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Pedestrian Barriers- Safety’s Friend or Community’s Foe?

Roadside barriers, or guardrails, have been installed on Britain’s streets since the 1930’s with the aim of reducing collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. They have become a standard feature of our urban street network, apparently protecting us at many potentially-dangerous locations but also contributing to an ugly streetscape and making street less useable for pedestrians. Does safety really require the installation of kilometres worth of restrictive eyesore? Is there a happier medium which allows better flow for pedestrians?

The 1946 report “The Design and Layout of Roads in Built-up Areas” stated that “…the indiscriminate erection of guardrails or barriers (whether at the edge of the footway or along the central reservation) would give rise to an unpleasant feeling of restraint…”. Seventy years later pedestrians certainly feel the unpleasant restraint but barriers are still used, almost as standard, at many locations. Why are they there?

In principle, guardrails are used to channel pedestrians away from potentially dangerous crossing points towards dedicated crossings or places with better visibility. They also act in certain places, such as school gates, to prevent pedestrians from running out without looking. Research in London in 2005 investigated the impact of guardrails at typical locations on pedestrian behaviour and rates of accident. Not surprisingly, where guardrails were installed, depending on the junction type, 72- 90% of pedestrians crossed where the road designers wanted them to, while 32 – 56% of pedestrians crossed where the designers wanted them to when guardrails were not there. So it is quite clear that they work for their intended purpose but is not so clear that the intended purpose is worthwhile. Accident rates at the barriered sites were 1.5 times higher. How much of this is down to those sites having higher speeds or poorer visibility in general or down to pedestrians paying more attention when not using a dedicated crossing is not clear, but it does suggest that, in many locations, the barriers serve little purpose. Caution needs to be applied, though, since this research did not cover a large sample of sites and there is other research to contradict it, showing reductions in accident rates with the introduction of guardrails.

Image: A simple approach to child safety

Many are of the opinion that guardrails and other street furniture are an obstacle to pedestrianism and a detriment to a street’s sense of place. By cutting off desire lines and shepherding pedestrians, walking journeys are made longer and more frustrating. Given that streets are used by pedestrians but only transited along by drivers, it would seem more logical to improve safety by reducing or slowing traffic than by frustrating pedestrians. Cities which promote walking have seen not only increased numbers of journeys by foot but also new or more frequented public spaces and amenities, which contribute to a more pleasant urban environment.

Continuous barrier of extreme length

Image: No freedom for pedestrians and dirty pavements to boot

If it seems like there are more barriers than we really need and certainly want, on what basis do road engineers choose to install them? There are no hard and fast rules but much guidance. The Design Manual for Roads and Bridges notes that “Guardrailing should be used to assist, rather than to impede, pedestrians…” but of course that they “…should be used to discourage pedestrians from crossing at dangerous locations…”. The Manual for Streets (which is mostly concerned with less-busy streets) states “Guardrailing should not be provided unless a clear need for it has been identified.” Statements like these leave things quite open and there is a reasonable chance that local authorities will err on the side of caution to protect themselves in a litigious world. To give more guidance at a time when there are policy drivers to make streets more liveable and working examples of how to change traffic behaviour to improve safety, the DfT’s Local Transport Note 02/09 provides a framework to sensibly assess the requirement for railings.

Hopefully this thought process is being applied appropriately and guardrails are not being installed needlessly, breaking up communities and leaving a 30kg per metre carbon footprint. Is it also being applied retrospectively to existing junctions? Perhaps you should ask your local authority about your local street clutter because if it can be removed without detriment to safety, your street may become a nicer, easier place to live.


Free Wheel North is a charity which works to remove barriers which prevent human-powered transport, be the barrier physical, a lack of knowledge, a lack of confidence, a lack of safe space or a lack of suitable equipment for those with mobility impairments.

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