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Tactical Urbanism - The problem with trials


 

Blog post by Catriona Swanson

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m quite a big fan of tactical urbanism and trials. And I am… at least in theory.

However, like all things, we need to be trialling the right things in the right places and the trials need to be done well. Otherwise, they can backfire and leave you in a worse position than if you’d done nothing at all. 

So, in this week’s blog we’ll be diving into what trials are, why they can a definitely a good thing, why trials go wrong, and what you need to consider if you’re planning to do one.

As the vast majority of trials are done by council’s this post focuses mainly on their role but I hope this will be useful to professionals and campaigners alike.

What are trials?

As I talked about in the first ever In Tandem blog post, 2020 was the year of the trial as (some) councils across the UK and the world acted (relatively) quickly and embraced tactical urbanism to make their streets safer for people walking and cycling and to help social distancing. 

Measures included using barriers to widen footways, cones to create pop-up cycleways, and planters to create low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) to prevent rat running and speeding on residential streets. 

A lot of the measures, particularly ones that involved closing roads to through traffic were implemented using “experimental traffic orders” meaning they could be made permanent if the trial was successful.

Salford City Council trialled a Low Traffic Neighbourhood where some public consultation had already been carried out and where funding had already been secured for a permanent scheme. (Credit: Walk Ride Salford)

Why should we be doing trials?

The great thing about these measures and trials in general, is that they are cheap and quick to implement and can be easily amended if we don’t get them quite right the first time round. 

They also mean that communities can “try before they buy” so rather than long consultations about schemes, endless traffic modelling (which is usually far too simplistic for schemes that aim to create modal shift to sustainable modes) and arguing over the potential impacts, you can roll out a trial and see for yourselves what happens in the real world. 

All sounds brilliant, right? So why would I call this blog post ‘the problem with trials’? Well, the issue is that there’s often a gap between the plan and reality. 

Why trials go wrong

Trialling the wrong things 

Last summer we saw a lot of councils trialling pop up cycle lanes. Some were brilliant and are still in place or are already being made permanent. However, many schemes fell into the “being seen to be doing something” trap and hadn’t been thought through which led to issues and lanes being ripped out, sometimes only hours after they had been installed. While pop up cycle tracks can be great and should definitely be part of the tactical urbanist’s toolkit (remember, councils can be tactical urbanists too), there can be a number of issues:

  • Cars - most main roads in the UK suffer from congestion so reallocating road space from cars to cycles is likely to increase congestion and lead to complaints from drivers, at least in the short term. If it’s definitely the right scheme in the right place, that’s fine and councils need to hold their nerve until things settle down. 
  • Junctions - big busy roads that have “spare” space to reallocate to cycling infrastructure often also have big, horrible junctions which are difficult to fix through a trial. Pop up cycle lanes on roads like this can lull people into a false sense of security if they throw cyclists to the wolves at junctions where people cycling are at the most risk from motor vehicles. There are ideas out there for temporary/ pop up junction improvements but I’m yet to see one I’d consider truly inclusive and fatalities have increased in Berlin since pop up cycle lanes were installed). 
  • Not linking to anything – I’m sure you’ve all seen claims by irate motorists that there’s no cyclists using pop up cycle lanes. A lot of this time this isn’t true and it’s useful to install automatic counters to prove it (like bus lanes and railway lines, cycling infrastructure is incredibly efficient meaning it can look empty while moving hundreds or thousands of people a day). However, in some cases, unfortunately, this may well be the case if a pop up lane has been installed on a section of road that doesn’t link places people want to go or isn’t safe or easy to get to. 

The thing is, if a pop up cycle lane causes lots of problems and has to be taken out, it can make it much harder to deliver a permanent scheme there (or even somewhere else) in future as people will remember all the problems caused by the failed trial.

Pop up cycle lane, Auckland New Zealand
Pop up cycle lane in Auckland, New Zealand

Lack of engagement 

There has been a lot of talk in the press of trials being ‘undemocratic’ because they bypass the consultation process. While that’s not entirely true as consultation has to take place with statutory consultees such as the emergency services before trials are installed and a sixth month public consultation is part of the experimental traffic order process.

However, there is no requirement for upfront public engagement or consultation and a lot of the trials delivered last summer were rushed through and didn’t involve any consultation at all. Communities aren’t used to this approach so it’s understandable that they are suspicious of it, with accusations that councils were taking advantage of the pandemic to push through unpopular policies and schemes. Many residents saw the trial and consultation period as no more than a tick box exercise. Which brings me on to:

Lack of clarity on what success looks like or how it will be measured

If you’re going to do a trial, you need to be clear at the start about what you are trying to achieve, i.e. what does success look like? Being open and honest and your aims and objectives as well as what monitoring you are putting in place is really important to giving people confidence in the trial. Those who are unsure about it need to know that if it doesn’t work, it will be changed or removed.

Monitoring can take many different guises and it’s important measure different things – both the good things you’re hoping to achieve e.g. increased walking and cycling, footfall at local shops, lower air pollution, lower traffic volumes and speeds on residential streets, and the wider impacts of the scheme, e.g. traffic flows and air pollution on main roads. Clearly you want to measure the difference between the situation before and after the trial goes in so the monitoring needs to be built into the plan for the trial, not an afterthought. 

However, monitoring takes time and effort to plan and funding to undertake which isn’t always easy if you’re lacking in resources and experience (and, I’m afraid, monitoring of active measures isn’t one of the UK’s strong points). Therefore a lot of trials have gone in with very little or no monitoring meaning it’s really difficult to refute claims of problems or to show benefits. Citing evidence that LTNs have been successful elsewhere is ok when engaging with communities about the concept but doesn't replace monitoring of each trial scheme.

