone and granite canyon, a crass divide in the urban fabric.

Along its central axis are 30-foot-tall grey metal spikes that serve no discernible purpose during daylight hours besides emphasizing the canyon-like character of the road.  In darkness, they turn out to be streetlights that, by the inadequacy of their design, intensify the hideousness of the road.  Instead of softly flooding artificial moonlight, they contain point sources of sharp light so piercing it's impossible to walk with one's head up for fear of one's eyesight.  People are thus forced to slump, to resign, to walk with their heads hanging low, staring at their feet like miserable rookie-dancers or life's rejects.

Cheerful street life exists near South Kensington tube station, at the very beginning of Exhibition Road.  There are a few restaurants and cafés there, some with outdoor seating.  The cheerful orange of Casa Brindisa and the Comptoir Libanais contrasts with the green marquees of the Crémerie Crêperie.  The streetlights are normal here, and people linger.

Cross Thurloe Place and then busy Cromwell Road and the scene deteriorates.  The Museums – Natural History, Science and Victoria & Albert – draw enormous crowds, but worthy as they are of a visit, they haven't managed to become part of the public space.  Outside their walls, there's nothing for people to do besides admiring the recently cleaned warm brick of the V&A façade.

In another part of town and in another example of urban regeneration, the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre have opened their foyers to the public.  They've invited people in, to sit and relax, have a coffee, chat, as if these spaces were extensions of the river walk outside, and they treat the outside as an extension of their own space.  Events inside regularly spill over onto the terraces and balconies.  It works beautifully in creating a natural oneness of space, inside and out.

The museums, in contrast, have only tiny side doors facing Exhibition Road.  By nearly getting lost in majestic façades, they clearly demarcate the inside from the outside.  The Natural History Museum has a garden that has the potential of making the street more livable, but it's sunk ten feet below street level and accessible only by a narrow and crowded flight of stairs that also serves the tube station.

Beyond the museums, there is little of interest to visitors and scant reason to give the street special treatment.  There's nothing that contributes to the newly developed urban environment, nothing that benefits from the shared-space concept, nothing that might justify the disproportionate expense of the project.  Alexandra Gate into Hyde Park is half a kilometer up the road.  To get there, one passes a Mormon chapel, a Goethe Institute, the imposing space-age portal to the Imperial College business school, and the Royal Geographic Society, none of which particularly encourages walk-in traffic.  Further up, it's all residential.

While the idea of shared space has been expensively painted over it, upper Exhibition Road is a normal road.  There are one-and-a-half lanes of traffic in each direction (hard to tell), parking on either side, and two pavements.  The sole concession to the shared space philosophy is that there are no curbs.  In place of a median are circular islands of raised granite, every other one of which sprouts a tall metal spike.  A simple line would have done a better job, making better use of the space and costing much less.  But cost was never the objective.

The project was evidently driven by the designer's love of the idea more than practical concerns.  Case in point is an ostensibly unregulated intersection in the upper part of Exhibition Road that is in fact a clandestine roundabout.  The lack of signage is in keeping with the shared-space concept, but it makes no sense.  The roundabout is indicated by nothing more than a white circle drawn onto the road, a feature that looks deceptively like an embellishment, much like the white diagonals all the way from South Kensington station to Hyde Park.  Consequently, most cars drive straight through.

clandestine roundabout

Roundabout or straight through?

The absence of signs is on purpose.  It is meant to encourage thinking – and slowing down to do so.  But what works on the Continent doesn't necessarily work in Britain.  The obsession with health and safety has over the years stunted the population's awareness of risk and danger and killed their instinctive reactions to them.  The British public expects safety unless there's a clear warning to the contrary.  Shared space is based on the opposite premise. A road is inherently dangerous but dangers can be minimized if everyone looks out, considers others and anticipates risks.

I doubt this will register with those drivers that arrive aggravated with London traffic.  They are unlikely to change their aggressive ways when entering Exhibition Road.  And how can one expect giddy children on their way to an exciting day in the Science Museum to realize that the pavement ends though no line or curb says so?  Accidents will happen.

Exhibition Road fails on two fundamental counts.  It is far from aesthetically pleasing and it doesn't work as shared space.  Spending nearly 20 million pounds on removing curbs from a stretch of road barely three quarters of a mile long must thus count as a spectacular waste of public money, especially in our times of austerity.  Exhibition Road is nothing short of an urban design fiasco.

4 February 2012