A hundred years ago the first road marking was painted on a British road – a white line straight down the middle.
If it weren’t for Alice Spawls’ essay in the London Review of Books, the centenary might have gone, er, unmarked:
“Pedestrian markings appeared later, during World War Two, when the edges of roads were whitened so that people could see them in the blackout. As late as the 1950s many of the markings remained optional – recommendations not rules – and presumably some sort of Brownian motion ensued. Now there are so many markings the roads need constant maintenance and one type of sign has barely faded before a new rule or style supersedes it.”
Road signs have a much longer history:
“Most of our signs are so familiar we don’t think twice about them, and their shapes so standardised we consider them entirely impersonal. But before arrows began to point the way, in the 18th century, hand symbols were used – manicules. North was a fleur-de-lis. The red and white ‘No Entry’ sign is said to be based on the Habsburgs’ heraldic device (like the Austrian flag) and is so old because of the immemorial need to keep people out…”
They too have proliferated in recent decades – the absurd overkill resulting from the mindless application of rules without reference to scale and context.
Then there’s all the other ‘street furniture’, especially the ugly railings designed to corall pedestrians at junctions – and usually bent out of shape by some drunken motorist (and left that way for years as a momento of their fecklessness):
“It can’t be denied that our roads are ugly. The tarmac is poor and patchy, riven with cracks and holes, great craters collapsing. Markings are often crudely painted and blotchy. The old signs are messy, like half-rubbed-out sketches.“
Just occasionally one sees the streetscape as it could be – for instance when a road is freshly resurfaced, but not yet repainted.
It’s only when it’s absent that one can fully understand the visual exhaustion we’ve imposed on the built environment – a mess of fractured symbols, into which the compounding mess of shop signage, parked cars and crap architecture has made its home.
Will we ever be free from it? The good news is that we might be – and soon. Self-driving cars will change our lives in more ways than we think – including the way that our cities look and feel.
With their array of sensors, automated vehicles won’t need the road signs and markings that human drivers require. With our wandering minds banished from the driving seat, the systems we use to regulate traffic needn’t scream for the attention of distracted eyes and ears.
Therefore the potential exists for a radical decluttering of the streetscape – and a catalyst, perhaps, for a deeper re-humanisation of the urban environment.