Low traffic neighbourhoods benefits evidence
Evidence supporting Low Traffic Neighbourhoods shouldn't replace monitoring of trials (Credit: Adam Reynolds)

Issues don’t get fixed 

The great thing about trials is they can speed things up by enabling layouts to be tweaked on the ground meaning less time needs to be spent designing schemes. However, although experimental traffic orders have long been part of councils’ toolkits, few councils have used the powers and aren’t set up (or resourced well enough) to respond quickly if a trial needs tweaking. This can really damage trust in the scheme and trials in general.

Not delivering the permanent scheme 

When we talk to communities about trials of  things like LTNs, we often sell the wider benefits to communities such as pocket parks and parklets, more cycle parking (both secure parking for residents and parking outside shops), seating, trees etc. However, for practical reasons, most of these are delivered as part of the permanent scheme once the trial has proven to be a success. This means that trials are normally of just the traffic management elements, usually planters with ‘road closed’ signs and perhaps some bollards (and in some cases Sarah Berry’s wonderful ‘road open’ signs). While the planters generally look ok (especially if they have plants in them from the start!), they are not permanent infrastructure and will start to look tatty after a year or two, particularly if there’s no maintenance budget to look after them. 

Waltham forest pocket park
Pocket park in Waltham Forest delivered as part of the Coppermill Liveable Neighbourhood (Source: @Labourstone)

However, a lot of councils that installed trial LTNs in 2020 won’t have the capital funding to upgrade them to permanent schemes meaning they will need to make decisions about whether to remove the planters, maintain them, or replace them with something more robust but less aesthetically pleasing. Communities could be waiting years (or forever) before they get the permanent scheme they were promised, leaving them feeling misled and short-changed.


 

Modal filter with concrete blocks
Concrete blocks and bollards create robust, low maintenance modal filters that are not quite as pretty as planters. (Source: Ranty Highwayman)

 

How to do good trials

So, the obvious question is what should we be doing? Here are my top tips for designing and delivering good trials:

  • Have a plan first - In my experience, the best pop-up schemes are ones that improve existing cycle lanes or which accelerate the delivery of planned schemes which have some good planning, evidence and consultation underpinning them; being part of a council’s Local Walking and Cycling Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP), for example.
  • Engage with communities  - While last year was clearly unprecedented, and lots of mistakes were undoubtedly made, I’d like to think councils will be more open to trialling measures in future. This means that they can undertake genuine public engagement before anything gets trialled. It doesn't need to be a really long process or duplicate the consultation that will happen as part of the trial but it can really help to tap into local knowledge and get a proper understanding all the issues that you need to address (which might not all relate to walking and cycling).
  • Resource trials properly - easier said than done, especially with government funding programmes which tend to be light on revenue funding but we need to recognise that capital funding isn’t enough; trials need to be monitored, maintained and tweaked which costs money. The flip side is that it will save money in the long run by speeding up delivery and ensuring better permanent schemes.
  • Hold your nerve - there will always be people who absolutely hate the thing you’re trialling. Knowing that you’re trialling the right thing in the right place and that you have made the necessary tweaks or have the data to show that the world hasn’t ended will help convince any wavering officers or councillors not to pull the plug. Waltham Forest found that when work started on their mini Holland programme 44% of residents were opposed but 5 years later just 1.7% would scrap the scheme.
  • Make trials the norm - Practice makes perfect so the more councils trial schemes, the better they will become at designing and running trials. Trialling schemes isn’t always possible (big junctions, for instance), but where it is, making trials a condition of funding permanent schemes could really help speed up much needed changes to our streets.
I'm really interested in what people think about this post - have you got some great examples of trials done well or any tips to add? Or do you completely disagree with me? If so, please comment!

     

    A note about In Tandem

    Here at In Tandem we're passionate about creating safer, more inclusive streets.

    That's why £1 from the sale of our "that's how I roll" t-shirts, and art prints goes to support the work of disability cycling charities Wheels for Wellbeing and Cycling Projects and £1 from the sale of every Tactical Urbanist t-shirt and art print goes to Walk Ride GM who campaign to make walking, cycling and other active travel modes the natural choice for journeys across Greater Manchester, UK where In Tandem is based.

    Note about the author

    Catriona Swanson is co-founder of In Tandem and an Associate at PJA. She specialises in planning and designing active travel schemes and has delivered award winning inclusive cycling infrastructure including traffic-free routes, protected cycle tracks and low traffic neighbourhoods. 

     

     


    2 comments


    • Dorinda

      I’m torn when it comes to trialling everything. On the one hand, involving the community means you’re more likely to get something they actually want and therefore bolster support. On the other hand, once a location has trialled a scheme design I would like to think there are instances where the data gathered from the initial installation can fast-track a copycat installation somewhere else. Reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s book, it seems nearly 15yrs ago NYC were able to replicate some of their earliest plazas, for example, with no need for running trials.

      There’s a pushback from highways departments at local level, where officers rightly have concerns that safety legislation not be compromised. No disrespect to them, but this points to a lack of expertise in implementing truly modern, multi-modal infrastructure. There’s a need for government to support local councils with the funding to bring in those expertise, but also a need for highways and planning to see how new guidelines can offer solutions rather than problems for traffic management. This fixation on never hindering the movement of motor traffic has to end, and shift to focus on enabling safer movement of more vulnerable road users.


    • Russell Pepper

      As a cycle campaigner I found this a very useful blog! I would say that also the trials need to look/feel good initially as well. Places like Glasgow trialled wider pavements with the red and white barriers which looked awful and was never going to be permanent. Union St in Dundee, however was pedestrianised very well with full consultation with residents and traders who now want it to be permanent.


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