Treating the symptoms, not the cause – the uses and abuses of ‘shared space’

Note – The upcoming Street Talks on Shared Space, and a recent Radio 4 programme, have generated a number of critical pieces of the concept. This post is my contribution, which I hope can be read alongside the articles written recently by Joe Dunckley, Londonneur and David Arditti (as well as older, lengthy pieces from David Hembrow, David Arditti and myself) especially as it covers slightly different ground, being perhaps more ‘historical’ . Warning – it is long.

A better street should be one that is a place, a destination in and of itself, rather than simply a through route, a way of getting somewhere else – although streets do have this function as well.

This is what ‘shared space’ – a design philosophy that is rather nebulous, but which I can think be summarised as the removal of demarcation, signage and regulation on our streets – aims to achieve; to shift the emphasis of our streets from being simply somewhere you drive, walk or cycle through – a road – into an environment you would be happy to stop and mingle – a street, in the proper sense. The ‘civic’, versus the ‘traffic’ function of a street.

In this post, I’m going to look at some streets where I think shared space has worked, and also at some streets where I believe it hasn’t, while giving my take on how and why.

But I’d like to start with some pretty pictures of a town in Sweden.

This is Marstrand, just north of Gothenburg. As you can see, the street environment here doesn’t have any real ordering, or signage. It’s informal. People are quite happy to walk in the centre of the street, shops are putting their wares out in it, and so on.

In another street we see dogs, people on bikes and on foot, all milling about, quite happily.

There are rather ancient pavements – but as you can see, they’re not really necessary. This is a genuine ‘shared space.’

But the streets here haven’t consciously been reorganized to encourage sharing, in ways that we are increasingly seeing in London, and other towns across the United Kingdom. They’ve been like this, unaltered, for centuries. They have always been shared by the various people using them; there’s no need for pedestrians to stick to the pavements, even though they exist.

There’s a fairly simple reason for this – Marstrand is an island on which motor cars are prohibited. The only motor vehicles you will see here are little motorised scooters – one of which you can see in the square, in the last picture – used to ferry heavier items around the island.

Why have I started with this example? Well, I’m not trying to suggest that the way to achieve better streets is simply to ban motor vehicles. I am making the point that in the absence of motor vehicles, there isn’t really any need for the excess of signage, rules and regulations that shared space advocates tend to dislike.

These things have arisen in response to the rise of the motor vehicle. Places like Marstrand, and indeed the cramped centres of medieval cities across Europe, where it is very difficult to accommodate motor vehicles, and to use them – show us that streets that have never had to adapt to motor traffic remain civilized. They are shared innately.

I think this is a point that some shared space advocates miss. They show us pictures of streets from the past, like this

and say

[Streets] have to serve a variety of functions, principally those of movement on the one hand – transport, traffic – and on the other hand, of exchange – interaction, trade, people conversing with one another. And I like old images, like this one of Brighton in about 1830, because they so well illustrate the way those two functions have historically interacted.

In other words, look how wonderful the street environment is, with people happy to mill about. This isn’t a road, it’s a place! And there aren’t any traffic lights, or pedestrian crossings, or speed limit signs, or any other examples of bossiness. People are quite capable of interacting with each other.

‘Something has been lost’, is what is being implied when images like this are shown. And I agree – these kinds of streets are far better than most of those we see on a day to day basis in our towns and cities. We can see this deterioration in this series of photographs of the Carfax, the old centre of my town, Horsham.

In the first picture, from the 1890s, children are standing right in the middle of a space in which any vehicle could drive through.

By the 1930s, we see quite a number of motor vehicles, and the introduction of a ‘no entry’ sign. No pedestrians in what is now, clearly, a road.

And by 1980, we have even more ‘formalism’ – double yellow lines, give way markings, and parking bays.

Exactly the same pattern can be observed in London. At Piccadilly Circus, in the nineteenth century, people were quite willing to walk in the street, sharing the space with the ‘vehicles’ in it.

But, through time, the pedestrians disappear from the road –

until by the mid-1960s, they are actually fenced off from it.

But I think some shared advocates misdiagnose what has caused this loss, this erosion of the quality of the urban environment. Consider this quote from one of the most prominent advocates, Ben Hamilton-Baillie –

As we add more and more clutter – lights, controls, demarcation – the quality of public space is clearly declining.

Another quote

It is not difficult to identify what it is about UK streetscapes that make them so unattractive as places to attract informal public activity and human presence. Take a snapshot of the ‘centre’ or focal point of almost any neighbourhood, town or village, and it is likely to be dominated by the standardised features associated with conventional traffic engineering. White lines, yellow lines, zig-zags and garish cross-hatching will
characterise the asphalt of the horizontal plane; traffic signals, road signs and steel pedestrian guard rails will fill the vertical plane

What has made our streets so unattractive? Why, it’s the features associated with traffic engineering, as standardly applied.

What is causing the real ‘impact’ on the urban environment is, apparently, the engineering measures – not the dozens of motor vehicles clogging up the space.

The problem I have here is that a symptom – the clutter, the rules and the control – is being treated as if it is the problem itself, the root cause of the decay of our urban environment.

Now while I accept that excess clutter and demarcation can be an issue, per se, Hamilton- Baillie is missing the point. There is a correlation between street clutter, rules and control, and the decline of the quality of our urban environment – this much is true. But fundamentally, it is the emergence of the motor car, and its gradual dominance of our street environment, that is responsible both for the declining quality, and the increase in rules and regulations. It has also eroded the natural sharing of spaces that we see in historical pictures, or today in places where the motor car does not exist, or is only present in low volume.

