All posts filed under “Motoring

A lengthy debate

Norwich City Council is introducing a system of parking permit charges determined by the length of the vehicle:

The move away from flat-fee permits will penalise drivers who own vehicles more than 4.45 metres (14½ft) in length, such as the Vauxhall Vectra.

Brian Morrey, vice-chairman of the Norwich Highways Agency Committee, a joint initiative between the city council and Norfolk County Council, said: “We want to encourage more people to drive smaller cars. It is far more environmentally friendly and would also generate more parking space on the roads.”

(Quote from the Times; image from the Daily Mail)

From the Daily Mail - the parking permit charge bands for some common cars

Media reactions have largely been negative, with the measure being seen as a stealth tax, penalising larger families with larger vehicles, and so on; even the Green Party’s Siân Berry (London mayoral candidate and anti-4 × 4 activist) criticised the measure on the BBC News this morning for not being linked to the cars’ CO2 emissions.

Nevertheless, from a ‘design with intent’ point of view, this is an interesting strategy. The Council is clearly addressing the problem which it perceives – too many large cars in a city with “narrow, mediaeval” streets, rather than the ‘wider’ problem of CO2, and it’s addressing it directly, by making it less desirable to own a larger vehicle in Norwich if you’re going to park it on the street. Whether that’s ethical, sensible, or anything else is another matter: there are always unexpected consequences, and if, for example, more people decided to lay tarmac over their front gardens to avoid having to pay to park on the road outside, the impact of the permit costs might be felt long after the price had been forgotten (much like the window tax). While legal/economic/policy mechanisms for changing user behaviour, such as fines and permits, are perhaps outside the usual purview of ‘design with intent’, the idea here is still relevant: it’s a rather rare example of a direct response to a problem, and it – potentially – has that ‘trimtab‘ characteristic that is so fascinating about certain solutions.

An obvious physical-psychological mechanism analogous to the permit pricing structure might be to construct city car parks and parking spaces so that there were only a few spaces long/wide enough to take larger vehicles (making this very obvious), thus adding a little extra inconvenience every time a driver of a larger vehicle wants to park. Over time, that thin end of the inconvenience wedge might have an effect, even if it simply means that when the owner comes to replace the car, he or she thinks “Driving a big car’s so inconvenient nowadays; I’ll get something smaller.” On a large scale, those small decisions can have a significant impact. Has this been done anywhere?

Ticket off (reprise)

Last year we looked at the way that the pricing structure of no-change-given ticket machines is often – apparently – designed to lead to overpayment, and I posed the question of whether councils/car park operators actually draw up their budget based on a significant proportion of customers overpaying.

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, DevonParking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

I’m still no closer to answering that last question, but I was reminded again of this ‘the house always wins’ idea last week by this ticket machine (above) in Totnes, Devon. Look at the price intervals: 25p, 90p, £1.70, £2.55, £4.20, £5.75 – those are some rather odd figures. The price jumps – 65p, 80p, 85p, £1.65 and £1.55 – are odd in themselves, but given that the machine does not give change, it’s a fairly safe bet that,unless they carry a lot of change, many people parking for 1 hour will pay £1.00 rather than 90p, many 2 hour customers will pay £2 instead of £1.70, and many 3 hour customers will pay some amount larger than the very awkward £2.55. Why not £2.50? What’s the logic behind that extra 5p if not to force overpayment by people not carrying a spare fivepence?

One car park visitor was clearly sufficiently irritated to label the machine with exactly what he or she thought of the pricing policy (third photo above)!

Dublin Bus ticket details at Dublin Airport

An interesting case: Dublin Bus

One detail which was thrown up in the comments last time by Undulattice is that at least one no-change-given policy, that of Dublin Bus, is accompanied by the ability to get a refund if you really want, by taking your receipt to Dublin Bus’s headquarters (which are at least located in a fairly prominent place in the city centre), as explained on signs such as the above (photographed at Dublin Airport earlier this year):

Dublin Bus have operated an ‘Exact Fare – No Change’ policy for years now. In the case of over-payment, they issue a ticket receipt which can be exchanged at Dublin Bus HQ.
Oh, and they don’t accept notes either!

and Damien added this:

I can’t remember which one, but there was a charity in Dublin that started collecting the Bus refund receipts and cashing them as donations. Great idea.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, St Francis Hospice and Barnardos are among the charities actively asking for the receipts – as Barnardos says:

Did it ever occur to you that you are throwing away real money – and lots of it!

As much as €750,000 a year is going into rubbish bins across the county!!

In 2004 there were over 150 million passenger journeys on Dublin Bus routes right across the city. If ONLY 1% of those journeys were over–paid by 5c that’s a total of €750,000 that often ends up in the bins!

