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Key considerations when placing railings and guardrails

Railings have been a common site on our streets since the 17th century, becoming more commonplace through the 18th and 19th centuries. As an important part of historic architecture and townscapes, their growing popularity made them an intrinsic element of Georgian and Victorian streets/design.

Railings can be portrayed as an unwelcome element of modern urban streets. It’s certainly true that some are being removed, in the drive to de-clutter our streets, with a number of councils discouraging the installation of railings, and actively promoting their removal in some cases.


This is not the first time that railings have been taken from our streets. During WW2, numerous sets of railings were removed, particularly from the streets and parks of London. This was supposedly to help the war effort, with the metal to be recycled and used for armament manufacture, and even the building of the world famous spitfire. However, rumours abound that the railings were unceremoniously dumped in the river Thames, just off the Isle of dogs.
It’s important to distinguish between the different types of railings at this point. Generally, railings and boundary rails refer to the railings that enclose buildings and parks, providing the elements that often add to the character of an area. Guardrails are the railings that are normally found between roads and pavements or adjacent to steps.
Purpose and suitability

steel railings

Guardrails are designed to control the flow, and improve the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, and also to visually assist in keeping vehicles off footways, discourage parking, and generally separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic. They serve the purpose of protecting pedestrians from the dangers of traffic and act as a safety barrier against abrupt changes in elevation. These guardrails stop pedestrians from walking into the road in areas of high traffic or risk, especially where visibility is restricted.
Railings and guardrails can also be considered as obstacles in some instances. Neither are likely to stop a vehicle that crashes into them (contrary to popular belief) but they will stop pedestrians from being forced into the road by crowds, and prohibit them from entering the carriageway when it’s unsafe or if there’s a steep drop.
Placement considerations
The key to success for railings and guardrails is a detailed assessment of their placement, where the risks must be carefully weighed up against their protective qualities. To offer maximum protection, guardrails should be placed in areas where the divide between pedestrians and traffic is small, for example on corners where vehicles pass in close proximity to pedestrian areas, and also in locations where there’s a high collision risk if pedestrians do enter the carriageway.
The most dangerous part of a road for pedestrians is within 50m of light controlled crossings, where accidents are most common.

railings guardrail

Serving a crucial public safety role, there are a few common places where guardrails serve a very important purpose. Suitable sites include the areas around pedestrian crossings, outside schools, next to raised walkways, and in high traffic locations where pedestrians need protection. These rails should be used to stop pedestrians from crossing in unsafe locations, and to direct them to safe crossing places.

One of the most vital considerations when evaluating sites and selecting suitable guardrails is the potential impact on lines of sight, which must not be obstructed. Particular attention must be paid to the visibility of children and the disabled due to their lower height profile, where the aesthetics of any chosen solution can compromise safety of the most vulnerable by affecting the viewpoint of road users.

The general perception of the public is that guardrails make streets safer, however that is not always the case, and this theory is unproven if they are installed without suitable evaluation. While clearly improving safety in a large number of locations, they do not provide safety benefits in all cases. The key is to ensure that potential sites are assessed in detail.

In some instances, where guardrails are not required to influence pedestrian traffic flow but safety is still a concern, bollards can provide a more suitable alternative.

In summary, guardrails should only be installed where they provide a clear safety benefit. Evidence exists that guardrails that are introduced in key crossing locations have delivered an average 40% reduction in accidents. But appropriate placement is key, as they can increase the risk of pedestrian accidents when installed in poorly chosen locations.


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