So we have to be very careful not to assume that simply stripping away the clutter, rules and signage of our present-day streets – returning them, essentially, to a nineteenth-century street – will result in a civilized environment, because that clutter did not arise spontaneously. It emerged, as I have said, in response to the motor vehicle, and it is quite clear, to me at least, that if you don’t take action to tame the motor vehicle – not to get rid of it, but to tame it – then you won’t see a civilized street, the kind in which vulnerable users are genuinely happy to mingle, which is surely a prerequisite of a street being shared. Bear this in mind as I now move to consider those streets where I think shared space does work.

This is East Street, again in Horsham – a recent ‘shared space’ project, completed last winter.

As you can see, pedestrians are quite happy to mill about across the entire width of this street. (Weirdly, and tangentially, it has near-identical diagonal markings to those seen on Exhibition Road, which there are designed to subliminally indicate pedestrian crossing paths – not really necessary on a street of this restricted width.)

Prior to conversion, this was a one-way street with a contraflow cycle track, and very narrow pavements.

Not the greatest environment, either for pedestrians or cyclists. Now it is officially a ‘pedestrian zone’ through which bicycles can travel in both directions, and motor vehicles only in one direction.

I think it’s safe to say this a successfully re-worked street. From what I understand, pedestrian movements are up significantly, and the street is now something of a restaurant hub, when previously it was rather dominated by dowdy charity shops. In the summer the street is occasionally closed to vehicles entirely, and we get this – a proper ‘continental’ streetscape.

But we have to be careful, again, in diagnosing the reasons for the success. Certainly a part of it is due to the new surface., and also to the shrubbery and street furniture that encourages cautious driving.

Crucially, however, this is firmly an environment in which very few motor vehicles are permitted – only drivers with disabled blue badges, for whom there are a couple of parking spaces on the street, and vehicles which are delivering or loading.

Nobody else should – should – be driving a motor vehicle on this street. Even if you are pig-headed enough to drive down here illegally, it is not a sensible through-route to anywhere in particular – the only people doing so, in my experience, seem to be ‘cashpoint cripples’ who are making a lengthy detour in their cars into the centre of the town so as to access the banks in the Carfax, or to pick up people from the centre of the town. Illegally. The local council has been reasonably assiduous in patrolling this street to make sure the rules are being adhered to, and I think that’s an important part of the success of this street as an urban environment.

Much the same is true of New Road in Brighton, which is frequently hailed as an exemplar of the shared space technique.

It’s a remarkably civilised street, with pedestrians again happy to mill across the entire street width, sharing that space with bicycles (which, like East Street, can travel in both directions) and the occasional motor vehicle.

But again, like East Street, there are measures to reduce the numbers of these motor vehicles.

While ‘ordinary’ motor vehicles have not been banned outright, as on East Street in Horsham, New Road has been made impractical as a through-route. It’s not a sensible choice to use as a road to anywhere, so the only people driving on it will be those using it as a destination. Combine this with a few parking bays, which only those with disabled blue badges are eligible to use, and to all intents and purposes this has become a ‘traffic’-free environment.

These streets, then, are both environments where the civility has been achieved almost entirely by restrictions placed upon motor traffic – not simply by making them ‘shared’ in the sense of removing clarity and distinctions in the surface. It is the rules about parking and access, the control over who can drive down these streets, and the regulation of surrounding streets to make these ‘shared space’ environments impractical as through routes, that are actually a vital part of their success as civilised environments – despite the attitudes towards those very same rules and regulations exhibited by some shared space advocates.

I can think of no clearer illustration of how disastrous it is to make a space ‘shared’, without enforcing rules and regulations, than Park Place in Horsham.

This small (dead-end) street actually adjoins East Street (the entrance to East Street is to the right, opposite the newsagent) and has some similar ‘shared space’ design cues – a uniform surface, trees, attractive street features, absence of signage, and so on. The only concession to rules are some (barely visible) double yellow lines, which are, as you can see, consistently ignored.

Around the corner of this street we have this attractive pedestrian cut-through.

Note – again – the ignored double yellow lines, and (absurdly) the multi-storey car park, directly behind these obstructive vehicles.

To my mind it is almost certain that East Street would start to look like this if the rules about no waiting on it were not being enforced so rigorously. Human beings are lazy, and given the choice between using a car park a hundred yards away (even a few feet away, as above), or parking right in front of where they want to shop or eat, they will always choose the latter. This is what Park Place tells us – despite its appearance, people will drive and park on it at will, if no-one stops them from doing so.

So I have some trouble with the attitudes towards the absence of rules exhibited by – for instance – Daniel Moylan, former deputy leader of Kensington & Chelsea council, and now deputy chair of Transport for London, when enthusing about the inherent civility, and liberation, of shared space

If you feel it’s okay to park here, you can park here. If you think that’s a decent thing to do, park the car. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, don’t park the car.

Because a lot of our citizens feel it’s perfectly okay to park their car wherever they like, and in the absence of restrictions, will do just that, parking at their convenience, at the expense of everyone else.

Below, we have two casually parked cars, blocking East Street for other motor vehicles. The one on the left has ignored the ‘no waiting, except in marked bays’ rule. Neither car was displaying a blue badge, or ‘loading’.