This forum discussion from 2004 suggests (how accurately, I don’t know) that Dublin Bus has more than €9 million in unreturned change. As with the car parking overpayments, how do accounting standards deal with this kind of overpayment arrangement? Can budgets be drawn up based on projections of massive overpayments along these lines? Are there businesses (bus companies, car parks, etc) that are only profitable because of the scale of overpayment? Some forum posts suggest that drivers may pocket and redeem a lot of the receipts themselves, which may further complicate the picture further.

The charity initiatives are a fascinating way to ‘fight the system’ and achieve some good – a mechanism for recovering overpayment en masse – and it does make me wonder just how much overpayment Transport for London’s bus ticket machines receive each year, and how that money is accounted for.

A different strategy

Back to parking ticket machines, Carrie McLaren of the brilliant Stay Free! commented that:

…in New York, like most major cities in the US, parking meters are priced way below their market value – so “the house always wins” claim wouldn’t apply here. Anyone able to find a metered spot is getting a real bargain, even if they don’t have the right change.

This is an interesting strategy, very different to that used by most car parking operations in the UK. Restricting the number of spaces and not deliberately overcharging for them seems to be clearly targeted at discouraging drivers from even thinking of driving into the city, while not ripping off those who need to do so. This generally does not happen in the UK, where parking charges (and fines) are a major revenue source for councils and private operators, and while high charges (and forcing overpayment) may pay lip-service to ‘discouraging traffic’, the still-full car parks would tend to show up that this does not work. I’ll look further at this, and ‘architecture of control’ strategies for parking, in a future post.

Shaping behaviour: Part 2

Dashboard of 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST, on B1098 somewhere near March
Speedometer, rev counter and fuel and temperature gauges on the dashboard of my 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST. Photo taken on B1098 alongside Sixteen Foot Drain, Isle of Ely, England.

In part 1 of ‘Shaping behaviour’, we took a look at ‘sticks and carrots’ as approaches for shaping (or changing) people’s behaviour. It’s especially worth reading and thinking about the comments on that post as there are some very thoughtful analyses which go beyond my rather cursory treatment. ‘Shaping behaviour’ is a vast field, encompassing pretty much all of politics, advertising and marketing alongside much of religion, education, psychology (and psychiatry?), product and graphic design.

The ‘sticks, carrots and speedometers’ classification was originally mentioned to me as a possible method by Chris Vanstone, of the UK Design Council’s former research arm, RED. The idea is that you can get people to change their behaviour by persuading (or forcing) them with ‘sticks’ (punishment/disincentives), ‘carrots’ (rewards) or ‘speedometers’ (showing them the results of their actions, how they’re doing, or how well they could be doing if they changed their behaviour). Having looked at sticks and carrots – and found the classification rather limiting – let’s take a look at speedometers.

Some gauges provide information which directly relates to a user’s actions at that time. An actual speedometer or rev counter allows the user to determine what effect his or her actions are having on a vehicle, and take corrective action if the information displayed is outside the ‘correct’ range (of course there are other factors, such as the resistance to motion from drag or going uphill, and if one can hear the engine, a rev counter’s perhaps not really necessary, but I digress). Other gauges, such as fuel or temperature gauges (see photo at top) show us information over which we can’t have so much direct influence (or, in the case of a clock, say, no influence…) but about which we need to take action if certain levels are reached. Certainly, we change our behaviour as a result of taking in the information displayed. Usually. And the speedometer can of course be a metaphor for other methods of feedback or information displays – which I’ll get to later on.

Energy use

Sticking with physical gauges for the moment, in recent times there’s been a lot of design effort put into devices which monitor and display our energy or fuel use, with the hope that they’ll persuade us to change our behaviour, or bring to our attention which devices (e.g. in a home) are more power-hungry than others in an immediately persuasive way. The Design Council’s Future Currents project, which investigated a range of interesting techniques and design approaches, put the idea well:

Energy is invisible, which makes it difficult to control. We can give people the tools to monitor their own energy use. Studies show that if people can see what they’re using, they use up to 15% less energy.

An anecdote in Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy claims an even larger reduction:

The manager of a housing co-op was increasingly frustrated with her tenants. No matter how much she reminded and badgered them… the tenants would not, could not reduce their energy consumption. Finally she hit an idea. What would happen, she wondered, if the electricity meters were moved from the basement to a conspicuous spot right beside the front door, so that each time the tenants left or entered their home, they could see how fast their meter was whirring? The meters were moved. Lo and behold, within a few weeks electricity consumption fell 30 percent.

(It’s not clear whether there were individual meters so tenants could see each other’s consumption – that kind of control by embarrassment, or social pressure, may be effective in this free-rider or unequal contribution situation.)

