Philosophy & Traffic Calming

This was first published a few years ago in my village paper following lots of controvery over the plans to build a traffic calming scheme. I thought I’d republish it here as it’s a perenial issue that rural villages have to deal with. It arose from a frustration that the County Council, in an attempt to solve the problem, decided to install an ‘urban’ solution in our village involving concrete kerbs and lots of steel signs – something that is antithetical to the value of living in a rural environment which allows an escape from this type of constructed space. The piece was also an attempt to spread my love of philosophy to my neighbours. Whether they appreciate it, I haven’t yet discovered.

Philosophy & Traffic Calming

For some time now, there has been controversy and dispute over the installation of traffic calming on School Hill: with some calling for more measures on other roads in the village (i.e. Greenwith Road) and others lamenting the ‘urbanisation’ of our rural highways.

So what can Philosophy offer to this debate? At the very least, although it may not provide a ‘solution’ to the problem – for the whole disagreement revolves around differences of value – it may (as the Cambridge Philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, suggested) help us arrange what we already know.

The best place to start is by setting out the problem. This appears to contain several factors:
–> The quantity of traffic: too much traffic is passing through the village.
–> The speed of traffic: drivers are not complying with the statutory speed limits.
–> The noise of traffic: associated with the speed and quantity of traffic.
–> Motorised traffic and pedestrians utilising the same space: the vulnerability of pedestrians.
–> Stationary traffic: parked vehicles reducing the space and visibility of other road users.

The solution to the first two of these problems (which were viewed as the major issues) on School Hill, was provided by the County Highways Agency who installed road humps and a chicane system at the top and bottom of the hill. This however, caused considerable dissatisfaction and objections on the following grounds:

–> Safety: as there was no separate pedestrian pathway at the top chicane, pedestrians found themselves in increasing danger from traffic manoeuvring (often with disregard to the presence of pedestrians) through the chicane.

–> Damage: at both chicanes, large vehicles were damaging the verges and hedges in order to manoeuvre through.

–> Aesthetics: the use of concrete and steel structures is inappropriate in rural roads.

However, it is only the first two of these that is of concern to the Highways Agency even though the objection on aesthetic grounds may be of equal merit. To this, the Highways Agency has now responded by improving the safety of pedestrians at the top chicane with the placement of a new concrete path. This has also reduced the damage to the verges.

This issue is of philosophical interest because it is concerned with value. A problem of safety, specifically to children attending the primary school, was deemed serious enough to warrant the cost of installing traffic calming measures along this road. The value of human life, it is argued, is of paramount importance above aesthetic concerns or damage to (local) environment. However, human safety is not the only concern; otherwise the whole area would have been pedestrianed off. Human safety must be balanced against other values; i.e. providing access, allowing people to travel to work, and the economic and financial costs of changes to infrastructure.

For the residents of the area, the aesthetic issues also seem to merit importance, particularly the argument that installing concrete kerbs, paths, and humps as well as the steel signage that goes with it, detracts from the quality of living in a rural environment (which is arguably to ‘get away’ from the highly constructed space in urban areas) and is therefore unacceptable. However, the issue of aesthetics is of no concern to the highway engineer who is simply following Government protocols regarding the reduction of traffic speed, particularly in areas with vulnerable populations, e.g. school children, in residential areas.

Perhaps the question then is; should the Highways Agency (and implicitly the Government) be interested in preserving the aesthetic quality of rural roads in addition to maintaining the safety of road users? If the answer is yes, then a practical approach needs to be considered that will balance both of these needs.

In order to answer this, let us consider the utopian scenario of life on School Hill. It may be one where there is minimal traffic, which abides by the speed limit, does not intimidate or put pedestrians at risk, on a road which is devoid of concrete infrastructure, markings or steel signage. In other words, it seems to be a picture of ‘yesteryear’ that is (perhaps unfortunately) not conducive with the world we now inhabit. However, such an approach has been taken in parts of Holland and France whereby small conurbations have been stripped of all road markings, pavements and the roads have been (re)constructed from stone. This has the effect of defamiliarising the motorist who becomes hesitant with the lack of right of way at junctions and unsure whether they are in a pedestrian area and has the effect that they slow down considerably or avoid the area altogether (Arguably this has occurred to a lesser extent in Falmouth Town Centre). Nevertheless, this is a high risk and high cost strategy. It may be that once motorists become more accustomed to the layout of this environment they become complacent and compromise the safety of other road users to a greater extent than before. Such a solution would require a radical change of approach if it were implemented over here. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that motorists consider their effect on the quality of life of their (metaphorical) neighbours and reduce their journeys, reduce their speed, and be considerate to pedestrians and other roads users. This would be one way of preserving that which we value: our safety and our environment.

As stated at the outset, the purpose of this piece was simply to try to arrange what we already know in order to be clearer as to where the discontent and dissatisfaction lies. This is all that the philosopher can feasibly do. It is up to those with the power and authority to weigh up the differing values and provide a justification for the decisions that they make. Furthermore, it is up to those that grant the power and authority (the electorate and citizens) to hold the decision makers to account on the basis of these justifications. This means thinking logically and precisely about exactly what it is that is valuable and worth preserving. This is where philosophy is of use to the ‘common’ man.