It’s all very well relying upon the benign instincts of road users, but unfortunately we are not all saints. We need rules need to be enforced, not removed, because without them, you will get chaos. Rules are necessary to protect the quality of our street environments – be they no parking or waiting, or no entry signs, or limited permeability for certain types of motor vehicles.

But shared space advocates, as I have demonstrated, tend to have a bee in their bonnet about rules – even when they serve to create a better street environment.

Now, I can agree that some signage may be superfluous – like the ‘20 mph sign’ at the entrance to East Street – but that does not mean all signage is unnecessary. Take away rules about parking on streets – particularly those ‘destination’ streets in the centres of towns and cities where shared space has the best chance of succeeding – and you will quickly find that your street becomes clogged, which is bad for everyone.

Likewise, take away the rules that contrive to make shared space streets impractical as through-routes, and they will quickly become through-routes, dominated by motor vehicles passing through.


Moving on from how rules – or their absence – affect the way in which streets are shared spatially, we can consider how streets are shared in a kinetic sense; how its users, of whatever mode, interact with each other.

Shared space advocates are, again, fans of a lack of regulation. The analogy Ben Hamilton-Baillie often gives is of an ice rink, or a camp site. Indeed, he gave the ‘ice rink’ example in the recent Radio 4 programme, Thinking Streets, on shared space.

These are environments with no formal rules or regulations, yet with people (and in the latter case, vehicles) moving around and interacting with each other quite happily, and in reasonable safety. Surely we could apply the logic of the campsite, or the ice rink, to our streets? Why can’t we interact freely with each other on our streets the way we do in these other unregulated environments, by getting rid of the rules and regulations that differentiate a street from a campsite?

There is a superficially attractive logic in operation here, but it rapidly falls apart when we start to consider the details. A campsite is, typically, a field with lots of pedestrians in, with perhaps one or two cars actually driving around at any one time. Shared space advocates argue that despite the absence of a regulatory framework, these environments are quite safe. This is obviously true. But they go one step further, and argue that it is the absence of the regulatory framework itself that makes the environment safe. Add more rules about how to drive, they say – treat drivers like idiots – and they will behave like idiots. Putting up lines about where to drive in the campsite might a good example – drivers would probably drive faster, and perhaps with less caution, within those lines, for instance.

So far as it goes, this is plausible. But let’s imagine a parallel example – exactly the same field, but this time, instead of it being full of people on foot, milling about unpredictably, this field is now full of cars being driven about, in just as unpredictable a way. And instead of just the one or two cars you might find being driven in a typical campsite, we now just have one or two pedestrians, inching their way through this field full of unpredictable cars.

Is this field just as safe for pedestrians as a ‘typical’ campsite? If safety was only about the absence of regulation, then it must be – but I don’t think that is true. You wouldn’t feel as comfortable letting your child run around in a field full of cars driving around unpredictably as you would be for them to do so in a field that was like a genuine campsite; likewise an ordinary ice rink is very different from, say, an ice hockey game. There are seven foot Kazahks wearing body armour, whizzing about. Even if they’re being careful, that, again, is a very different environment to introduce your child into.

My point is that power relations are an important component of safety; even if we assume that all those drivers moving their vehicles around the field are experts, or the giant ice hockey players will be more than capable of avoiding your offspring, there is an unequal distribution of risk, that will quite obviously affect how the more vulnerable parties will behave in that environment.

This doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by shared space designers – I haven’t encountered it, certainly, beyond an acceptance that vulnerable users are unnerved, initially, by the idea of interacting directly with large, fast-moving lumps of metal. I think this is something that is fundamentally missing from the shared space template – a failure to understand that some road users are more equal than others, which will in turn influence the extent of negotiation and sharing that will take place.

What we have are appeals to the better nature of motorists – that they will behave sensibly if they know they are mixing in an environment with pedestrians.

The first thing [principle of shared space] is to do with respect for other people, and acknowledging their rights and their autonomy, their responsibility to make sensible decisions for themselves and in relation to others.

(Daniel Moylan again, 2 minutes 35 seconds into the video below)

I think this is – generally – a reasonable principle – the majority of people will make sensible decisions for themselves and in relation to others.

But not everyone is sensible, and, more importantly, people are not infallible. They will make mistakes. And behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, those mistakes can be quite serious, even at low speeds. As someone who has been hit recently by a motor car, at quite a low speed, below 20 mph, I can tell you – as if you needed telling – it’s not a pleasant experience to be catapulted through the air, to land quite hard on the road.

Here’s an example from the shared space at Sloane Square. A young man starts to cross, without checking to see that a white van is approaching.

You can see in this picture that he has heard the van, and has suddenly thought better of crossing. Simultaneously, his partner reaches out to grab his arm.

He has a laugh about how silly he was, and they step back as the van roars through.

Now, it may have been the case that the van would have stopped had they been in the road. Perhaps 999 times out of a 1000, or 9,999 times out of 10,000, vehicles will yield here, although at Sloane Square I think these odds are rather generous. (I have my own experience of vehicles failing to share, or yield, on Exhibition Road). But this couple – like most people – did not think the chance of an injury, however small, was worth it. You can see the interaction at the start of the video below – the full video gives some idea of how willing pedestrians are to negotiate with motor vehicles in this space.