Wattbox by Gary Lockton, 1992 You make waste visible. From Design Anarchy by Kalle Lasn
Wattson - image from Example 'greenness gauge' from Design Council's Future Currents website
Flower Lamp Power Aware Cord
Above left: Wattbox by Gary Lockton, Brunel University, 1992, a simple unit which displayed the cost of electricity being used as well as estimated bills; Above right: ‘You make waste visible’ from Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy; Centre left: Wattson, from DIYKyoto; Centre right: An example ‘greenness gauge’ from the Design Council’s Future Currents project; Bottom left: Static! Flower Lamp ‘blooms’ when a household has reduced its power consumption for a period; Bottom right: Static! Power Aware Cord glows with an intensity related to the power being used. First image courtesy of Paul Turnock; other images from the websites linked.

The convergence of new monitoring and connectivity technologies such as home wireless networks and RFID, with the pressure to scrutinise our environmental impact, has meant that there are more opportunities for potentially persuasive, interesting ways of approaching this area. Tom Coates has some good thoughts on this, and the relation to continuous monitoring of other parts of our (and others’) lives, and how fascinating it can be. Wattson (thanks to both Richard Reynolds and Michelle Douglas for originally bringing this to my attention) takes an especially ‘designer’ approach, becoming a coffee-table talking point as well as showing (in different display modes) the power currently being used, the costs, and, via a coloured glow projected onto the table below, a non-numerical indication of the intensity of power usage. Similarly playful methods are used in some of the Static! projects from Stockholm’s Interactive Institute – perhaps, in fact, when the ‘event’ which occurs as the ‘speedometer’ registers more desirable values is exciting in itself, the technique is closer to a ‘carrot’ than a speedometer.

EU energy label A mess of adaptors
Left: The Energy Label, required on certain products/packaging in the EU; Right: A typical mess of adaptors powering home electronic equipment. Here we have a scanner, a power drill charger, a printer (plug hidden), a battery charger and a cutting plotter. How easy is it for a consumer to audit the power usage of this kind of mess?

The related debate over standby buttons on home electrical equipment which I covered briefly in July last year, brought home an important point to me, as someone who’s worked on quite a few consumer electronic products powered from adaptors: many users think that if a red LED is on when the product is ‘off’, that little LED is all that’s being powered. That’s quite an important issue when it comes to consumers having a better understanding of their home energy use.

When seeing the Wattson and Future Currents projects for the first time, I was tempted to say “well, why don’t people just look at the power ratings on the appliances they buy?” but soon realised that that’s a pretty entrenched engineering mindset rearing itself in my mind. People don’t want to have to look on a label on the back of the product. They mostly don’t think about energy use when buying products. Even the use of ‘green’ labelling on the front of products (e.g. the EU label shown above) doesn’t hit home the actual monetary costs of different devices over typical usage periods. In this sense, monitoring devices which really get the user interested in using products more efficiently do seem to be very much worth it, even when they themselves use more power than strictly ‘necessary’.

(There are a few points I’d like to make about home lighting and ‘energy saving’ light bulbs, especially since some aspects of the recent blogosphere commentary made me think a little further, but they can wait for another day…)

Economy gauges

Economy vacuum gauge MPG meter from Toyota Camry
Left: A traditional analogue vacuum gauge showing ‘fuel economy’. Image from brochure for Reliant Rialto 2, 1984; Right: Toyota’s Eco Drive meter from the Camry – image from As an aside, I have no idea how 35-40 mpg can be considered ‘excellent’! What year is this?

Moving away from home electricity consumption, the increased prevalence of electronic in-car trip computers, usually built-in, has meant that second-by-second fuel economy read-outs are much more common, and can again inspire a kind of self-challenge to maximise economy while driving. As the miles-per-gallon (or perhaps L/100 km) figure drops (or increases) with every blip on the accelerator or rapid acceleration from the traffic lights, drivers really can train themselves to change their behaviour (indeed, I know a couple of people who are constantly shifting their gaze from the road ahead down to, alternately, the speedometer and the miles per gallon figure, to see “how well they are doing”, which is not necessarily ideal). Economy gauges in cars are nothing new – vacuum gauges were quite a popular home-fit accessory at one time, but they generally did not directly relate to the fuel consumption per distance travelled, merely the vacuum in the inlet manifold, hence the amount of fuel-air mixture being drawn through, whether or not the car were moving.

