“City traffic lights could come down” screams the Oxford Times headline. “Radical shared space scheme being considered”. The implication is that Oxfordshire County Council may consider the removal of some traffic lights and the other junk which they have spent the last 30 years sticking up all over Oxford.
As so often, the article itself does not quite bear out the optimism implied by the headline. An urban designer has made the suggestion that the city experiments with naked roads on which traffic and pedestrians marshal themselves according to politeness and common-sense, transferring some of the thinking back to the users. The city council and the university support the idea.
Unfortunately, neither of them have much input into what happens on the roads. That is the responsibility of Oxfordshire County Council and County Highways. The designer says:
“Often, something as innovative and new as this makes council highways officers uncomfortable. They would feel exposed if it went wrong”
This understates the position somewhat. The idea offends various principles which have long guided the highways officers of Oxfordshire County Council.
They like to keep busy – not because they like work per se, but because an endless stream of projects ensures their job security.
They epitomise the label “risk averse” which is often applied to public servants in a superficial way. “Risk averse” means more than having a disinclination towards risk-taking. It means closing your mind to the possibility that doing nothing (that is, positively deciding not to do something) might achieve as much – this is different from neglect which is not realising the need or not bothering to do something. Their primary aim is to stay in post until retirement and that splendid pension, and anything which deviates from the norm might compromise that.
They like spending money – big projects with lots of hardware spend make them feel important and look good on the CV.
They like the idea that they control other people and can influence the lives and behaviour of others, especially those in business. Think how a mosquito can make an elephant’s life miserable by constantly irritating it – the power which that insect has over something so much more important that itself – and you get the picture.
They have no idea that people might be trusted to look after themselves. As Bagehot put it ” The trained official hates the rude, untrained public. He thinks that they are stupid, ignorant, reckless – that they cannot tell their own interest – that they should have the leave of the office before they do anything. Protection is the natural inborn creed of every official ….”
Add all this together, and you can see that Oxfordshire highways officers are not likely to embrace an approach to traffic management which involves no lines and barriers and lights and controls.
The people who erected the traffic-numbing lights at Frideswide Square are unlikely to take a more minimalist approach elsewhere.
It is also clear that many of them just don’t understand what they are doing. See my post Oxford High Street Reclutter for an example of highways officers saying, with no intended irony, that their works to declutter the High Street include new lights and bollards. What, one wonders would have been the upshot of an exercise with no decluttering element?
So, I do not believe that Oxfordshire County Council’s highways officers will give any serious thought to a traffic environment shorn of traffic lights and other controls. They will write lots of papers and have many discussions about it, but no serious thought. A thinking highways officer is an oxymoron in Oxfordshire.