What this tells us is that for a space to be genuinely shared, pedestrians need to assume that all the drivers of the vehicles around them are sensible and infallible, and will be so at all times. If they can’t assume that, then pragmatically they will tend to yield in scenarios like the one above, and cross a shared space in precisely the same way they would cross a street that isn’t formally shared. Take away the paving here, restore it to a tarmac ‘road’ (but keep the speed bump) and I can guarantee that people will cross here – and interact with vehicles – in precisely the same way.

We have an example of how this automatic deferral has happened, historically, on our extant streets. Pedestrians have priority across side roads over vehicles turning into those side roads, if they have started to cross. Motor vehicles wishing to turn in should yield to them. But this right of priority has, to all intents and purposes, been surrendered. Observe a typical junction in a typical town, and you will see pedestrians waiting until motor vehicles have passed before they attempt to cross. Although motorists should yield, over time it has proven just too risky for pedestrians to expect them to, and that priority is now widely disregarded, to such an extent that I expect most people are not even aware of it. This is, of course, a consequence of the design of our street environment, and what is suggests to motorists, but it’s surely also a consequence of the unequal risk to the parties involved.

Another aspect of the interactions between vulnerable road users and motor vehicles that doesn’t seem to be considered in ‘shared’ designs – and one that I touched on in my campsite example – is the ratio of numbers between these two groups. If you have lots of pedestrians milling about in a street, then people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will be more inclined to ‘share’ than they would where there are only one or two pedestrians. The respective numbers are important.

You can see this for yourself on Exhibition Road – at the southern end, where most of the museums are, and where there is a much higher density of pedestrians, drivers seemed more willing to yield. At the northern end, however –

where cars are far more likely to be equal in number to, or even outnumber, pedestrians, I struggled to find any drivers prepared to yield to me as I crossed. Presumably it just seemed like more of a road to them, regardless of the appearance of the surface.

Precisely the same is true of Byng Place – we have a thoroughfare, rather busy with motor vehicles, and very few pedestrians who want, or indeed are willing, to mingle in the shared space. As a woman is nearly run down at about the 30 second mark in the video below, you can hardly blame them.

So it remains unshared, as I discussed in this post here. It was hopelessly unrealistic to expect otherwise, given the volume and speed of motor traffic passing along this street, and the low numbers of pedestrians present on the street as a whole, especially those choosing to cross at this particular point.

This is not rocket science – Kensington and Chelsea’s own Environmental Impact Assessment of Exhibition Road tells us that

if vehicle flows are greater than 100 per hour, pedestrians will not use the vehicle zone as a shared space

In a similar vein, from Transport for London’s own commissioned report on shared space  –

A study undertaken by TRL in 2003 for TfL’s Bus Priority Team indicated the limits to which pedestrians in London may be prepared to share a surface with traffic. This study found that below flows of 90 vehicles per hour pedestrians were prepared to mingle with traffic. When flows reached 110 vehicles per hour pedestrians used the width between frontages as if it were a traditional road, that is the majority of pedestrians remained on the equivalent of the footway and left the carriageway clear for vehicles.

A near-identical finding.

So we quite clearly need to consider the numbers of vehicles, the ratio of those numbers to the numbers of people on foot and bicycle, and also the unequal vulnerability of these users, for these spaces to be shared in any genuine sense; the sense of vulnerable parties being happy to mingle in any part of the shared space. This is plainly not true in the northern part of Exhibition Road, or of Byng Place, or of Sloane Square.

Yet it is true of New Road, and East Street. Why? In my view, precisely because of the different ratio and numbers of vulnerable users. Measures have been taken to control and restrict the numbers of motor vehicles on these streets; this has meant that the numbers of pedestrians and vulnerable users significantly outweighs the small number of motor vehicles which use these spaces. This is not the case with the three London examples I have given, which have heavy motor traffic flows by comparison.

The fundamental point, which I have to make again, this time in relation to the kinetic nature of these streets, is that a simple absence of rules and regulations is not sufficient to guarantee sharing. Without measures to reduce the number of motor vehicles using that ‘shared space’, or to ensure that the numbers of pedestrians in it is sufficiently high, they will be utterly indistinguishable from ‘ordinary’ roads, as we see at Byng Place.

But Daniel Moylan, the current deputy chair of Transport for London – who besides being Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council until 2011, was that council’s ‘Design Champion’, responsible for Kensington High Street, Sloane Square, and Exhibition Road – thinks that shared space, while obviously not appropriate on motorways or similar roads, is universally applicable across our urban spaces, even those places where the numbers of vehicles will be much greater, and the numbers of vulnerable users much smaller, than on the ‘shared space’ streets in London I have discussed here. You can hear his remarks in this video, at about the 3:30 mark; they are transcribed below.

I’m not saying that the shared space concept is suitable for motorways. There are spaces where there are roads, where the dedicated purpose of the road is to carry large volumes of vehicular traffic at high speed. They’re not intended to accommodate pedestrians, even bicyclists, and so forth. I understand that. But in urban environments, and even in suburban environments, the principle idea – the idea that negotiation with other road users is a safe and responsible and adult way forward, it seems to be of pretty universal application.