An alternative type of economy gauge was that once used by Volvo and other manufacturers, which compared the engine’s rpm (or the gearbox rpm?) to the gear selected (manual only, I presume) and illuminated a gearstick icon when the driver was in the ‘wrong’ gear, i.e. driving at less than optimum efficiency. Even more simply, some car companies used to mark the ‘gearchange points’ on the speedometer with dots at certain speeds – assuming the driver could not tell from the engine note that the gear engaged was too high or low, the dots would at least give some indication, though of course different driving conditions and loads would make the dots’ positions guidelines rather than absolutes. (I do have photographs of both these designs, somewhere, but will have to post them at some point in the future.)

Speedometers and control

Certainly, then, physical speedometers and gauges can have an effect on users’ behaviour and can encourage people to change; technology seems to be making this easier and more interesting and engaging. There are so many opportunities; already in some countries, there are roadside speed displays to make motorists aware of their speed (which present a fun challenge for drivers, or indeed cyclists, wanting to see what they can achieve) – how long before we have roadside CO2 monitoring (with displays)?

But are any of these ‘architectures of control’?

In the sense that they are methods of persuasion rather than methods of restriction or enforcement, they are on one side of a line with rigid control on the other, but when we look at techniques such as the control by embarrassment, or social pressure mentioned earlier, we can see that there is some kind of continuum related to how the information displayed by the speedometer (of whatever form) is used: if only you can see your personal energy usage habits within a house, you can make the choice whether or not to change your behaviour, but if the rest of your household can also see your habits, and see that you’re costing them unnecessary money, the pressure on you to change is much greater.

That, I think, is where the ‘control’ element comes in. Say that every household’s yearly carbon emissions (however this were to be calculated) were monitored. If the information were available to the householders, it may give them food for thought, and may inspire changing behaviour. If the information were available to the government, it may lead to taxation, and may lead to changing behaviour. If the information were legally required to be displayed on an illuminated sign outside the house, so neighbours could see who was “getting away with more carbon emissions”, it may (perhaps) lead to people changing behaviour too, or risk recriminations from the community, possibly worse than just social embarrassment. This last case is pretty much speedometer + blackmail, and I would say that that crosses the line to become control. If you want to fit in, and not be censured by others, you have to conform. That is an architecture of control, very much so, and hence we can see that speedometers, as with many other possible design elements, can be used as part of systems of control, but are not in themselves necessarily political. It’s the way they’re used that makes them, possibly, controversial.

The speedometer metaphor

Metaphorically, of course, a speedometer can be any method of making users aware of their behaviour, or the link between their behaviour and some other effect. Many of the examples studied and created by Stanford’s Captology / Persuasive Technology lab fall into this area, offering users feedback on their actions, or encouraging them to behave in a certain way (e.g. giving up smoking) through highlighting causal relationships.

But isn’t this, to some extent, what all persuasion is about, if we allow our ‘speedometer’ to have, in some situations, only two values (on/’good’ vs off/’bad’)? Everything ‘persuasive’, from advertising campaigns to counselling, is about saying “A is happening/not happening because you’re doing/not doing B; it will be better/stop happening if you stop/start doing C.” A speedometer is saying “You’re doing OK because this is the result of your actions” or “Look at the results of your actions – you need to change what you’re doing!”

Is it true, then to say that any situation where one entity (person/animal/plant) is trying to change the behaviour of another entity is resolved either by control (forcing the change in behaviour) or persuasion (inspiring the change in behaviour), or a combination of the two (e.g. by tricking the entity into changing behaviour)?

Or is that too simplistic?

Some more architectures of control for traffic management

Many of the ‘built environment’ examples discussed here over the last year-and-a-bit have been intended to control (or “manage”) traffic in some way, e.g to slow drivers down, force them to take an alternative route, or force them to stop. I thought it would be worth mentioning a couple of other methods, the rationales behind them, and some of the problems:

Monmouth Thame
Amersham Thaxted
Top row: Monmouth, Monmouthshire and Thame, Oxfordshire; Bottom row: Amersham, Buckinghamshire and Thaxted, Essex. Images from the sites linked.

Historical example: market places

Mediæval market towns commonly had a wide market street, or square, with narrow entrances at the ends, to make it more difficult for animals to escape, and also easier to control when herding them in and out. It may not be immediately obvious from the above photos, but in each of these towns (as with many others where the old layout has been preserved), the market area was, and still is, laid out in this way. It may also have made it more difficult for a thief to escape, since with only a few exit ‘pinch points’, it would make him easier to spot.

This is, of course, almost the opposite rationale to Baron Haussmann’s Paris, with its wide, straight boulevards which prevented effective barricading by revolutionaries and allowed clear lines-of-sight to fire on them.

References: Thaxted at ‘Rural Roads’; History of Thame; Monmouth on Wikipedia.

Pinch point with car overtaking cyclist Pinch point with car overtaking cyclist
Stills from video clips of cars overtaking cyclists at pinch points, from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign website.

