One of the more interesting claims made for ‘shared space’ road designs is that they will serve to improve driver behaviour, by making those sitting behind the wheels of motor cars think for themselves, and to respond to stimuli, rather than driving on autopilot. In the absence of clear rules about how they should drive – give way lines, traffic lights, and so on – motorists will be forced to think carefully about how they should be driving.
Back in 2005, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, one of the foremost proponents of ‘shared space’, argued in the Times (£) that, on Exhibition Road,
motorists would still have full access to the road, but it would be like driving through a campsite. “You don’t need signs everywhere on a campsite telling you to give way or stop or slow down, because its blindingly obvious what you need to do,” he said.
Similarly, he argued more recently, in an item aired on Radio 4 last year about Exhibition Road and other ‘shared spaces’, that on these streets
there is a degree of uncertainty, intrigue, and as soon as the driver’s brain is engaged, the speeds drop, and the responses to the unusual, the unexpected, the individual, become immediate and responsive, rather than assumed.
Daniel Moylan, formerly both the Deputy Chair of Transport for London and the Deputy Leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Council, and instrumental in the implementation of Exhibition Road, voices similar opinions about the necessity of treating motorists as adults who we should trust to make their own decisions. For instance, in this video, he argues that
The first [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.
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.
As I have said before, the implication of comments like these is 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, so the argument goes, 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.
Unfortunately, I can’t see any reason why the minority of drivers who behave like idiots on ‘conventional’ roads will cease to do so when they drive through schemes with an absence of rules. They will continue to behave like idiots.
In the above video, by cycleoptic, the driver of the Mini enters and exits the ’roundabout’ on Exhibition Road on the wrong side of the road. The lack of clarity in the design has plainly not stopped his or her stupidity – indeed, it may even have given licence to driving in this manner. Without rules governing how drivers should behave, what’s to stop them doing things like this? Rather than ‘uncertainly’ and ‘intrigue’ about the right way to behave generating better behaviour, it may be the case that that the very same uncertainty can be exploited by those in a hurry. If it’s not particularly clear that the circle in the road is a roundabout, why not just drive around it the wrong way, cutting across the ‘pavement’ as you do so?
Similarly this Mercedes driver, frustrated with a long queue on Exhibition Road, is driving down the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
Not pleasant for anyone who might happen to be cycling in the opposite direction. But with an absence of rules, it becomes harder to claim that this driver is doing anything wrong. On a flat, uniform surface, without markings, what’s to stop you just driving past stationary traffic, beyond simple common courtesy?
Granted, it may only be a minority of drivers who behave in this way, but given that shared space is reliant for its success on vulnerable users being willing to mix and interact with motor traffic, and not to just meekly stay out of the way, the implications of bad behaviour are quite serious. It only needs one in a hundred – or one in a thousand – drivers to act aggressively, or to take shortcuts, for people to become reluctant to share space with the other 99, or the other 999. In a society that is still heavily motor-dominated, we should acknowledge that the libertarianism and personal responsibility offered by shared space may not be quite as uniformly positive as it might first appear.