I’m not quite sure on what grounds Daniel Moylan thinks shared space is ‘universally applicable’ on nearly every single London road, barring those ‘high speed’ arterials he refers to – presumably, roads with speed limits greater than 30 mph. Doubtless his threshold of an acceptable environment for pedestrians to ‘negotiate’ with cars – both in terms of the outright volume, and the ratio to pedestrians – is evidently far lower than mine, or, as the evidence already cited would suggest, most normal people. The research carried out by Kensington and Chelsea, and Transport for London – as well as the unfolding empirical evidence of current shared schemes – quite obviously suggests that these roads, if converted, are not going be ‘shared’ at all, without measures to reduce motor traffic volume. They will look prettier, and presumably have fewer restrictions and rules, but that’s about it. The behaviour of the users of the street is not going to change in any fundamental way.

So it’s quite hard to escape the conclusion that this is dogma masquerading as policy; a dogma that in Moylan’s case seems to arise from a dislike, rather prevalent among conservatives, of restrictions about how they can behave on the road. We can revisit his quote about shared space being, essentially, about the

responsibility [of users] to make sensible decisions for themselves and in relation to others.

The implication being that it is the rules themselves that generate bad behaviour. Strip them away, give people the responsibility to behave like mature adults – and they will behave like them. Conversely, if we use ‘nanny state’ principles, and treat people like idiots with signs about how they should drive, and where they should park, and they will behave like idiots.

The rhetoric mirrors exactly the libertarian attitude towards state meddling in private life (indeed Moylan goes on to note, in the same interview, that these principles are ‘partly a vision of how you see society.’) It is not suprising, therefore, that shared space has proved – and is proving – so attractive a concept to conservative politicians.

The cultural historian Joe Moran writes in his book On Roads about the emergence, and uptake, of shared space as a concept in Britain, noting that

In Britain’s very different road culture, [the Dutch idea of] shared space took on a life of its own. In particular it became part of a long-running campaign against traffic lights. In 1984, the libertarian Tory transport secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had announced that he wanted to get rid of half of London’s traffic lights. He disliked them for the same reason that he hated one-way streets and wheel-clamping: they interfered with the freedom of movements of motorists. ‘The private motorist… wants the independence and status of his motor car,’ he had told Parliament in 1977. ‘He wants the chance to live a life that gives him a new dimension of freedom – freedom to go where he wants, when he wants, and for as long as he wants.’ The Tories have remained the anti-traffic light party. During the run-up to the 2001 general election, they pledged to introduce a ‘left on red’ rule, a version of the North American ‘right on red’ which allows drivers stuck at traffic lights to turn right if the road is empty.

Moran goes on to write that

the road has long been a fraught social space. Without being aware of this history, the idea of shared space… risks becoming a Trojan horse for a certain sort of personal libertarianism that is really about giving free rein to the motorist.

The only problem, of course, is that the country these principles are being borrowed from – the Netherlands – has a far from libertarian attitude towards road- and street-use across the rest of its network – that is to say, the vast bulk of Dutch streets, which do not have ‘shared space’ designs. Dutch streets are typically quite prescriptive about what you can and can’t do; there is a great deal of clarity.

In addition, those Dutch designers who are in favour of shared space are quite clear that the concept, pace Moylan, is far from universally applicable; indeed, they argue that where it works, it relies upon rather different attitudes to street design in the surrounding environment. This is something highlighted in a recent paper, somewhat critical of the claims made for ‘shared space’, by Steve Melia and Simon Moody

The original intention behind schemes such as the celebrated Laweiplein [in Drachten], Monderman explained, was to reduce accidents and congestion and to increase the flow of traffic. There was no expectation of any effect on modal share, and no one had attempted to measure this. Drachten also has a substantial network of segregated cycle routes. In common with many other Dutch towns, the network was designed to give an advantage to cyclists, by offering them shorter, more direct routes than those available to motor vehicles. The traffic engineers believed this form of segregation to be an essential corollary to the sharing of space on some other streets.

Here is a video I took of the ‘shared space’ in another Dutch town – Haren, near Groningen.

There are a couple of things to note. Firstly, the high numbers of bicycles in this space, as a ratio to car users. Needless to say, this high ratio is not a function of the shared space itself, but instead of the segregation on the roads surrounding this high street, just like in Drachten. This is the road just north of the shared space in Haren –

Secondly, the rather poor driving around the people on bicycles, particularly the desperately close pass at around the ten second mark. Also, not captured on this video – but at around the same time – we witnessed a car honk with impatience at a couple riding two abreast, preventing the motorist from overtaking. (Haren is the only location in which David Hembrow has experienced Dutch road rage.)

Watching this kind of video, it is quite clear to me that the transference of shared space to a UK high street, without measures to reduce traffic volume – or to actually encourage modal shift – will do little if anything to change the environment for vulnerable road users. Indeed, cycling in this ‘shared space’ in Haren felt very similar to cycling on a standard UK street, with close passes and impatience from motorists. The logical conclusion is that if you convert your average UK high street – which does not even have the advantage of the high bicycle modal share seen in Haren – to ‘shared space’, without any attendant measures such as those seen in the Netherlands, then it will have precisely the same forms and volume of ‘traffic’ on it as it did before, and the gains for vulnerable users will consequently be minimal.

But, shared space, as a concept, is continuing to be transferred wholesale to the UK, stripped of any of the accompanying Dutch attitudes towards road design – the principles of sustainable safety, and segregation of vulnerable users, that guarantee larger numbers of those vulnerable users in the shared spaces that do exist in the Netherlands. It is noticeable that while Hamilton-Baillie talks about Drachten at length in this paper, the only references he makes to ‘segregation’ are disparaging ones, to 1960s UK urban planning (about which more below).