Pinch points and other road narrowings

In modern use, pinch points are often installed (along with centre hatching) to force drivers to slow down, usually in built-up areas or at the entrance to them, where there may also be a speed limit change. Sometimes they also force one stream of traffic to stop to allow the other priority, for example when crossing a narrow bridge. Sometimes there are built-out kerbs on both sides of the road; sometimes just a central island; sometimes all three. In general, they prevent drivers overtaking other cars by putting a physical obstruction in the way, even though otherwise it might be legal to overtake. (This is a built environment example of Lessig’s “Code is law” – regardless of what the law might permit or prohibit, it’s the way the system is coded which actually defines what behaviour is possible.)

The problem is that – something which as a driver and a cyclist (and bike designer) I experience a lot – the sudden narrowing of the carriageway causes (forces) drivers to move towards the nearside. And if there’s a cyclist on the nearside, even cycling close to the kerb, he or she will suddenly have a driver passing very close, braking very hard, possibly clipping the bike or actually hitting it. It’s even worse if the kerb is built out as well, since the cyclist has to swerve out into the path of the traffic which may also be swerving in to avoid a central island. In cities such as Cambridge with a lot of cyclists and a lot of traffic, the pinch points are a major problem.

A lot of injuries and deaths have been caused by this ‘safety’ measure. Someone very close to me was knocked off her bike and hurt after swerving onto the kerb to avoid a large truck bearing down on her as the driver tried to fit through a pinch point (similarly to the situation in the photo at the top of Howard Peel’s detailed assessment of pinch points at the Bike Zone). As with so many architectures of control, the designers of these layouts seem to view most users (both drivers and cyclists) as ‘enemies’ who need to be cajoled and coerced into behaving a certain way, without actually looking at what their needs are.

The North Somerset Cycle Campaign’s article on “Good and bad practice” with pinch points shows a far superior layout, for both drives and cyclists (photo reproduced below), from the Netherlands – cycles and cars are kept apart, neither cyclist nor driver is forced to deviate from his/her path, but drivers must give negotiate priority with their oncoming counterparts.

Pinch point in the Netherlands Astonishingly dangerous hatching in Devon
Left: A better pinch point implementation from the Netherlands – image from the North Somerset Cycle Campaign; Right: A very dangerous (and ridiculous) real-world example of hatching-with-obstacles from Devon – image from Richie Graham, discussed in this thread on SABRE

Looking further at centre hatching, this too often causes drivers to pass much too close when overtaking cyclists, since (in the UK), most drivers are reluctant to enter it to overtake even though (with broken lines along the side) they are legally entitled to do so. The reluctance may come from ignorance of the law, but in many cases it is often because there may suddenly be a central concrete island in the middle with no warning. (This is certainly why I’m very careful when using the hatched area to overtake.) Again, this is a de facto imposition of regulation without a legal mechanism enforcing it. As Peter Edwardson puts it:

Two reasons are normally advanced to justify hatched areas, neither of which is entirely convincing. The first is that they separate streams of traffic, but how many head-on collisions occur on single carriageway roads anyway, and surely in the vast majority of cases they involve a driver who has recklessly crossed the white line. The second is that they slow traffic down, which may be true to a limited extent, but again is of no value unless it reduces accidents at the same time…

However, I have recently seen a document from the Highways Agency… that stated clearly that one of the aims of hatched areas was to “deter overtaking”. They daren’t go so far as to actually ban it on straight stretches of road by painting double white lines (although no doubt that will come) but instead they put in confusing paint schemes that have the practical effect of doing just that.

There is of course one entirely sound and legitimate reason for painting hatched areas on the road, to provide a refuge for vehicles turning right, something that in the past has been a major factor in accidents. However such areas should only extend at most for a hundred yards or so on either side of the right turn, and should not be used as an excuse to paint a wide hatched area for a long distance.

In the case of the astonishing (to a UK driver’s eyes) implementation of hatching on the A39 (soon to be A361) Barnstaple southern bypass in Devon – the right-hand photo above – actual bollards have been embedded in the road surface to ‘enforce’ a de facto ‘no overtaking’ intention, though the hatching area actually makes it perfectly legal to overtake. (It makes it worse that the reflectors on the bollards are the wrong colour as well.) Motorcyclists could overtake by weaving between the bollards into the hatched area, but this wouldn’t be especially easy or safe. It would certainly be more dangerous than the alternative situation of wider lanes with no hatching and no bollards. So what’s the point of the scheme?

