My geekness extends to an interest in traffic management systems and signage. In case you think this is completely off-centre, the romantic hero of Cameron Crowe’s Singles was a traffic engineer with the city council who spent his evenings worrying about how minute changes in the traffic light phasing could lead to urban chaos. (OK, I think this did cause a few problems in his relationships…)
One of the junctions near me in Chelsea has been given a glorious new makeover. It’s a T-junction: where Oakley Street, which runs from the Albert Bridge, meets the King’s Road, just where the fire station is. The pedestrian barriers have been removed; most of the traffic lights have been placed on adjacent lamp-posts, and the old poles removed; the bollards are no longer bollards, but have become arrow signs held up by thin steel tubes; and the pavements are lower. From a distance the stone-work looks like marble. It gives you a sense of space and freedom. And it makes you appreciate for the first time how cluttered and ugly most junctions are.
I read about this years ago, when the ‘shared space’ philosophy was first applied to Kensington High Street. The counter-intuitive idea is that if you give people fewer instructions about when and where and how to move around city centres, and if you open the common spaces up and de-clutter them, then everyone will become more sensitive to the presence of others, and more careful as they walk and drive around. It’s wonderful to see this experiment spreading to our area.
This is how the Brake website describes it:
‘Naked roads’ are roads without any of the usual street furniture such as traffic lights, signs, kerbs, white lines and other road markings.
Although initially this may seem like it would cause chaos on the roads and an increase in road crashes, at specific types of location naked roads have had the opposite effect and improved safety, according to some reports.
Although it is thought the naked road idea has its roots in the Home Zone (or woonerf) concept, it is largely attributed to Hans Monderman, who was appointed Head of Road Safety for the northern provinces of the Netherlands in the 1980s. Monderman was given a wide brief to tackle rising pedestrian casualties in towns and villages, and having studied incident reports and conventional traffic engineering for many years, he decided to try a very different, psychology-based approach to improving road safety in some locations where space was shared by a range of road users. Monderman said: “When faced with a safety problem, most engineers tend to install something additional. My instinct is always to take something away.” 
Monderman’s belief stemmed from the recognition by behavioural psychologists that single-purpose road such as motorways demand different cognitive skills to the complex human context of shared space in towns. Single-purpose roads benefit from simple, repetitive signs and signals. But it is believed that the opposite is true in a shared space.
Makkinga is a small village in Friesland, which is a province in the north of the Netherlands. The village of Makkinga has a central high street running through it, which is used by children getting to school and by people passing through the village. It is also popular with tourists and has a flea market. The highway in Makkinga used to follow the design principles that traffic was given priority over pedestrians and cyclists. Traditional traffic control measures such as lights, traffic calming and signage were used. As with the scheme in Drachten, Monderman removed all traffic signs, markings and other instructions to drivers to prevent the road looking like a space designed for traffic. This created a more social space which encourages drivers to make eye contact with other road users to inform them of their intended actions.
And here is an old report from Ben Webster when the Kensington scheme was just getting going:
In Kensington High Street, almost 600 metres of railings have been removed to allow pedestrians to cross where they want. The results have discredited the belief that railings prevent accidents: in the two years after they were removed, pedestrian casualties declined three times faster than the London average. Traffic engineers believe that drivers are now keeping a sharper eye out for pedestrians because they know that they may cross at any point.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is planning to introduce shared space ideas to Sloane Square next year. The aim is to encourage pedestrians to make greater use of the square, which is currently marooned by busy roads. A similar scheme is being planned for Exhibition Road. The idea of removing traffic lights was supported in a report published last month by the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Martin Cassini, the report’s author, said: “Removing lights removes barriers to traffic flow and improves behaviour. If you observe a junction where the lights are out of action, there is rarely congestion. People approach slowly, wave each other on and filter in turn. Lights and other controls hamper instead of harness human nature, causing untold delay and harm.”