It gets worse. As Moody and Melia go on to write –

In transposing Monderman‘s ideas to an audience outside the Netherlands, UK-based advocates of shared space removed the corollary about cycle routes and added to the list of claims made for it, presenting it as: “a key policy” combining aspirations for “efficient traffic circulation, modal shift to walking and cycling, enhancement to the public realm and improved health.”

In other words, advocates of shared space have not just comprehensively ignored the measures that actually serve to generate a high number of vulnerable users on these streets – namely their segregation on other streets (‘segregation’, of whatever form, being rather anathema); they have also wrongly attributed the high numbers of people walking and cycling in Dutch shared space to the nature of the shared space itself.

This is a desperate, double failure – but one that has resulted in the deputy chair of Transport for London proclaiming ‘shared space’ as some universal panacea for nearly every single road in London. We also have our traffic engineers, in a similar vein, seeking to reach ‘Beyond the low hanging fruit’ – that is, aiming to apply ‘shared space’ to ever more highly ‘trafficked’ UK streets, again without consideration of the ancillary Dutch measures, or why Dutch shared space users look like they do. The disease has even spread to some UK cycle campaigners, like Simon Legg of CTC, who apparently thinks converting Euston Road

into a ‘shared space’ would represent some great leap forward in urban amenity. [But see here for clarification]

Now the Exhibition Road scheme, is, despite the criticism I have given it here, better than what was there before. Whether it is the greater uncertainty, that makes drivers that little bit more willing to yield, or the lower speed limits that can accompany these schemes, they do feel slightly better to use as a pedestrian, at least (although I am greatly unconvinced about the benefits of using them on a bicycle – and also whether that uncertainty drivers have is anything more than transitory, as these schemes become more common).

The problem I have is that, like the other shared space schemes that I believe are unsuccessful in their stated aims, Exhibition Road is nowhere near better enough – especially when you consider the costs involved. This reflects, I think, a fundamental blindness to different ways in which our streets could be transformed.

This was apparent in the Thinking Streets Radio 4 programme. Two of the main proponents of shared space – Hamilton-Baillie, and John Adams of UCL – were essentially given free reign to extol the virtues of these designs, at some length, without serious questioning (or any questioning at all). ‘Critics’ were obliquely referred to, but not interviewed – and they were superficially presented as people who wanted to keep the streets as they are, to ‘protect’ pedestrians from cars.

These shared space advocates, intentionally or otherwise, draw a contrast between the 1960s vision of herding pedestrians behind pens, and allowing them only to cross at designated places and times – keeping them entirely separate from ‘traffic’ – and their approach, of giving them the freedom to cross where and when they want, to become part of the traffic. This is how Hamilton-Bailie presents ‘segregation’ – the alternative to his approach of integration, in his Towards Shared Space paper –

As the 1960s, car-dominated version, in which vulnerable users are kept out of the way of cars, for the convenience of the latter. Hamilton-Baillie writes

The need for underpasses, bridges, traffic signals, barriers and controls, implicit in achieving segregation, has reduced accessibility for non-motorised traffic.

Presented like this, the choice is obvious. ‘The critics’ seem stuck in the past, with their fuddy-duddy ideas about concreting away pedestrians into underpasses and overpasses, and fencing them off from the street itself.

But there are two things missing from this analysis.

The first is that segregation, contrary to what Hamilton-Baillie writes, need not necessarily reduce mobility for non-motorised traffic. Although he argues that

In recent years there has been an increasing recognition of the widespread, unforeseen implications of a policy of segregation. It would appear to [have] contributed to the rapid decline in levels of walking and cycling.

the Dutch have shown how segregation can rather increase mobility for bicycles and pedestrians, at the expense of motorised traffic. Quite obviously, segregation is not automatically bad for non-motorised traffic, as Hamilton-Baillie would have us think (segregation done badly, as in the UK, is another matter). Even ignoring the Netherlands, where segregation has been instrumental in increasing levels of cycling, we have a rather obvious example of how segregation has worked for pedestrians in the United Kingdom – the pedestrianised street. It is one of the simplest forms of segregation imaginable, keeping pedestrians separate from cars, yet one which has increased mobility for the former, at the expense of the latter. (Again, it is worth noting in passing that Daniel Moylan seems to dislike pedestrianised streets, urging that they be opened up again to motor vehicles to ‘keep them lively’. Whether this is motivated by the ‘personal libertarianism’ impulses Joe Moran describes, or by a misguided belief in the revivifying power of the motor car, I cannot say).

So we have here a problem of attitude. In the UK, the vulnerable user is usually segregated away for the convenience of the motor vehicle. In the Netherlands, the vulnerable user is segregated away for the convenience of the vulnerable user. This is something Hamilton-Baillie – in his blanket dismissal of ‘segregation’ – has apparently, and strangely for a street designer, not taken into account.

The second is that this apparent choice between segregating and integrating is rather a false one, because it has nothing to say about reducing motor traffic itself, by getting people to switch away from the motor vehicle for some of their urban journeys. It is, after all – as I have been at pains to point out – the rise in the number of motor vehicles that has given rise to the horrible street furniture, and penning in of vulnerable users, that we see today – and has destroyed the sharing that occurred innately in Piccadilly Circus and the Carfax in the 19th century, and occurs today in places without motor vehicles, like Marstrand, or those with low motor vehicle volume, like East Street or New Road.

