It’s easy to get lost in the details of the Seven Dials improvement scheme, but if you pull back from the one-ways, the ‘overrun’ and the ‘courtesy crossings’, something rather remarkable starts to appear. The Council is prepared to trust us.
The proposals include changing the signal-controlled pedestrian crossings to zebras, removing the guard railings, and allowing people to walk across the roundabout if they wish. These aren’t just ways to get pedestrians circulating round the junction more efficiently. They change the relationship between the authorities and the public. Instead of telling people when they can cross the road, or preventing them from stepping into it, they give people the choice, the freedom and the responsibility to decide for themselves.
This idea depends on two assumptions. One is that most of us know how to cross roads, don’t leap out in front of cars on zebra crossings, and can use our common sense to decide whether it’s safe to go across the middle. The other is that the risks from the traffic will be sufficiently reduced to protect the minority of people who are likely to make bad choices. That group might include children unaccompanied by adults, teenagers, drunks, and people in a hurry.
There’s a lot to be gained from a scheme that gives people freedom to decide for themselves how they move around public space, instead of making them obey lights and restricting their movement with railings. It would make our public space more public, and perhaps a bit more neighbourly in the process.
In this respect the Council may trust the people more than some of them trust each other. But it does need to reassure us that the risks to those who misjudge their choices will be acceptably low. The key factors are traffic speed and vehicle stopping distances. Evidence and explanation would be welcome at this point; otherwise the risks are likely to overshadow the opportunities of a scheme that is more far-reaching – and more liberating – than it at first appears.