Shared space at Seven Dials, London Shared space at Seven Dials, London
A Shared Space implementation at Seven Dials in central London, by Hamilton-Baillie Associates

Psychological techniques

We’ve looked before at ‘Shared Space’, ‘naked roads’ and other ‘psychological techniques’ to encourage drivers to be more alert, but Mike Morris sends me a link to this Spiegel story going into more detail and discussing Europe-wide pilot projects:

The utopia has already become a reality in Makkinga, in the Dutch province of Western Frisia. A sign by the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads “Verkeersbordvrij” — “free of traffic signs.” Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren’t even any lines painted on the streets.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.

The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves. They demand streets like those during the Middle Ages, when horse-drawn chariots, handcarts and people scurried about in a completely unregulated fashion.

I think that’s the key to a lot of ‘control-versus-the-user’ debate. Allowing users to take responsibility for their own actions is encouraging them to think. Encouraging people to think is very rarely a bad thing.

One of the simplest consequences of the shared space situations I’ve come across (whether deliberately planned implementations such as at Seven Dials, shown above, or just narrow old streets or village layouts where traffic and pedestrians have always mixed) is that drivers and pedestrians, and drivers and other drivers start to make eye contact with each other to determine who should have priority, or to determine each other’s intentions. Eye contact leads to empathy; empathy leads to respect for other types of road users; respect leads to better understanding of the situation and better handling of similar situations in future. Shared space forces all of us (pedestrians, cyclists and drivers) to try to understand what’s going on from others’ points of view. We learn to grok the situation. And that can’t be bad.

Mike Dickin, the legendary British radio talk-show host who was very sadly killed earlier this week after a heart attack at the wheel, often made the point in his frequent discussions on motoring issues that there should be no need for speed limits in many villages, towns and cities, because in many cases the ‘natural’ limit imposed by pedestrians, other traffic, road layouts and so on, should be enough to slow drivers down to well below the imposed ‘safe’ limits of 20 or 30 mph which lull drivers into a false sense of safety. Of course, he was right, and of course, in most small villages this is still the way things are done, as they were centuries ago, and as Hans Monderman suggests in the above quote.

The age of hyper-regulated behaviour, and treating the user (driver, cyclist, pedestrian) as an idiot incapable of thinking for him or herself, is largely coincident with the age of bureaucratic, centrally planned urban dystopia which sees individuals as components which must all perform identically for the system to operate. I would like to think we can move beyond that view of humanity.

Back to the issue of psychological techniques for traffic management, Jim Lipsey left a comment a couple of months ago mentioning the use of progressively closer painted stripes across the road in Chicago to cause drivers to slow down on a dangerous curve:

In a few weeks, dozens of new pavement stripes will be laid down. At first they’ll be 16-feet apart, but as drivers get closer to the curve, the stripes will only be eight feet apart. “They provide an optical illusion that vehicles are actually speeding up and that causes motorists to slow down, which is of course, the intended effect that we’re trying to have at that location.”

The Chicago example appears to be using only the visual effect to provide the illusion, but a similar technique is often used with raised painted ‘rumble strips’ on the approach to junctions or roundabouts in other countries – e.g. in my (poor) photos below, on the A303 in Somerset, and clearly in this Google Maps image of Ottawa (via this thread).

I remember reading a story once in which someone cycling along an avenue with regularly spaced trees, late one afternoon, had an epileptic fit (I think) as a result of the frequency of the shadow flicker on the road (this is clearly something considered by wind turbine planners [PDF]). Have there been any cases of epilepsy triggered by stripes painted on the road?

Progressively closer rumble strips on the A303 in Somerset Progressively closer rumble strips on the A303 in Somerset
Progressively closer rumble strips on the A303 in Somerset.

Bollardian nightmare?

Rising bollards in Silver Street, Cambridge

Rising bollards near Darwin College, Cambridge. A man was killed here in May 2006 when his car hit the right-hand bollard; see third photo below.

Many thanks to Steve Portigal and Josh for suggesting this subject!

Bollards which automatically retract into the road surface to allow certain vehicles to pass, and then rise again, are becoming increasingly common on public roads in the UK; whereas previously, they might have been used at the entrance to a private car park as a more visually appealing alternative to an automatic barrier, many authorities are now using them to enforce traffic control in urban areas, with the category of permitted vehicles including buses, emergency services, postal vans, and so on. (I’m not sure about taxis; I think this varies with city*). The recent compilation of CCTV clips by the Manchester Evening News (link via BoingBoing) showing ‘non-permitted’ cars and vans hitting rising bollards in Manchester, as the drivers try to follow close behind permitted vehicles has got a lot of attention, with reactions ranging from “stupid drivers deserve what they get” to “how is causing thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to punish a minor crime ever justifiable?” (There’s also this video showing a higher-speed crash – not sure if this is in Manchester too).