Worse, as Melia and Moody argue, there is very little, if anything at all, in the unadulterated shared space approach that serves to encourage this mode switching –

Neither the MVA study [a Department of Transport commissioned review of UK shared spaces] or any of the other research reviewed for this project provides evidence to support the assertion of Hamilton-Baillie (2008) that shared space can contribute to modal shift.  In the absence of specific research (which would be difficult to frame in situations where small schemes are implemented incrementally over time) it may be noted that one observed outcome of shared space – increased vehicle flows through junctions – would facilitate movement by car.  The pedestrian anxieties revealed by the case study would also suggest a disincentive to walking.

To which I can add another reason to be pessimistic about modal shift – the fact, if it is as easy to park anywhere, without restriction, as some shared space advocates would like, then I suspect we would again see rather more car journeys made in our towns and cities with more shared space, not less.

To me this is a disaster, and it should be for shared space advocates too, because whether or not they are aware of it – or whether they even care – too many motor vehicles will destroy the conviviality of their designs, especially for the most vulnerable users. But to repeat, shared space, in and of itself, does nothing to discourage motor vehicle use.

If shared space is to be anything more than just a passing fad in the UK (and not, worse, a total disaster), we have to think far more carefully about the kinds of streets we apply it to, and about the restrictions on those streets, and the measures on the surrounding streets, that serve to encourage the modal shift that shared space won’t accomplish, by itself.

Let’s treat the cause, not the symptoms.

UPDATE – This post was edited on 9/1/12 to make clear that the 19th century painting of Brighton seafront was included only because it was the scene used by Ben Hamilton-Baillie, himself, to illustrate how streets in the past had direct interaction between ‘transport’ and ‘exchange’ functions.

This entry was posted in Department for Transport, Horsham, Infrastructure, London, Parking, Road safety, Shared Space, The Netherlands, Town planning, Transport for London. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Treating the symptoms, not the cause – the uses and abuses of ‘shared space’

  1. Richard Mann says:

    Great post; thanks.

    I agree that “shared space” is ineffective at taming traffic in streets with a dominant link function, but the big question is what might work better? The experience in Oxford is that narrow streets with painted cycle lanes are quite effective (and cheap). There may well be other techniques.

    But I think we have to start from: traffic should be tamed. It doesn’t always need to be excluded – that’s a local debate. But in towns, traffic must be tamed. Once we accept that basic premise, everything else will start to fall into place.

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  3. Dan says:

    Great article.

    I think one thing we ignore too much is how infrequently traffic law is enforced in the UK. Given our culture that says that you can break the law when you are in a car except when there is a policeman about, then we need more policemen to enforce the laws that are there to help everyone outside a car. This is very different to the position in Switzerland or Germany or the Netherlands, or even in the USA, where laws like the one giving priority to pedestrians or cyclists at a turning are obeyed even without a policeman watching.

    Shared space will work best when pedestrians and cyclists can rely on all drivers obeying the rules of shared space. That clearly isn’t the case in the UK yet.

  4. Another excellent article. Thanks. The signs aren’t the problem. Anyway, as I think I pointed out to you in Haren, that town does now have signs. It also has pedestrian crossings, one of which had to be moved from one position to another because presumably it didn’t work as well as it ought to have in the first location. These changes were needed in an attempt to civilize the place.

    By preference I still don’t ever cycle through Haren on the way to Groningen. It’s a route I take only with people who come on the study tours. I think it is then valuable because people get to see what a “Shared” Space is like a few years down the line when everyone’s used to it and drivers know they can push through the bikes.

    Dan: People from the UK often think that drivers from the Netherlands/France/Germany/America are better behaved than those in their own country. However, the Dutch seem to think that British/German/American drivers are better behaved than Dutch drivers and that laws are enforced more strictly in those other countries. I suspect there is nothing in this beyond “the grass is greener”.

    Having lived in both the UK and the Netherlands, I think there is not nearly so large a difference between driver behaviours as we might hope. Dutch drivers disobey laws too. However, outside of “shared space”, road designs are different: Sustainable safety is about making it easier for both drivers and cyclists to decide to do the right thing, reducing conflict and points of indecision, as well as reducing the effect of mistakes when they happen. This genuinely does work and in particular results in cyclists suffering far less from bad driving in the Netherlands than they do in the UK.

    “Shared Space” is quite bizarre. It relies on an idea that nirvana is reached when all drivers can be convinced to obey all laws and social conventions. It this flies in the face of all human history to expect everyone to do everything perfectly all the time, especially when some people are more powerful (i.e. they’re in motor vehicles) than others.

  5. Simon Parker says:

    A very well argued piece.

    As I was reading through, I kept thinking of Kulveer Ranger’s claim that “historically” our roads have been designed with motorists in mind. In fact, this has been true only for the last sixty years.

  6. ian... says:

    Good job on criticising the Ice Rink analogy.

    “Shared Space” is quite bizarre. It relies on an idea that nirvana is reached when all drivers can be convinced to obey all laws and social conventions.

    …and in that sense isn’t much different from roads as they are now!

    I’m sure shared space can work in some instances, but not done properly…well, it all sinks down to that ‘might is right’ mentality doesn’t it?!

