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Will We Get Roads Where We Need Streets?

Southern Link Rd

The city council has submitted a planning application to itself (ref 18F/1419) for a link road from the end of Leeds St towards the north end of Princes Dock. The image below shows the location.

For most of us, even if we spend a lot of time in the city centre, this is a bit out of our way; it might seem that it doesn’t much matter about the details. True, it will involve the demolition of a few light industrial units, but they will probably be adequately compensated. It’s not the destruction of a close-knit community or a valued old building. Does it much matter?



I think it’s probably a necessary scheme: the new cruise terminal will need better access, as will all the new developments on Princes Dock. But I think the proposals is letting us down, missing opportunities and setting a poor precedent for the future of Liverpool Waters.

The wrong code book

The project looks as if it has been designed according to the well-established design code called the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB); a 25 year-old, highly technical detailed guide, especially applicable to trunk and rural roads, and excellent in its way. The principles which ought to be used, however, are set out in a more recent document called Manual for Streets 2. This was devised as the limitations of designing only for the safe and efficient passage of motor vehicles became apparent when applied to streets, which must do many more things.

Streets, after all, might need to support shopping, sightseeing, partying or just hanging out as well as (or instead of) the straightforward transport function. Manual for Streets insists on a more rounded approach to the design of streets, with the needs of pedestrians considered first, not a reluctant afterthought, and those of public transport and cycling all coming before motor vehicles. This approach is mandatory, not optional for streets, even if it is not always taken to heart by engineers who may find the traditional ways easier to think about.

 

But surely if we deal with the traffic, that’s the main thing?

Right now, to be sure, it’s the movement of cars and trucks which dominate, and the need to create this link is driven (pardon the pun) by the demands of traffic. And it’s a tough problem; there is a LOT of traffic to deal with and there will be more. The tools and techniques of the DMRB: to calculate traffic volumes, and speeds, stopping distances and kerb radii, and the timings and sequences of traffic lights are all necessary, but they are not enough.

As Liverpool Waters develops - and the Tobacco Warehouse and the Ten Streets, and it’s to be hoped, yet more splendid schemes not yet even dreamt of – this ungainly corner of the city will become a route to a new extension of the City Centre, and it will be traversed less by drivers than by pedestrians, cyclists and passengers. There will be tourists strolling from the iconic Three Graces to the explore (soon-to-be) famous Northern Waterfront, who will form their views of Liverpool on what they experience here. We need to get it right.

Credit where it’s due – but must try harder

The proposal submitted includes some of the bones of what is needed. There is a cycle and pedestrian link, extending the new stylish facilities on the Strand northwards, and the same quality materials are to be used. But so many promises are not going to be fulfilled: There is no real provision for cyclists to go anywhere else – to make it easy to head off to the JMU at Byrom St, for example, though Leeds St has an impressive cycleway beside it to join up with. The cycleway link itself will be two-way, shared with pedestrians and 3m wide. I have a feeling that that will all too soon feel inadequate.

The east-west link road itself will be given generous 3m pavements both sides, which is good, but the pedestrian crossings across the junctions are convoluted rather than direct, and some of the arms of the junctions are not provided with crossings at all.

Missing Links

The scheme is, in effect an enabling project for Liverpool Waters, which will bring a huge multiplication of the population to the north of the city centre, not to mention the draw of jobs and cultural destinations. That should mean a substantial upgrade of public transport to serve it. The details of that are sketchy. They are not part of this link road submission of course, but there is no evidence that, whatever they are, that they have been factored in to the scheme. Where are the bus stops, for example? We only see for certain where two bus stops will be removed.

Impossible Dream?

The forecasts included with the submission show that on, their basis of forecast growth in traffic, the junctions will become overloaded by vehicles anyway by 2029. The solution proposed, is to cut the opportunities for pedestrians to cross, so that you may have to wait 4 minutes, rather than 2 minutes to get across (and it’s not clear to me whether you can expect to get right across the multiple sections of road in one pass even then). I’d suggest that the proper adjustment to make in the light of this difficulty, is to do all that you can to reduce the increase in motorised traffic. In this case that may be less of an impossible dream than it would be in many instances: the worst case of overloading comes from traffic leaving Princes Dock– a localised area, where the future development should be under the control, to a significant extent of the planning process. So, the planning authority, which in this case is the same (give or take) as the applicant needs to give some commitments to reduce the reliance of the local developments on cars: cut back on car-parking spaces for example and improve sustainable transport facilities. Those commitments need to be robust, though, and open to enforcement by the public.

Once more with feeling

The designers have been given a tough break: the Manual for Streets asks them to consider the character of the street, but that character will change enormously, and somewhat unpredictably over the next few years. Aside from the highway and pavements, it will be given by the buildings around it. The existing light industrial units on Gibraltar Way do not inspire, but we can only expect (and hope) that they will shortly be replaced with something more urban, and well, more inspiring. To the north of the new link road will be another gap site. The proposal suggests it be filled with some grass and trees, but I for one, hope that it too will be built on, to knit the cityscape together. If this is the place for a little park, it will have to do more than provide a patch of lawn: open space does not come free in the centre of a city, and I’m not even talking about money as such. Unused spaces push people and facilities apart, making life difficult, so spaces must be designed to be used – and used intensively in a place such as this.

But there is at least one place where the surroundings to the highway can be designed now, setting the character of the street: that is in its northwest corner. A triangle of tarmac, backing onto Prince’s Half Tide Dock, now part of the roundabout to the start of Waterloo Rd, will be liberated to become… well whatever it becomes it will be a key point on what will be a well-travelled route into that new extension to the City Centre. This needs a more obviously “artistic” approach, but then, as I have argued, the whole scheme needs a more rounded attitude.

Let’s have this scheme designed again, fit for people and let it show what we aspire to for this soon-to-be-important part of our city.

Because we’re worth it.

Dai Gwynne                                                                                   

4th July 2018

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