Ever wanted to cross the street in Dublin and found an ugly steel guardrail blocking your way?
You might have run into one on Parnell Street by King’s Inns Street where there’s a staggered fenced-off intersection. Or, where Christ Church Square meets Upper Clanbrassil Street and a lengthy divider chops up the roads.
Some traffic engineer put them there because they didn’t think you should mix with traffic. And some traffic nerds think it’s about time they were all ripped out.
“I would like to see them taken out of Dublin City Centre,” says Dublin City Councillor Andrew Montague, of Labour.
As Montague sees it, these rails were installed “with the best intentions, in the hope of improving safety, but they don’t improve safety and they do get in your way”.
Why Are They There?
That faceless traffic engineer, I mentioned was probably – whether they realised it or not – acting under the influence of Sir Colin Buchanan.
Although “guardrailing” has existed since the 1930s, it was Buchanan, an influential English architect and civil engineer, who popularised the practice. In his 1963 report for the UK’s Ministry of Transport, Traffic in Towns, he ruled that pedestrians and cars are incompatible and must be separated.
In the UK and Ireland, traffic engineers took heed and began to use measures like guardrails to partition pedestrians and cars in urban areas. In recent years, though, the thinking has changed.
A Way Around
Here’s the rub: guardrails are rubbish at keeping apart pedestrians and cars. Some pedestrians ignore the diversions imposed on them by guardrails and follow the shortest route or – as it’s known by transport wonks – the “desire line”, even if it means walking in the street.
Take the guardrails on Parnell Street, close to where it is met by King’s Inns Street. It looks like there was once a signalised crossing there. People strolling up Jervis Street to King’s Inns Street, and vice versa, routinely cut across Parnell Street to the side of the guardrails.
There’s also a guardrailed traffic island where Thomas Street meets Bridgefoot Street that very few people traveling west use. Instead of diverting down Bridgefoot Street to cross away from the intersection, many pedestrians follow the shortest route straight across the street.
“It’s not uncommon at all to see people walking on the vehicular carriageway inside a guardrail,” says Jason Taylor, urban designer and co-author of the Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DMURS).
Guardrails are also a nuisance to cyclists. As the UK Manual For Streets II bluntly puts it, guardrails “present an increased risk to cyclists who can be crushed against it by vehicles”.
DMURS, which serves as the Irish government’s official design manual to those tasked with designing the country’s streets, challenges Buchanan’s call to segregate road users, saying: the “segregation of the motor vehicle and pedestrian is not feasible in an urban environment”.
In fact, it says it could make roads more dangerous, because “by creating larger, free-flowing roads which prioritise vehicle movement, where this interaction occurs it is likely to happen at a much higher speed, thus increasing the severity of an accident”.
But, when a car does end up hurtling into the traffic island, you will be glad the guardrail is there right?
Wrong. They may make pedestrians feel safe, but that’s just a feeling. It’s not reality.
“A lot of people get a misconception that they are actually used as a crash barrier but they’re not built to withstand any substantial amount of force,” says Taylor.
All this begs the question: why do they exist?
To block pedestrians from entering the carriageway, says Taylor. Rails are there to push pedestrians at junctions away from “desire lines” and towards spots where it’s perceived to be safer to cross.
Or, as Tom Platt sees it, it’s more about cars than pedestrians. Guardrails were put up to improve the flow of motorised traffic, argues Platt, who’s head of policy at Living Streets, a UK charity that advocates for pedestrians.
“Guardrails act as a barrier to walking and increase the sense of traffic domination,” said Platt in an email. The key to encouraging more active travel, according to Platt, is “creating more attractive streets in which to walk” – and removing intrusive guardrails would be a good place to start.
While guardrails may be appropriate in certain areas, says Platt, like outside school entrances, more often than not, “they are an unnecessary obstruction and can result in pavements being too narrow for wheelchair users or those with buggies”.
What the Studies Show
In 2009, a study by the UK Department for Transport looked at similar junctions, some of which had guardrails and some of which did not, and found “no conclusive evidence that the inclusion of pedestrian guardrailing at any type of pedestrian crossing or junction has any statistically significant effect on the safety record”.
If they don’t make streets safer, that means they disfigure city streets and get in the way of pedestrians for no good reason. Which is why they have been removing them in London since 2007.
The best-known example is the revamp one of London’s busiest intersections, Oxford Circus. Before its 2009 refurbishment, the heavily guardrailed intersection was a source of frustration to the more than 40,000 pedestrians an hour who passed through it at peak times. Here’s a video from the local authority there, Westminster City Council, showing just how radical those changes were:
The relevant authorities came together to address the pedestrian congestion and tasked Atkins, an engineering and design consultancy, to redesign the intersection. Their plan to improve pedestrian capacity and comfort was simple: remove the clutter.
The removal of clutter gave pedestrians about 70 percent more space to use, and meant walkers could take the route they wanted.
A Legacy That Lingers
Where there are guardrails, it’s a sign of design failure, says Taylor. That’s because the street should be designed with pedestrians’ “desire lines” in mind.
“Some local authorities are still putting up guardrails where DMURS would recommend against them being used,” says Taylor. “It’s kind of like two steps forward one step back.”
It’s been the official response for so long to throw up guardrails that it’s going to take a while for engineers and planners to change, Taylor reckons. But he is hopeful that change is coming.
Both the guardrails that feature in his co-authored design manual to illustrate the problem have been removed; one was just beside Trinity College at Lincoln Place, and another was in Dundrum.
“Government policy has been there for a good time now,” says Taylor, referring to documents such as Smarter Travel, which prioritise sustainable travel. But “a lot of it is a legacy of previous design decisions and previous priorities,” says Taylor. “There is still a long way to go.”