Turn off the lights, put people first and restore life to High Street

IT’S radical. A proposal by the City Centre Business Association presented to Kilkenny County Council last week suggests that all traffic lights be taken off High Street, and pedestrians, cyclists and motorists use the road space on a common footing with no traffic controls.

IT’S radical. A proposal by the City Centre Business Association presented to Kilkenny County Council last week suggests that all traffic lights be taken off High Street, and pedestrians, cyclists and motorists use the road space on a common footing with no traffic controls.

It’s been tried, tested and a success in towns of a similar size in the UK. So local traders in Kilkenny have proposed, with the expertise of traffic campaigner Martin Cassini adding practical proof to the theory first muted in 2010, that the main street in our Medieval City become a street where pedestrians take priority. Cars and other vehicles obey speed limits, show courtesy to one another and are not controlled at either end - or throughout High Street - by traffic lights.

Cassini is a passionate individual who first introduced his theory in a practical sense in the town of Portishead, Somerset in England. The population of the town is 22,000 - similar to Kilkenny - and the proposed junction was more difficult. It sparked considerable local debate, and even featured Martin being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight. Now other urban councils in the UK are looking at the theory because simply put - it worked - and is continuing to do so in Portishead. In two years, there have been two minor traffic accidents, and no accident involving a pedestrian or a cyclist.

Martin arrived in Kilkenny last Tuesday evening, and took to the streets straight away. He was unimpressed - particularly with Rose Inn Street. “It’s a beautiful city and the streets certainly lends itself to be returned to the public realm. But the traffic is unnecessarily regimented, pedestrians are in clumps and people are just sitting in their cars, idling at traffic lights when there is no need. You need to replace priority with equality for all road users. In many respects its about us all rediscovering our humanity,” he said.

Martin, just 24 hours in Kilkenny, probably sees what makes us tick. He believes that Kilkenny’s High Street could match its Medieval City status. He cites the loss of common law on the roads, where all have equal rights and not just motorists.

“My principal is summed up in Filter in Turn....it’s about common sense and common courtesy for all road users.

“Traffic lights are not very successful. A red light is like a red rag to motorists, green lights promotes speed. We concentrate on the lights and not what is going on around us. We need to use our instinct to be co-operative.

“Lights are a turn off. On Rose Inn Street there was a virtual queue of traffic, people stuck in their cars which leads to pollution and fumes. It must be bad for asthma sufferers on that street, there is no breeze to take away the exhaust fumes. And the nature of exhausts and the level they are at mean there at the level of buggies and prams and kids in general. A lot of people are inhaling the fumes of idling traffic” said Martin.

And he continues on his theme, relating to the environment and our carbon footprint. “The amount of kinetic energy it takes to move a tonne of static metal is astonishing. To move from a signal control takes four times the fuel emissions as just passing through. Kilkenny is an attractive town, I love the space on the Parade,” he said adding that he wasn’t that impressed with the ‘aluminium posts.’

As you read this you are probably saying it will never take off. In Portishead, they said the same. Controlling traffic without control measures seems impossible. Yet Martin feels that it will work in Ireland - in particular.

“Irish drivers are convivial, the Irish are known as the most sociable people on the earth. You love to chat, you love life. Giving back the High Street in this way promotes the High Street for everyone.”

On September 14, 2009, the council in Portishead in the UK covered up, with those orange plastic bags, the traffic lights. They reduced the speed limit to 20 miles per hour - presently in Kilkenny its 30kmh. The following morning rush hour - the traffic flowed. Motorists took their turns, going left you just looked right. You had no lights to judge, there was no racing to the junction, or speeding starts on green. The journey for traffic in the trial space reduced from twenty minutes on average to just five.

So how would it work for Kilkenny. Well, Martin’s proposal is that the lights at the High Street, Parade, Patrick Street and Rose Inn Street junction be turned off. So if you are coming from High Street to the Parade, or vice versa, and turning left you just look right and go. Crossing traffic involves a Filter and Turn system. And straight ahead involves being cautious of motorists and pedestrians - not lights.

And the covering of the lights would not stop there. Pedestrians, as Martin explains, are put at the top of the pyramid. All pedestrian lights would be covered, and the pedestrians crossings removed. Parents of young children will shudder as they educate their kids to use pedestrian crossings. But Martin explains rather than zebra crossing you would have a ‘zebra street’.

So you would mark a stretch of ground - say outside town hall - making motorists visibly aware that pedestrians cross the road here. They then slow down considerably but staying moving.

Martin has sympathy for traffic wardens. “It’s always been them and us, we feel that they are harassing their fellow humans, but they are doing their job. Imagine rather than traffic wardens a town had welcoming wardens. Where traffic wardens advise motorists where to park. Where nothing is too rigid and the spirit of the law is applied. That would be a huge step forward and in this environment it can happen.”

According to Martin, High Street’s transformation would rid of us road rage on the street, put drivers in a relaxed frame of mind and all fellow road users would enjoy the space - including pedestrians.

Phil Walsh, Chief Executive at Good’s and a leading member of the KCCBA, simply wants a trial. “We gave the one-way system a try, people were unhappy, it didn’t work. The roads system was not there to facilitate it. We are trying to make Kilkenny a better experience for our citizens and visitors,” she said and referred to Ben Hamilton Bailie’s visit last year - who also proposed a similar traffic strategy for High Street. “We want to enhance Kilkenny City. Kilkenny as a brand relates to vibrancy and innovation. We want tourists and shoppers to come and enjoy Kilkenny. And what would be wrong with us being the first to try it.”

So Martin Cassini believes that High Street is the perfect road infrastructure for the trial, and believes that motorists, pedestrians and cyclists will adjust overnight. He refers to a book by Kenneth Todd on how roundabouts ‘minimise conflict’ and feels this is a step further.

“It will mean drivers driving according to context. In urban streets that are busy they drive to that context. On the open road its a different context. I believe that in the city, pedestrians are at the top of the pile, then cyclists, then motorists. If we can get across that structure, we are there. Traffic lights are forcing you to obey, in this way we all comply - I don’t want to crash in to you and you don’t want to crash in to me - and we just take care of what is going on around us.

“You can, in Kilkenny create an egalitarian space sharing street, where grateful happy citizens share it,” said Martin.

Phil Walsh added a note on the fortunate position of Kilkenny - “We haven’t lost our High Street. In this country and abroad, everyone is trying to rediscover their High Street again but we still have it. Councils everywhere are introducing programmes to rejuvenate High Street whereas in Kilkenny we have it, and now we must protect it .”

Of course, Martin’s end game is probably shared by all in Kilkenny. “Kilkenny is an attractive medieval town, you could be restoring common law to High Street like it was for centuries. Where road users were not segregated, and the space was enjoyed.”

You are strongly advised to go to www.equalitystreets.com which features videos of Portishead’s first morning of rush-hour traffic.