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Yes, a zebra crossing in north London has been granted Grade II status by English Heritage. Six white bands on a stretch of tarmac, which I presume have been painted over any number of times since the Fab Four walked across them in 1969, are now up there in the cultural rankings with some of the finest churches and public buildings in our land. Isn’t it fantastic!

Then

Now

I showed my appreciation for the crossing a few months ago in a post about potholes; and regular readers will know that I have an occasional interest in the niche subjects of traffic management and urban planning. Forgive me for copying from my previous post here:

I was listening to the Beatles Blue album in the car on Friday – the first time in years – and by chance my route to the M1 took me along Abbey Road, past the famous recording studios, and across the even more famous zebra crossing. I like seeing the crowds of tourists either side waiting to cross in synchronised groups of four, no-one quite sure if the rules of pedestrian crossings are active here or suspended in some kind of nostalgia-museum bubble. It’s a lovely blur of reality and hyper-reality; a magical time-capsule that can’t separate itself from the ordinariness of a London street.

Here is Sam Jones’s account of the recent listing.

The heritage minister John Penrose took the unusual decision to protect the crossing, which provided the cover shot for Abbey Road album, following advice from English Heritage.

Penrose said that while the crossing was “no castle or cathedral”, it had “just as strong a claim as any to be seen as part of our heritage” because of its link to the Beatles. He added: “As such it merits the extra protection that Grade II listing provides.”

Roger Bowdler, head of designation at English Heritage, said: “the crossing continues to possess huge cultural pull — the temptation to recreate that 1969 album cover remains as strong as ever.”

The Abbey Road album was the last to be completed by the Beatles, although Let It Be, which had been recorded earlier, was the last to be issued.

Fans flock to the crossing from every corner of the globe. On the 40th anniversary of the photoshoot on 8 August last year, hundreds of people relived the moment, causing traffic chaos in the area.

Other groups who have copied the pose include Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their homage, used on the front of 1988’s The Abbey Road EP, had more in common with solo-era John Lennon than the original shot: it showed the Californian band crossing the road naked but for four strategically placed white sports socks.

 

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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.

High Street Kensington. Boring photo, but notice: no railings, low pavement, hanging arrows instead of bollards

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.” [1]

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.”

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