Where and when is shared space safe?

Presentation for PRIAN Public Realm Course, Bedford, 28 April 2008.

Traditional highway engineering assumes that safety requires the spatial segregation of pedestrians, cyclists and motorized vehicles or, where this is not possible, rigorously enforced rules, signs and signals dictating temporal segregation. Road users, according to the established paradigm, are irresponsible, stupid, selfish automatons whose safety can only be assured by physical barriers to conflict, supplemented by legal sanctions for disobeying the rules.      

“Shared space” stands many of the traditional assumptions on their heads. It assumes a very different road user – one who is responsible, alert and responsive to evidence of safety or danger.  It proposes tearing down physical barriers such as pedestrian guard rails and segregation infrastructure as pedestrian bridges, and filling in pedestrian tunnels. It also proposes removing stop signs and traffic lights and other signage and road markings demanding compliance at the cost of criminal or financial sanctions. It deliberately creates uncertainty as to who has the right of way on the assumption that road users will work it out for themselves in a civilized fashion.

The idea is attracting growing numbers of adherents – if one types “shared space” into Google one is rewarded with 100s of 1000s of hits. It has its own website   http://www.shared-space.org/ – and a useful Wikipedia entry – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_space. Two English websites that have been prominent in the promotion of the idea are:  http://www.hamilton-baillie.co.uk/ and http://www.publicrealm.info/

  In the streets where it has been implemented it has, thus far, improved appearance, enhanced conviviality and not increased accidents – and frequently reduced them. 

But clearly it is not appropriate everywhere. A counter example frequently cited by sceptics and opponents are the high road traffic accident rates in third world countries who enjoy “natural” shared space – i.e. countries which have yet to get round to installing conventional segregation and signage.

The next four slides present examples of places and circumstances in which the idea works well. 

For the PowerPoint Notes version of full presentation click here

I have yet to master hyperlinks. Those wishing to view the video clip of shared space on the Archway Road (slide 6) please copy and paste this link –  http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=shared+space+archway&search_type=

And those wishing to view the clip of shared space somewhere in India (slide eight) please copy and paste this link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjrEQaG5jPM



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  1. Bishop Hill says:

    When I was a student in St Andrews I found that you could generally walk straight across North Street. Everyone did it. Traffic was slow and cautious as a result. Then they put in a pedestrian crossing half way along. Now the traffic whizzes down the road, the drivers presumably working on the assumption that pedestrians can walk to the crossing.

    It’s made the road more dangerous and less convenient. Government in action.

  2. Martin Parkinson says:

    This post is a very useful clarification.

    I find your work interesting and challenging – and it has changed my view of my own behaviour – but here’s a couple of points which I’ve wanted to put to you for a while, and this seems as good a time as any. (Apologies for length)

    It seems to me that any attempt to reverse the counterproductive aspects of ‘health and safety culture’ is doomed to failure. The intellectual case (infinitely complicated chains of causality mean that unpredictable accidents will always happen, risk compensation behaviour is an inevitable consequence of the way our minds work and so on) is convincing (if understood correctly,which I notice not everyone does), but only in the abstract. In the real world, the push towards trying to eliminate any danger is quite irresistable. It’s all very well to say “ok we’ll accept a *certain amount* of apparent danger” but at what point do your safety interventions become worthless? How do you know when to stop?

    Any normal person is going to say “well that tragic accident which just occurred could have been easily avoided – it would be unthinkable not to make the obvious small change which would avoid a repetition”. The accident might have been freakish and unforeseen, but if there is a seemingly easy and cheap “fix”, then no responsibly-minded person would fail to make that fix. I certainly would make it – and so would you, I bet. There is no logical point at which you can say your environment has “just the right amount of apparent danger” (especially as the “right” amount differs between people). When do you stop?

    And in fact, when do you start? This is a more subtle point. The world is not entirely composed of professional thinkers such as yourself, and more amateur ones such as myself. There are folks who like to run businesses and make a profit and some good safety interventions cost money. Now you really can’t be suggesting that, for example, the construction industry be entirely unregulated? Or perhaps you do think this. There are people who would make extreme arguments of this sort – and you did admit in a previous post that the Competitive Enterprise Institute likes your work enough to send you an xmas card …

    You certainly don’t have “blood on your hands” but perhaps your work does give comfort to the already-powerful? This point (rather more forcefully) was made to me when I mentioned shared space and psychological traffic calming in a cycling email list and it did give me considerable pause, so I’d be interested to hear what you might say.

  3. David Hembrow says:

    Now that I can read Dutch I have found that there isn’t quite the same overwhelming positivity about Shared Space in Dutch language literature as there is in English language literature.

    The Dutch cycle campaigning organisation, Fietserbond, is one of the more vocal critics of Shared Space. They say it leads to cyclists being bullied by motorists, a return of “might is right” to the roads, and a reluctance of people to cycle as a result. I can see why, as cycling through busy shared space areas can feel quite similar to cycling on the roads in the UK, while cycling elsewhere in the Netherlands tends to be quite free of such concerns.

    We’ve a few areas of shared space near here. How comfortable it is varies a lot between different places. The busier parts are not necessarily very pleasant places to be. People avoid them when cycling. That includes Haren, which is on my cycle route to Groningen and which I pass through often.

    The youtube video about Haren that your slides refer to has a comment from a Dutch youtube user, dgoedkoop, who says (roughly translated) that “the new arrangement suits the shop-keepers but not the road users. Cyclists are definitely not happy that the cycle paths have gone.”