Rising bollards in Manchester Rising bollards in Manchester
Stills from the CCTV compilation: the rear nearside wheel of the black 4×4 is off the ground. The van’s windscreen has been damaged by the driver’s head hitting it.

As an architecture of control, what can we say about the rising bollard? Is it merely a ‘restriction of access’ device, like a padlock? Or is it actually intended (to some extent at least) to damage the vehicles of non-permitted drivers, and injure them?

The official line would be the former, of course, but going by the dominance of the “stupid drivers deserve what they get” viewpoint in public comments on the Manchester video, I would suggest that a vindictive streak is pretty significant, and there’s no reason to think it might not also be among traffic planners.

The extensive (25 page) discussion at the road enthusiasts’ site SABRE also contains both points of view, and others. One logical argument which is well made, I think, is that if the drivers expected to damage their cars, they wouldn’t have tried to follow the buses. Therefore, the warning signs/road markings (knowledge in the world) or their prior experience of these systems (knowledge in the head) cannot have been sufficiently clear to discourage them from trying to sneak through. Yes, they knew that they “weren’t supposed to” drive through, and knew that buses were, so they tried to sneak in behind, but the drivers can’t have been fully aware of how quickly the bollards rose, or they wouldn’t have attempted it, would they? Most people don’t deliberately wreck their cars.

This is an important point. The system is not designed to be forgiving of mistakes. Now, we can say “well, why should it be? Those drivers shouldn’t try to break the law,” but in the real world, people do make mistakes. That’s why pencils have erasers. A car driver following a bus may have his or her vision of the warning signs obscured, and may be driving at a perfectly sensible speed, but still hit the risen bollards. A car driver following another car which externally looks like any other, but which is (for whatever reason) a permitted vehicle (with a transponder on board) may see the warning signs, and take them in, but, seeing the bollards lowered and the car in front driving at a constant speed, may assume that the bollards are disabled or permanently down, and so continue at exactly the same speed, and not be able to brake in time to avoid hitting the risen bollards. Bollards in some cities are only operational at certain times of day, and in certain directions; unless the warning signs themselves have a very clear variable display (Cambridge’s are fairly good), can we really expect drivers to read the times from the sign as they go past following another vehicle?

There are two much more sensible systems suggested in the SABRE discussion:


If this system is needed, then surely there should be conventional red lights with the bollards only rising a few seconds after the lights have changed to red (as with a level crossing). If you’ve never come across such a thing before it is not remotely obvious.

‘True Yorkie’

Perhaps a better idea would be to have a ‘vestibule’ system, with 2 bollards, spaced exactly a bus length apart. As the bus passed over the first lowered bollard, it’d stop immediately for the next bollard. As it waits for the second bollard to lower, the first would raise. Any car that tried to get in with the bus would have to shunt the bus to fit into the vestibule.

Either of these would be much better than the existing system. Both ‘design out’ the likelihood of mistakes – the vestibule system especially so.

Rising bollards in Silver Street, Cambridge: the driver of the Shogun was killed; image from Véro
The fatal accident at the Silver Street bollards in Cambridge (photo from Véro’s blog); this photo of the same bollards as my photo at the top of this post.

To a large extent this issue seems to come down to a debate on the old “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” argument. Again, it’s a subject for a future post** but I find the repeated use of this, by politicians especially, to justify every erosion of established freedoms, both sly and egregious: there’s a reason why I can’t legally shoot you if you walk up my garden path, or electrify my car body shell (OK, it’s fibreglass, in fact, but the same principle applies). Perhaps the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” brigade would let happily let the authorities read all their personal correspondence, and indeed would be happy to have all private property covered in mantraps and landmines to enforce “trespass prevention”? After all, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

Jeremy Wagstaff applies this kind of thinking to the bollard issue to demonstrate its absurdity, and its distasteful corollary:

My tuppenny’s worth: I think traffic maiming (as opposed to traffic calming) is a great idea but doesn’t go far enough. We need similar measures to punish, sorry deter, drivers who routinely flout the law and common decency. Why not, for example, deploy the retractable bollards elsewhere, like

* the centre of a restricted parking space, so it would rise at the end of the designated period, impaling the vehicle if the driver had overstayed his alloted time;
* at random points on the hard shoulder on toll roads/motorways so that cars illegally using it as a fast lane would be impaled, or flipped over into an adjacent field

Where necessary, bollards could be replaced by other features such as

* a mechanical arm, installed on the roadside and connected to a speed sensor, which would crush cars passing by too fast or too slow, depending on what irritated other drivers the most.
* or cars driving through built-up areas too fast would be taken out by snipers deployed in trees/tall buildings. If necessary the snipers could be automated.
* cars straddling two lanes or changing lanes without indicating first would be sliced in half by retractable blades intermittently rising out of the demarcating lines
* motorbikes using the sidewalk (a particular bane in my neck of the woods) would risk having their tyres slashed by strips of spikes activated by the annoying sound of approaching underpowered Chinese-made engines.