  7. Great post – spot on about the relationship between rules, clutter and motor traffic. The thing about the ice rink and the campsite is that they are both destinations. Who would commute through an ice rink?
    Shared space is a bit like that in that it works well around a cracking destination which is presented as such – Brighton New Road (sadly the only example listed I am familiar with) has heaps of public seating; Following the (I think) PPS maxim that if all your seats are taken up by vagrants, you need more seats, this has made it an obvious place to stay and is welcoming of stray pedestrians.
    It is true that in New Road it works partly because of reduced vehicle flow, but also (because of ‘tables and chairs’ trading and seating) there is no effective pavement area, meaning that every movement shares the central ‘car lanes’ – as pedestrians have literally nowhere else to go cars must give way or run them down – and in this circumstance they tend to give way. In similar nearby streets, sharing is inhibited because pedestrains automatically hug to the pavement where it exists (even notionally) and cars automatically bully through the roadway and are generally permitted to do so, so in that respect I think that the removal of demarcation is a helpful thing.

    Judging the success or otherwise of a shared space must though be from the perspective of the pedestrian. If pedestrians do not feel shared with, sharing is not taking place. The space must inevitably become a worse environment for car and cycle through traffic – if speed of passage is the requirement, which isn’t the same thing as improving a cycle network

  8. You are right in all respects. I have been warning cycling campaigners for some years to be very wary of embracing shared space, as the concept has become altered in its British manifestation, compared to its Dutch origins, to become here, in part, a cuddly Trojan horse for a right-wing libertarian “anything goes” street-use agenda that will do pedestrians and cyclists no good at all.

    You do a good job in identifying Daniel Moylan as the man who has most explaining to do about Exhibition Road. There needs to be some sort of public enquiry into the way he has pursued this as a personal vanity project, throwing the astounding sum of £29 million into one short stretch of road for so little gain, failing at the same time to take advice from competent experts who could have told him the solution was inappropriate. A job for the Audit Commission or the Commons Public Accounts Committee?

  9. Timoohz says:

    Awesome post. It inspired me to do some quick manipulations with Gimp. 🙂

    I wonder if the 19th century painting is actually realistic or does it suffer from the same ‘missing vehicles’ syndrome that a lot of sketches for new street plans have. It would just be missing queues of horse carriages instead of cars. Would the people really be standing in the middle of the street or would they get trampled by horses? And it looks to me that there is a sidewalk on the side and all the people seem to be walking on it. That doesn’t look like a shared space to me. 😛

  10. Henry says:

    Really interesting reading this Mark – have you seen this article about space on our streets on the London Living blog ( There’s quite a few articles there, relative to the theme of space, that might interest you…

  11. jrc036 says:

    I agree with your basic point here.

    In my experience, shared space works best when there are other measures put in place to reduce vehicular use, rather than just expecting the shared space to sort things out. When I am asked about shared space, I always advoate a hierarchy of approaches based on the amont of traffic/pedestrians on a given street.

    Funnily enough, some of the most troubling users of shared space that I have witenessed are buses. Maybe it’s a function of the drivers going round and round on the same route, or maybe they feel that they have the most right to be there, but I have frequently seen buses speeding though areas with increased pedestrian movement, with no regard for othen users.

    This all said, I do feel that current highway design is struggling to make the leap from designing for vehicular speeds and movement, to designing for the needs of pedestrians.I guess this is something I do share with the likes of Ben Hamilton-Bailie. As an example of the top of my head, I recall a West Midlands local authority telling me that we couldn’t provide better lighting for a local high street, as they had a maximum lux level designed to limit vehicular speed.

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  14. Brian Hanson says:

    As a practicing traffic engineer, I found this a very well argued piece which has helped to clarify my own somewhat ambivalent position on the merits of shared space. As a Horsham resident, I know East Street very well. To all intents and purposes I would describe this now as a pedestrianised space with some limited access provisions, rather than a “shared surface”.
    To be fair to Hamilton-Bailie, however, I understood the main premise of his case is founded on the concept of “safety by ambiguity” and I’m not sure your critique gives enough thought to the conditions that determing how well this works.
    My view of Exhibition Road is that not enough ambiguity has been introduced, which makes it too easy for cars to assume priority. It seems the ‘naked streets’ idea has been taken too far to the exclusion of planting, civic art and other street furniture that might have engendered a stronger sense of “place”, as opposed to “throughfare”. Consequently there is too much road space and too few features to “confuse” motorists and encourage eye contact with other road users.
    RBKC should revisit the scheme to rectify these shortcomings.

  15. James Coope says:

    An interesting article and a good counterpoint to the evangelism of Ben BH and Dan Moylans outlook on shared space.
    I do, however, think that the concept is a good one and worth striving towards, I am undertaking a fictional intervention for my MA course and researching all aspects of shared space- I think that some of the Canadian approach referring to this type of street as skinny streets and queuing streets with the definite incorporation of ambiguity, pinch points and chicanes formed by solid planters and restricted width is the way forward- some of the failures in the London examples, especially Byng place just simply ignore these requirements, if anything they make the situation WORSE for pedestrians by making the area ambiguous for walking and seemingly allow a greater scope for vehicle acceleration with no restrictions in sight- a serious jarring road texture and some enforced speed limiting would be a start as well as a perception that pedestrians have the priority too- it does start to smack of laissez- faire for road users and we all know where deregulation gets us…

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