diamond geezer

 Friday, March 23, 2012

(...yes, it's been open for several weeks, but have you been...)

Exhibition Road's changed, hasn't it? The road past the museums in South Kensington. London's first single-level shared space repartitioned streetscape. It's changed, almost out of all recognition. And X marks the spot. [photo]

There have been plans to change Exhibition Road for years. It's been on Kensington and Chelsea's "things to do" list since 2003, but only when the council's deputy leader switched jobs to TfL did the project get started. A grand exercise in debollardification and kerblessness, the repaving of Exhibition Road would make the street more welcoming to millions of non-drivers each year. Strip out the pavement and the tarmac, replace the entire surface with interlocking granite tiles, and trust road users to share the space without running each other over. Many said it wouldn't work, while others feared that disabled access would be compromised. But the newly-flat half-mile has been up and running for three months now, and would appear to be a success.

The top end of the re-paving begins opposite Hyde Park's Alexandra Gate, close to the Royal Albert Hall, where the characteristic X-pattern is clearly seen stretching off downhill [photo]. The change to traffic isn't too dramatic here - still one clearly defined lane in each direction and a very definite pavement on each side. A broad line of ribbed stone divides the two, in a contrasting colour so it stands out, and wide enough to ensure that no walking stick should miss it in passing. Emerging side roads are delimited instead by metal studs, again tactile and distinguishable, but no barrier to prams and wheelchairs as the old kerbstones were.

To remove clutter all the lampposts have been removed from their usual position on the pavement and realigned in a single line down the centre of the road. I say lampposts, but the replacements are more like IKEA spotlights on very tall spikes. Each rises from a cobbled circle, a bit like a tiny roundabout, and together they create a central line of traffic islands to dodge. There is an actual mini roundabout further down, at the junction with Prince Consort Road, although this is little more than a broad ring of contrasting tiles which traffic seems more than happy to drive straight across rather than officially round.

So far it's been pretty obvious where to walk and where to drive, even though the road surface is otherwise entirely level. But from the roundabout down to the V&A, two-way traffic has been shifted to the eastern half of the road only. This leaves plenty of space for parking, and also for wandering pedestrians on the institutionalised side of the street. It's good news for students emerging from Imperial College, or anyone wanting a seat on a bench in a location that would previously have got them run over. It also means that a bus stop has had to be repositioned between the lampposts, and a tiny stretch of kerb added so that passengers don't have to step up too far when a number 360 arrives.

There's more of the same past the Science and Natural History Museums. It makes perfect sense to provide additional circulation space for visitors entering and exiting these marvellous buildings, plus the repaving means you don't have to venture down into the lengthy subterranean passageway that eventually leads to the tube station. Traffic runs a bit slower than before, partly due to the new 20mph speed limit, but also because it's a bit disconcerting driving along a road marked with giant Xs rather than a central intermittent stripe [photo]. And it's good for bikes too, which isn't a bad thing when there are a couple of cycle hire docking stations neatly dovetailed into the shared space.

Cromwell Road used to be unpleasant for pedestrians to cross, corralled between guiderail into a two-stage switchback while Heathrow-bound traffic thundered past. Now it's a single span - more pleasant and more open, and much more likely to entice museum visitors across to the shops rather than down into the depths.

And it's the southernmost stretch of Exhibition Road which feels most different. A mix of traffic and pedestrians in two short bursts, incorporating part of the local one-way system, and yet still with some of the ambience of a French piazza. It helps to have restaurants and creperies alongside, with tables spilling out onto the pavement, and local residents wandering through trailing designer carrier bags. Ventilation shafts from the subway below double up as convenient platforms for sitting in the middle of the road, which takes many a tourist's fancy on a weekend afternoon. And somehow everybody seems to cope with sharing the space, as the bikes nip past the pedestrians while the cars crawl patiently behind [photo]. It wouldn't work in every street, nor would there be £29m to make it happen, but Exhibition Road's transformation appears to have brought about an effective and efficient co-existence.

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