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Are continuous footways compatible with making streets inclusive?

There is a need to think about design details, but these point to what’s required of the wider system if there is to be a realistic plan for pedestrian priority and inclusive streets, writes Robert Weetman from Living Streets

06 February 2024
Robert Weetman: We could see that designs called ‘continuous footways’ varied enormously. In many cases it was difficult to know whether something being called a continuous footway actually continued the footway at all
Robert Weetman: We could see that designs called ‘continuous footways’ varied enormously. In many cases it was difficult to know whether something being called a continuous footway actually continued the footway at all

The key aim of a two-year study undertaken by Living Streets into continuous footways was to investigate whether they make streets more pedestrian-friendly or harder for some to navigate, adding to their exclusion from public spaces.

On the surface that suggests it would be a straightforward piece of work, perhaps focussing on road user behaviour to establish who gives way or not, or working with disabled people to understand whether those with certain impairments could negotiate continuous footways. 

But it really isn’t that simple.

For example, how much can be proven about exclusion by watching those using existing infrastructure? If we’re trying to understand whether this infrastructure has excluded some people from the street, then what we really need to know is who is missing. And, where streets create a range of bigger problems, how do we prove the main reason for an individual’s exclusion?

We can ask pedestrians for their opinions, and these are important. But is there an objective way to distinguish between the issues that arise because something is new and innovative, from the long-term suitability of a design itself?

Unfortunately, the seemingly obvious study of giving-way behaviour also presents issues. For example, a good continuous footway might create slow speeds, and conditions where a driver anticipates a pedestrian’s needs. To provide priority they might only need to slow slightly, well in advance of the actual junction. 

At a poorly designed example more drivers will be responding with obvious and more urgent give-way behaviour to pedestrians they’d not expected to appear in front of them. But without being able to sit with every driver it will be almost impossible to be sure of observations of the first of these behaviours, and we might see ‘giving way’ more clearly at the poorer example.

What is a continuous footway anyway? 

Then there’s the big question of what should be included in a study of continuous footways. 

We could see that a huge range of infrastructure is described as continuous footway. The theory seems clear enough – a continuous footway continues the footway of a main road over the end of a side road, and vehicles are driven over this to access or leave the side road. 

In reality, we could see that designs called ‘continuous footways’ varied enormously. In many cases it was difficult to know whether something being called a continuous footway actually continued the footway at all. And we found no objective definitions of that – and no obvious way to distinguish continuous footways from long-established and well-accepted ‘footway crossovers’. Indeed, much of the literature was contradictory.

To tackle this complexity, we needed to combine evidence from a whole range of sources. We studied more convincing continuations of the footway (including footway crossovers), but also structures which only half-heartedly continued the footway. We found methods to quantify the degree to which pedestrians are prioritised. 

We had to remember that the poor performance of a compromised or ambiguous attempt to continue a footway, in an inappropriate environment, might say little about how a ‘real’ continuous footway would work in a more appropriate environment.

In our report we define the purpose of a continuous footway and describe what we think is required to create ‘real’ continuous footways. We conclude that these will only work well if a certain set of features are included, and link this explicitly to ideas about better designs for footway crossovers. 

This sets the scene for further work. We suggest that if the UK is to work toward inclusive designs this should be nationally coordinated, and disabled people must be fully involved. 

Systemic issues

Our work also pointed to an even more important question; if continuous footways will only work well in limited circumstances, then what’s to be done elsewhere? What about the many locations where traffic levels and vehicle speeds mean that only a signalised junction or crossing is ever going to make it easy and safe for all pedestrians? This would require an astonishing number of signalised junctions, which won’t ever be provided. Does that mean that the idea of pedestrian-friendly inclusive streets is going to remain a pipe dream? Does that make policies about prioritising pedestrians, and Highway Code rules to that effect, just encouraging words that nobody really believes in?

Given this question, and on the basis that Dutch ‘exit constructions’ appear to have inspired continuous footway use elsewhere, it seemed important to research how they can be such common features in the Netherlands.

We could see that, unlike on British streets, these are legally defined, instantly recognisable, and used only in very well-defined circumstances. They appear to be used as an integral element in a profoundly reformed system. At least in theory this seeks a very clear distinction in the character of bigger roads and ‘local access streets’. Signalised junctions should only be required more rarely, where the bigger roads meet.

We’ve left open the question of whether the specific Dutch system would work in Britain, because that’s a big one which was outside the scope of the work. However, we concluded that the wider use of continuous footways, side road zebra crossings or any other interventions intended to prioritise pedestrians is unlikely to succeed without an equally profound and systematic reform here.

Robert Weetman is Technical Coordinator, Scotland, Living Streets

He is author of Inclusive Design at Continuous Footways

Meet Robert at Building Better: Crossings & Junctions in London on 13 March

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