In the last decade, ‘Shared Space’ has become an increasingly popular means of revitalising streets, with high profile schemes such as Exhibition Road in Kensington and New Road in Brighton implemented in the UK. Generally the feedback on this approach to traffic management and street design appeared to be positive.  A report by Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, former Paralympic swimmer  has, however, discovered worrying evidence that these schemes marginalise less able users and are avoided by many members of the general public (see: Accidents by Design: The Holmes Report on “shared space” in the United Kingdom’, 2015). Does shared space still have a place in urban design? Or should we move back towards the pedestrian/vehicle segregation of the 1960s?

The Department for Transport defines shared space as “a street or place designed to improve pedestrian movement and comfort by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and enabling all users to share the space rather than follow the clearly defined rules implied by more conventional designs“.

The basic premise is that when vehicle users have to share space with pedestrians, they will naturally drive more slowly and cautiously, so reducing accidents.  This allows pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle users to have equal ownership of the street and to benefit from an improved experience.   In contrast to conventional traffic control systems where pedestrian safety is enforced by designated crossings, shared space is based on a courtesy system,.  Shared space designs aim to minimise street clutter such as traffic lights, signage, kerbs, road markings and railings to allow vehicle users to more easily read the road.  Often features such as seating and planting are used to subtly indicate the best vehicular route.

There are numerous positive examples of shared space around the world, such as Fort Street in Auckland, and shared space schemes have experienced some proven success in the UK.  The New Road scheme in Brighton resulted in a 93% reduction in traffic volumes, a 22% increase in cycling and 80% of New Road businesses feel the scheme has had a beneficial impact not just on their financial turnover, but also on their prestige and general feelings of wellbeing. The street now has a relaxed, yet engaging atmosphere and has won numerous awards including a Landscape Institute Award and a National Transport Award for Urban Design.

Browse images of Brighton New Street on Google

A flawed approach in the UK?

Despite this positive example, The Holmes Report shows that there are some fundamental issues with the way shared space is implemented in the UK. The survey found that pedestrians reported feeling scared and unsafe, with 35% saying they would go out of their way to avoid shared spaces. The issue of crossing roads was found to be particularly problematic, particularly for those with impaired sight. One respondent commented:

“Because most vehicle drivers do not recognise shared space as a crossing for pedestrians, I found when a driver did stop for me to cross a lot of times the driver coming in the opposite direction did not stop and this meant standing in the middle of the road with nowhere to go, and sometimes being shouted at for being in the road. I therefore found it very dangerous and not a nice experience!”

Feedback was equally negative from cyclists and vehicle users, with one driver commenting that shared space was ‘An absolute nightmare that I avoid if I can’ and a cyclist responding with the comment ‘Shared space is a false promise with poor delivery’. One revealing point is that many shared space schemes, such as in Hackbridge, are undergoing U-turns with the reinstatement of regulated crossings. Many local authorities have faced legal challenge, particularly from disability groups and disabled members of the public. Guide Dogs for the Blind took legal action against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a result of the implementation of shared space on Exhibition Street, the longest shared space street in the UK. Among other things, the design has removed all kerbs, creating a single surface street which Guide Dogs for the Blind claim is difficult for guide dogs to navigate.

Clearly, shared space in the UK. is failing to deliver on its promises, so what is the solution? The Holmes Report called for plans for future shared space schemes to be scrapped immediately, until further research can be undertaken. Why has shared space been so successful in other parts of the world and not here?

Bespoke and thoughtful design, fitted to the characteristic of each street

Part of the issue is that the basic premise of shared space has been lost in translation crossing from the Netherlands, where it was originally developed by Hans Monderman, a traffic Engineer.  In the Netherlands, shared space is applied to roads where traffic is deliberately phased out, similar to what we would call ‘home zones’ in the UK. Home zones are residential streets which originally had low volumes of traffic, where shared space further reduces the dominance and speed of traffic. Shared space is not applied to roads with high traffic volumes, as it has been in the UK. Instead, on major roads in the Netherlands, space for pedestrians, cyclists and cars is clearly delineated and separated.

A study carried out by Transport for London found that pedestrians were willing to share space with traffic when traffic flows were below 90 vehicles per hour. When flows exceeded 110 vehicles per hour, pedestrians stuck to the frontages of buildings, using the street as though it still had pavements. Essentially, whether shared space works or not comes down to critical mass. With enough pedestrians, vehicles will be forced to move slowly, but with enough vehicles, pedestrians will be excluded from the shared space. Unfortunately the car inevitably exerts greater power due to the realative  size and capacity to injure.

The premise behind shared space is solid. A movement away from car dominance in our urban areas is a progressive and positive step. Many of the techniques which have been used to create shared space in the UK., such as using planting to delineate uses, simplifying the streetscape, reducing traffic speeds and using paving to indicate mixed use, can produce really positive results.  It is, however, essential that when using these approaches, designers respond to the characteristics of individual streets.  Forcing shared space on roads with heavy traffic will result in the opposite of the desired effect, increasing the dominance of cars and alienating less able members of the public. Let us move toward less congested, people friendly cities, but not at the expense of less able members of society.