Norms, restriction and punishment

It’s worth thinking about the norms of restrictions and warnings we encounter in everyday life.

Many – in fact most – signs indicating the prohibition of particular behaviour do not suggest immediate punishment to us. The sign may say “Do not drop litter” but most people who do drop litter know that unless someone is watching, and decides to do something about it, they will get away with it. A road sign may say ‘No Parking”, but if no-one’s around, is it wrong to stop? Is it a crime if no-one finds out, and it doesn’t affect anyone?

We can laugh about falling trees in the forest and Schrödinger’s cat, but I think that for most of us, there is a very clear mental distinction between “incorrect” behaviour which we know will be “punished” immediately by the realities of the system (e.g. pointing a gun at our face and pulling the trigger, or driving through a level crossing barrier when a train is coming), and “incorrect” behaviour which we know is technically wrong, but which only the fear of being caught (and punished) stops us doing. Most drivers speed, but they wouldn’t speed if they knew there was a police car behind them.

So, our mental model of a ‘No Entry’ sign is that it signifies an arbitrary restriction, but one which carries no immediate punishment, unless, say, it’s a single-track road and something’s coming towards us at speed. If we ignore the sign, we might find we’re going the wrong way down a one-way street, or we might get caught (by camera or by police on the ground), but that’s a risk that people may take if they perceive it to be very low. If we can see that it’s not a one-way street, and we can see other vehicles passing that way, then there is apparently a fairly low risk to ignoring it. Our expectation is that we will get away with it.

When bollards then rise out of the road immediately in front of us, our mental model is proved wrong. The norm is shattered. This is a system that immediately punishes those who infringe the No Entry sign. This is a familiar, apparently docile ‘Keep off the grass’ sign accompanied by snipers watching very carefully.

Now, the UK’s Department for Transport clearly recognises something along these lines: the norms of the bollard systems are different to those drivers may have come to expect, and an additional aspect is also identified: that of the “control of all vehicles/control of individual vehicles” distinction:

Established practices of traffic control using traffic signals do not control separate vehicles; streams of vehicles are controlled with drivers able to see the signals from a significant distance. Rising bollards are normally used to control individual vehicles in that they are raised each time a vehicle has passed over them. The requirement, therefore, is for short range signalling… Unless drivers have a clear view of the bollards, an indication should be given to drivers that the bollards have fully retracted.

In conjunction with the vestibule system suggested in the SABRE quote above, that seems the most sensible approach to take. The DfT also has some other sensible guidelines:

Three wheeled vehicles, motorcycles and vehicles with trailers, for example, may not be sensed by the vehicle detectors used with automatic bollard systems. It will almost certainly be necessary to provide alternative means of access for some classes of road users or vehicles. The possibility of a device rising under a wheelchair or pushchair should be taken into account. The risks could be mitigated to some extent by providing suitable alternative access adjacent to the bollards, and by using a coarse road surface to divert pedestrians away from the bollard installation [interesting! – see also the pebble paving to make barefoot walking uncomfortable, mentioned here]. Whilst most applications will be to enable the passage of one vehicle at a time, there will be instances where two or more vehicles attempt to pass through in close succession. The system should ensure that bollards cannot rise beneath a vehicle because of the danger this would create. It is better to risk a certain amount of violation by “tailgating” vehicles, rather that put road users at risk. Any system, however well designed, will fail to operate correctly on occasions. The system should fail to a safe state, ideally with the bollards retracted. In the event if an accident the emergency services may need to override the control system and retract the bollards.

Still, for all the effort (and costs) involved in installing and running the bollard systems, would it really not be better to look at the subject from a greater distance? The roads drivers want to use are in many cases roads which used to be open to all traffic – indeed, in Cambridge, Silver Street used to be one of the main routes into the city centre, part of the old A603 from Bedford. The current alternative route from west to east is significantly longer and almost always very congested. It passed close outside my window when I was a student; I know. It’s understandable in many cases why drivers want to use the old route.

The real issue that needs to be addressed is why people want to drive into these areas. There is always a reason; people are rarely “stupid” with no explanation.

*I’d like to get into the “are taxis public transport?” debate another time: not now though.
**There was a quite astonishing article I read about a year ago where a police chief in a small US town had (seriously?) suggested putting CCTV inside every home in the community, for constant monitoring, and used the same “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” argument; if I can find this again, I’ll post the link.