    I can see why he would say this. Where the cycle path ends at the southern end of the Shared Space section of Haren I am ejected into a stream of traffic and have to slow down and steer around parked vehicles, find myself playing “chicken” with oncoming traffic which is overtaking parked vehicles on the other side etc. Going through there is a temporary reminder of what it’s like when cars dominate, and it’s always a relief to get back onto the cycle path at the far end.

    I now understand why Fietsersbond are concerned about Shared Space reducing cycling, and also why they describe these schemes as “an architect’s dream” rather than good road design.

    Villages with little traffic, on the other hand, do tend to look very good with these changes, and the lack of traffic means that they seem to work well enough. Mind you, villages tended to be a bit like that anyway.

    Shared Space was an interesting idea, but it largely seems to be a fad which has passed. Certainly newer developments built since we moved to the Netherlands would seem to have returned to a less “shared” arrangement.

  4. Ger Craddock says:

    I am writing from Ireland and this concept is just being introduced. I feel like David says above that there are possibly specific spaces that this can work. I am thinking of large plazas where traffic is restricted. I was at the Braderburg Gate in Berlin recently and it operated well but the space was restricted for cars.
    I see serious issues for people with disabilities, such as people with visual impairments who can’t make eye contact with the driver of a vehicle. Also guide dogs are trained to walk in the middle of the footpath, so with no markings would have great difficulties in this shared space. Also as our western world is ageing I see a major reduction in older people out in their communities in such environments. Comments

  5. John Norman says:

    No one who has actually attempted to make eye contact with a driver would consider using such a fatuous method to ensure their safety.

    Not only is the drivers face often obscured by windscreen reflections &/or tinted glass, but once drivers are confident of having been seen they often assume right-of-way.

    There are endless possibilities for confusion with several walkers needing to make eye contact with different drivers.

    I can understand how shared space could reduce road casualties beacause it will frighten many pedestrians off the streets. We won’t feel safe simply leaving a shop doorway any more.

  6. Adrian Ward says:

    Can any body tell me how the Shared Space concept takes account of blind and partially sighted pedestrians please?

  7. gmc says:

    in responce to adrian post

    it does’nt …..

    it is percieved that visual impaired persons are a minority and that a level access is benificial to the majority so it’s acceptable!!!!

    the guide dogs have rightly started a major campaign stay No to shared space which i urge people to sign up

    i do believe we need to reverse the effect of cars been top of the hierarchy but not at the expense of others….

    shared space may look nice…..but not when it’s someone’s hell

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  9. Sheila Hawken says:

    Both the Guide Gods for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind have research on their websites outlining the dangers of shared spaces for people with visual impairments. I chair a disabili8ty group and people with a wide range of disabilities fell very unsafe in such spaces. They, include people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, autism, and mobility problems. All want much more robust enforcement so that spaces on pavements are notr shared with cyclists ever. The removal of kerbs causes problems for those who use guide dogs and long cane techniques to find their way around, as the guide dogs could pull people into the more dangerous space, where it is busier and a friend was told not to use the building line with her cane to find her way around, as she would be more likely to collide with people emerging from buildings, pushchairs and wheelchairs too. Autisitc people, some with mental health problems and others with communication difficulties, would not use eye contact to negotiate over crossing streets. It is difficult to train young children, those with learning disabilities and some with autism not to dash out if they are disatracted by something or attracted by something.

    Light controlled crossings, with various safety features evolved to aid those with disabilities and to give mobility impaired people time to cross the road without being bullied are needed. Kerbs do give some protection from vehicles encroaching upon where pedestrians feel safe. If kerbs are removed and replaced by tactile paving, it is more hit-and -miss to find this paveing and what hapeens if it is covered by snow, for example?
    Those with severe mobility impairments may need to be able to use their vehicles and park in the street or be excluded altogether. Such shared spaces tend to be discriminatory as they result in disabled people feeling that they are unable to use those spaces any more. Why should they be excluded from parts of their own towns and cities? Access by wheelchair or scooters is more problematic in historic places where many buildings are inaccessible and one cannot leave a wheelchair out on the pavement, which is why parking needs to be available, on yellow lines or in plenty of parking spaces throughout the area, otherwise those with very limited mobility are prevented from working and enjoying access in those places.
    Statistics are sometimes quoted saying that the spaces appear to be safer after they are implemented but what has not been factored in is the large number of frail or disabled people who no longer use the area any more.
    All local authorities have a duty under thr Equality Act to promte inclusion. Most employees appear to have no training in disability issues or to realise that disabled people should be treated more favourably if that is what is necessary to ensure that they have equal access with able-bodied people. All design should start with the needs of disabled people to make it inclusive, too. “Consulting” after the design is finished results in poor compromises and what makes design good for disabled people makes it safer for all too.

  10. Brian says:

    It’s so sad that there’s such a thing as risk compensation. Do they have to remove the curbs? Won’t it work if they just remove the signs, pavement markings, and signals? It’s cheaper too. In residential streets, there are rarely yellow lines. If cars pass head on, they could just slow down. Trees, parked cars, telephone poles, and other furnitures can help slow down traffic.

    I agree that removing curbs may not work all the time. The cars could speed up near cross walks when pedestrians are waiting for a safe gap. “Safe” cars such as pick up trucks may act like they own the roads.

  11. Graham Smith says:

    Dear John,

    Your link to the Archway Road video doesn’t work when I copy and paste. I’ve so-far not been able to find it by searching … could you rediscover the link please?


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