In early 2012, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea held a formal opening for the redesigned Exhibition Road. This old Victorian avenue, once designed to get thousands of spectators between South Kensington tube station and the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, is now the home to a host of London's biggest and most prestigious museums, and apparently this innocuous street in West London gets more visitors every year than Venice.
Exhibition Road was a grubby, cramped street full of idling coaches, where cars parked down both sides and in the middle of the street and tourists were advised to use the Victorian pedestrian tunnel that runs part of the way under the road. Today it is the UK's largest "shared space", a Scandinavian concept where rules and barriers are taken away so that pedestrians and cars mix, forcing both to pay more attention and improving road safety.
The question is, was this thronged thoroughfare the right place for an experimental scheme?
Looking north, from the very southern end of Exhibition Road, it looks very much like a pedestrianised high street. Until a couple of years ago this was part of a one-way system, with traffic rushing towards the camera and a bus stand to the left. The road is still open, towards the camera only, but the next part of the one way system is closed completely and so it's not so much in demand by traffic any longer.
This part of the street is supposed to have traffic to one side and pedestrians across the rest of the road, but without explicit guidance it seems some vehicles have been heading the wrong way, and on the pedestrian side too. That must be why this temporary "no entry" sign is here. To the right, the skylights for the pedestrian tunnel once formed traffic islands.
Connecting Exhibition Road to South Kensington Underground station, this was also part of the one-way system, but is now closed to all traffic and forms a pleasant pedestrianised area. It looks very much like the parts of Exhibition Road that are open to traffic!
We haven't really started the shared space concept yet. At the junction with Thurloe Place, traffic lights control all movements as this busy street, and the next few metres of Exhibition Road to the north, form part of the junction that gives South Kensington access to the A4. This viewpoint is what motorists approaching along Thurloe Place would see — it's not at all obvious that the road crossing us here has anything unusual about it.
A few paces to the north, Exhibition Road meets Cromwell Road, the A4, and no shared space thinking would work here. A conventional signalised junction — with no turns permitted — is employed here.
Looking across the junction, it's clear that the reallocated roadspace on Exhibition Road means that pedestrians, who are on the left hand side of the picture, actually have a wider crossing of the A4 than motor vehicles do, on the right.
North from Cromwell Road is the real shared space. This is the general layout of the street now: the areas to the left and right, where you'd expect footways, are still solely for pedestrians. The middle of the road is marked by occasional traffic islands with showpiece streetlighting. To the left (the west side of the street), there are parking spaces, taxi ranks and so on; to the right two-way traffic. There are almost no kerbs, guardrails or signs.
The streetlights are very striking and form an eye-catching line up the street. Whether or not they complement the grand Victorian museums will be a matter of discussion for many of the people walking by.
It's hard to argue that the bold black and white paving and tall masts work very well with some of Exhibition Road's more modern buildings.
The lights stand in circular traffic islands, which are approximately halfway across the total width of the street and mark the boundary between the live traffic lanes and the area set aside for parking, wandering and sitting. This isn't a real shared space area — in its truest form the concept takes away all order and organisation from a street, but Exhibition Road still has defined areas for through traffic, stopping and pedestrians.
There are no painted road markings on the road surface. Parking bays are marked with these metal studs, arranged to indicate the corners of parking bays. Much of the available parking was taken on my visit, and from the positions that cars were parked in, it looked like the majority of drivers hadn't realised that bays were marked at all.
Tactile paving and a drainage channel on the east side of the street marks the edge of the pedestrian footway and the live traffic lanes — where, on a normal street, you'd expect a kerb. This seems sensible; blind pedestrians have adequate warning that they are straying from the safe area.
On the opposite side of the street, more tactile paving separates the footway from... another pedestrian area and some seating. Wouldn't this be better placed at the edge of the pedestrian-only zone, and not just where the kerb used to be?
Some concessions to traditional street design have had to be made — such as here, where a bus stop has a short length of kerb so that low-floor buses can pull up and offer step-free access.
Towards the northern end of Exhibition Road is the junction with Prince Consort Road. Once a set of traffic lights, it now looks like this. The confusing array of arrows is little warning for the fact that this is actually a roundabout, and beyond it, the configuration of traffic lanes is different. Ambiguity is supposed to be part of the shared space idea, but here an extra bollard has obviously been added on the right, presumably because oncoming traffic assumed that it was still on a dual carriageway.
The roundabout itself is tarmac, not granite setts, and does not have normal mini-roundabout road markings. It does have "give way" lines, but they are not correct for a mini-roundabout, and there is no signage.
The remaining part of the street, leading up to Hyde Park, is still a dual carriageway, and here the circular islands and tall masts mark the central reservation. Parked cars line the edges, and apart from the striking pavement design, this is effectively just an urban dual carriageway.
It is, however, a great deal more pleasant than it once was — as, in fact, is the whole of Exhibition Road. Whether or not it is successful as a shared space (and it seems there are one or two inconsistencies and misunderstandings to iron out), it is certainly a much more pleasant place to be than it was before.
At present, Exhibition Road is not just nicer than it used to be, it's also quieter — virtually empty of traffic, in fact. That makes a big contribution to it becoming a more pleasant place for pedestrians to stroll around, but it's happened because it's now more difficult to drive and, for the last three years, it's been the site of continuous roadworks. All those coaches and taxis must have gone somewhere. So while this experiment seems to be largely successful, it's important to remember that it wouldn't work everywhere, because its success relies to a certain extent on moving one of Exhibition Road's biggest eyesores — the traffic — somewhere else.