Illusory Choices

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We are often persuaded to do things because it’s easier than not doing them. This is particularly true when getting around town. But it’s also true in terms of deciding which places to visit, not just how we get there. Some destinations are more difficult to get to, if not by design, then by a coincidence of circumstances. I rule out going across town for just about everything, because it’s such an ordeal to make that journey. Instead, I choose to go places that don’t have quite what I want, but which are easy to get to. In that way, the road layout and transport options persuade me to visit one place and not another.

What I’d be interested in considering here is whether those constraints are in some sense intentional. Are we steered toward some places and away from others by circumstances that aren’t coincidental?

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Cities are particularly constrained where getting around is concerned. While there’s considerable choice in the mode of movement (walking, cycling, driving), the routes are peculiarly constrained by roads and buildings. Sometimes getting from A to B means going round the houses, along one way systems, and then being detoured by temporary measures.

The image above shows some routes we took with particular destinations in mind. The central route, in pale green, was how we got to and from the Sage, even though our intended destination was the Baltic.

We started from the Interchange, a Metro/bus station and shopping precinct along West Street in Gateshead. We had a rough idea of which streets we’d follow to get to the Baltic, but no idea of the detail. What that meant was a series of spontaneous choices based on the presence or absence of pedestrian infrastructure, traffic conditions, interesting landmarks, and our sense of orientation.

This resulted in major and minor mishaps, plus some nice discoveries. Fortuity and misfortune, and some opinions about city spaces.

Minor examples of misfortune happen at junctions with no pedestrian crossing, which necessitate jaywalking, retracing one’s route, or continuing along until a crossing is found. In Gateshead, the dual-lane dual carriageway called Askew Road does that at various places. It is the concrete river, a difficult crossing for pedestrians. In the image above, red stars mark the points where we had to deal with an impasse of some sort. The two green stars are discoveries we would not have made had we not been sidetracked. Misfortune begets fortune, but not necesarily the outcome one aimed for.

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We hadn’t planned to go down the side road (Bottle Bank), but were routed that way by the difficulty of crossing the bridge approach road. Halfway down we spotted the fiddle sculpture tribute to James Hill and had to go interact with it.

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At that point reckoned we’d get to the riverside and walk along a promenade. Finger posts pointed the way. One pointing uphill to the Sage, another pointing downhill to the riverside and Baltic, a third one pointing west to the Swing Bridge. Down we went.

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That notion was short-circuited by the security fence around HMS Calliope. But this became a pretty useful sidetrip, focusing on the the now-derelict mooring.

In brief, the finger posts pointed to a brownfield cul-de-sac. What’s odd from the perspective of us tryiong to get somewhere is that those signs have been installed within the last few years – after the mooring was abandoned. Google Streetview shows new signs in 2016, after having been taken away in 2015.

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This mooring was formerly the home of floating nightclub Tuxedo Princess, which left in 2008. There’s been no economically significant activity there since. Here’s a Streetview photo from July of that year.

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Once we’d done looking about the mooring, we reversed course and went up the Sage ramp, thinking we’d go through on our way to the Baltic. Except that we weren’t going to get there, either. The west entrance is barred, and visitors are directed all the way round the back to the east side, where there’s a security checkpoint. So the notion of passing through from west to east just wasn’t going to happen.

The Sage redirection notices are in polypockets, duct-taped to various surfaces; the checkpoint itself is very insubstantial, two pop-up gazeboes tables and sandbag to stop them blowing away. They look temporary, and hastily installed, not properly thought throgh and provisioned.

What’s more interesting, though, is the way we are once again directed to the less salubrious side of things, in this instance, around the back of the Sage, with makeshift interventions. This serial redirection is beginning to have form, as though it’s part of some wider scheme. It’s a bit sloppy, intimating that there aren’t the resources to do it properly, or that whoever’s doing it just ain’t bothered about whether it’s suitable.

With these kinds of thoughts in mind I’m starting to speculate about the pressures that direct us toward or away from particular places; the same way we’re dissuaded from crossing the Askew Road, or not directed toward the Baltic in a helpful manner.

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It’s not as though someone is consciously making it difficult to get to the Sage. It’s more like a series of unconnected decisions that send us round the houses and ultimately make it a pointless journey, a wild goose chase.

My take on this is that when incidental details make getting there more difficult; when circumstances conspire against us, we might as well conclude we aren’t wanted. Why bother going when it’s going to be a hassle, and a bit naff?

With that in mind, I wonder who is wanted, along with how and where they are being directed.

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The question is pretty similar to ‘who is being catered for here, and how’? That question is pretty easy to answer: people arriving by car, because the directional signage is adequate and the parking is close by at the east end of the building. But it’s not cars vs. pedestrians here. It’s not as though arriving by car is always a breeze, and that the point of arrival is in tip-top shape. It’s a larger question about the quality of public spaces, how they are maintained, and how we are directed towards or away from thgem.

Signage and access could be easy for everyone, regardless of how they arrive. The answer to ‘who is being catered for’ should be ‘everyone’.

The fact that it’s not the answer says that pedestrians may be harder to cater for, given their tendency to wander all over the place, unlike cars and their channelled routing. It also says that services for pedestrians are somewhat lower priority than for vehicles. When the Tuxedo Princess mooring was abandoned, pedestrian signage was not modified to suit, even though it’s a simple task of pointing the sign a different way.

There’s more to this, but it’s time for a break. So the next post may pick up on the same topic using a different set of examples.

Post 1121 by dglp

Published on August 7, 2017 ~ 04:25 PM

Posted in theory | No Comments »