Thursday, 23 June 2016

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

For the less observant of you, it's June, but at least in London and the South-East, you could be forgiven for thinking it's Autumn.

Well, not quite, the temperature as I write at 7pm, is 20 degrees Celsius and it's really humid; more like a cooler version what what August used to be like, you know, a week of blazing sun and then a thunderstorm.

I was woken last night by a huge crash of thunder and the storm raged for a few hours. I went to vote and in order to get to my route to work, I had to cross a bridge over a stream and the road over it had flooded. Not a big flood by the standards seen elsewhere to be sure, but locally unusual enough to be noteworthy.

I use the term "bridge", but it's really a box culvert. By that I mean a square/ rectangular shaped concrete tube. This one is about 1.5 metres high and 2.5 metres wide. What is normally a trickling stream was a torrent and the water was higher than the soffit of the culvert (the top underside of the inside of the culvert).

In the photo above, you can see a pipe - this is a utility crossing the stream and it is higher than the soffit of the culvert, but the watrer is lapping around it. The stream level was lower then the road; and the reason for the flood was that the surface water drains couldn't discharge into the stream quickly enough as the wall of flowing water was forcing itself back up the pipes and bubbling out of the gullies and manholes (known as surcharging in the trade).

My journey to work was uneventful other than taking my feet off the pedals to go through a few puddles; although the roads were crawling much more slowly than usual (and they're not normally flowing well in the morning). I got into work and found out about a number of road closures because of flooding and as the day went on, we heard about a few homes being flooded; our drainage engineer and general works crews were out doing what they could, but it was more about checking grilles and culverts were clear than stopping flooding - that cannot be dealt with so easily.

It is hard to be objective about this sort of thing, but the early summer weather has become wetter in recent times and thunderstorms are unusual at this time of year. Are we seeing climate change happening now? Yes, I think so. Do we want to do anything about it? It seems not. 

In my area at least, we will have a flurry of news articles, some will criticise the local authority's response to today's events. The reality is our habit of years of paving over front gardens, getting rid of verges for parking and building on back gardens is starting to bite back in terms of urban drainage and surface water management. But, even with some of the huge floods we have seen, they are soon yesterday's news. We are that frog in the water being brought to the boil.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Negative Feedback

Does background negativity and fear of objections hold us back in our designs? It's an interesting question to explore but it is probably one reason why it's so difficult to make change happen, but some "radical" street elements have been with us for decades.

UK design standards are a hotchpotch to say the least and half the time I'm sure designers don't refer to them anyway (although much is not worth using in my view). Many contradict each other and be wary of an old document, it is invariably out of date (often, but not always). But, a "book of rules" is very comforting to many and they wrap themselves in technical cotton wool. I use the word standards in a general sense, as much of what is written is actually guidance which means that if you have a better idea, nothing stops you pursuing it.

If you are working on a scheme which will be subject to public consultation, there is always the thought about how it will be received and I wonder if fear of a negative reaction keeps people from pushing for change? In a world of budgets, deadlines and approvals it is often easier just to play it safe with the nice comfortable solutions we have always known because it doesn't rock the boat too much and we get our scheme built in time and to budget; it doesn't really matter if it is crap as nobody is measuring that.

If we look at some of the things seen as radical in terms of walking and cycling, we can always find examples of there it has been done before which deals with the "not invented here" mentality. Continuous footways (and indeed cycle tracks) is a case in point. Dogma tells us that at a junction, we must connect two carriageways together and despite the wishy-washy "guidance" of the Highway Code for motorists to give way to pedestrians crossing the side road, car is king. 

Suggest a continuous footway so that the driver must enter and negotiate pedestrian space and you are looked at with incredulity; it's an utterly alien concept. But, it's not of course. Think about vehicle crossings over the footway using a dropped kerb. It is so common for single dwellings, we don't see it; most drivers understand this is them crossing pedestrian space, they have to wait until it is clear before driving. Scale it up to a car park serving a block of flats and nobody bats an eyelid. Yet do it for a side road at a main road junction and all of the excuses under the sun are made why it can't be done. Well, it has been done and is increasingly being done

I happened to be discussing a difficult road layout with a developer team recently. To be fair the layout was difficult because they were squeezing in the dwellings (it's their job), but it gave an opportunity. Some time back, I recommended they dusted down Manual for Streets. I know I said beware of aged documents and MfS is nearly a decade old, but it completely changed the way we think about urban (and mainly) residential developments in terms of road layout and the advice remains contemporary

We could see the need for providing just enough road width to get a refuse truck around and by using one-way loops (for motors) turning heads were eliminated. It was also agreed that if the road was laid out with some detailed thought and by using well-placed trees, we should be able to make any on-street parking self-enforcing in terms of not blocking access roads. 

We also looked at threading continuous footways through the site, including the access points which connect to a 20mph road in a conservation area. The urban designer on the team then "got it" in that as well as dealing with access and circulation, putting pedestrians first with continuous footways would actually make the development more attractive and in keeping with the conservation area - a triple win in my book.

On the subject of development, I'll just mention road adoption (roads taken over by the local authority to maintain and manage, but built by developers). Local authority development engineers are simply folk. They want new roads which will last many decades with minimal maintenance. They want new roads which don't facilitate speeding or people parking everywhere as it generates complaints from new residents - that negative feedback again. 

They like to cling to their standard details and from a construction point of view it isn't so bad - vehicle areas being tarmac with the money spent where people are walking is a fair starting point. But layout should be up for grabs as we only need a refuse (and fire) truck to get through as well as letting people access any parking they may have and this means challenging the safe and easy status-quo otherwise we risk more bland 1980s style identikit estates.

How about the controversial "floating bus stops" used with cycle tracks? These are all new fangled and pushing at the envelope, right? Look around suburbia, there are countless examples of floating bus stops, it's just they are not by cycle tracks, they are by service roads and as far as I am aware, there isn't even a whiff of controversy - perhaps this is because they haver been around for decades and people don't give them a second look Why haven't we built more cycle tracks and floating bus stops? It's probably because we have been sticking to the comfort of painting lanes on the road which give up at bus stops because we are scared about the negative feedback from building tracks. Let's be honest here, most roads with cycle lanes carry so much traffic that we should be building tracks.

People often have lomg-held views on how our roads should be laid out and operate (whether a user or a designer). On the whole, people have accepted business as usual and unless a yellow line or a hump is proposed outside their house, many people have never expressed a view, regardless of their usual mode of transport. Designers, highway authorities and elected people have gone along with it because it is easy and comfortable. 

I say let's shake the tree, bring on the negative feedback and then proceed to dismantle it. Change won't happen every time, but we can chip away at long held views and very so often we'll get something different and better built which we can point at and start to feed a positive feedback loop.