A ‘shared space’ vision

Last year I wrote about how Ben Hamilton-Baillie – one of the foremost proponents of the ‘shared space’ philosophy – does not appear to be all that concerned about addressing motor traffic in urban areas. His designs are mere rearrangements of the way motor traffic moves down a street. In his talks and presentations, his vision of ‘urban realm improvement’ tends to involve removal of the physical manifestations of our attempts to control motor traffic, without reducing or removing that motor traffic itself.

Yesterday Matt Turner spotted an interview with Hamilton-Baillie that provides a remarkable insight into the mindset of ‘leading international expert on the development of “Shared Space”’, as he is described.

It’s a relatively old interview – dating from 2010. However, it appears to confirm not only that Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t really care about motor traffic reduction in urban areas or (more specifically) prioritising more efficient and safer mode of transport within them, but, more than that, he actually seems to think existing levels of motor traffic in British towns and cities should be maintained.

It starts with some odd explanations from Hamilton-Baillie for the apparently rising popularity of ‘shared space’, and its philosophy of ‘integrating’ human beings and motor traffic in urban areas.

The Genome Project, understanding our DNA, and the remarkable intricacies of our interconnections, has allowed us to question many of the assumptions that gave rise to conventional traffic engineering and the principle of segregating traffic from other civic and social aspects of cities.

Because we’ve sequenced the base pairs in the human genome, we’ve understood that motor traffic shouldn’t be separated from civic life in cities? If you are not convinced by this ‘DNA’ explanation, maybe a change in the nature of political philosophy over the twentieth century could tempt you.

During the last century, governments of both the left and right tended to assume that the state should assume responsibility for resolving all potential conflicts and interaction through increasingly complex regulation and control. The evolution of the traffic signal illustrates this tendency perfectly, removing the need to think and respond from the driver, and attempting to control behaviour through technology and legislation. We now understand more about the downside of states over-regulating and over-planning.

Or maybe it’s just that traffic control is expensive, and shared space is cheap.

In addition, the fiscal realities of the European Union are having an effect. Even if they wished to, governments can now no longer afford the huge costs of regulating, controlling and enforcing every aspect of traffic behaviour. Traffic lights, signs, markings, barriers and bollards cost a fortune, and the recent public spending crises have highlighted the need to question the role of the state in many areas. The idea of streets and spaces being left to informal negotiation and local social protocols chimes with initiatives such as the new “Localism Agenda” in Britain, or what David Cameron refers to as “The Big Society”.

It’s worth reminding ourselves here that one of the most widely-known and prominent ‘shared space’ schemes in Britain, Exhibition Road (which is lauded in this interview) weighs in at a cost of around £35,000 per metre – £29m for 820m of road. But clearly it’s ‘conventional’ street engineering – tarmac, kerbs and so on – that is expensive. Or so we are led to believe.

We then move on to Hamilton-Baillie’s philosophy, which is quite explicitly argued.

I think shared space represents a fundamental rethink of the principles of segregation espoused by Colin Buchanan and his team when he wrote the influential “Traffic in Towns” in 1963. In contrast to Buchanan, I see no need to separate or segregate urban traffic from other aspects of civic space. [my emphasis]

Well, on the contrary, I see plenty of reasons to keep urban traffic (in this context, clearly motor traffic) away from civic space. Noise, pollution, danger, amenity, to name just a few. If you continue to allow motor traffic to flow, unrestrained, through urban areas, and the civic space within them, you will end up with a low quality environment.

This is shit.

This is pretty shit.


The same civic space, separated from motor traffic. Not shit.

This is what Colin Buchanan, and the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report, appreciated, even if the solution it prescribed was misguided. Streets full of motor traffic are fundamentally pretty awful. We don’t need to ‘rethink’ the principles of segregation – we just need to apply them in a more humane way, a way that puts people walking, cycling and using public transport first, and segregates the car away from them, rather than segregating human beings away from motor traffic. This is something I’ve argued at length before.

Curiously, however, Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t appear to believe in putting efficient, safe, urban-scale modes of transport like walking and cycling first, and prioritising those modes of motor traffic.

… Shared space is all about integration, and that means avoiding over-attention on any one factor or group… We are asked to support groups campaigning for motorists, and groups campaigning against the car – all sorts. But shared space is not about promoting the interests of one particular group or user over another, but merely about setting the stage for different activities to interact.

Shared space is ‘all about integration’, and when different modes are ‘integrated’, it is of course impossible to prioritise one over another, because such prioritisation requires separation.

All we are left with is some cod nonsense about a blank slate – a ‘stage’ on which ‘different activities’ can ‘interact’.

No prioritisation - a stage for different activities to interact.

‘The stage for different activities to interact’. Enjoy!

Having already stated that

Traffic and movement is the life-blood of cities

(again, a reference to motor traffic), the interview concludes with a curious pean to the virtues of motor traffic in urban areas, juxtaposed against Jan Gehl’s philosophy of creating people-centred urban areas –

I am a great admirer of Jan Gehl and his colleagues, and they’ve done absolutely wonderful work. Copenhagen is a phenomenal success story. But I feel that that generation has run its course in the sense of that there’s only so far you can go with exclusion [of the car]. For them the removal of the car is an overriding theme. At times, of course, it’s appropriate. But reality is that the car is with us, for better or worse, for at least a couple of generations. It’s a wonderful liberating technology. For all its downside it has transformed most of our economic and social lives. And shared space offers the opportunity to welcome and exploit the good side of motor traffic, as it were. It needn’t be a destructive force for streets, for cities. [my emphasis]

It would be interesting to know what the ‘good side of motor traffic’ in urban areas actually involves. My personal opinion is that we should be doing everything we can to make the alternatives to travel by car in urban areas as attractive and as easy as possible, because doing so would make our towns and cities vastly safer and more pleasant. This isn’t about engaging in a ‘war’ on the car, but more about opening up choice, and prioritising the alternatives.

But it seems that Hamilton-Baillie doesn’t share this approach. The status quo – with a huge percentage of short urban trips made inefficiently, inconveniently and expensively by motor car – is something he apparently wants to preserve, albeit with that motor traffic travelling around on fancy paving, rather than conventional tarmac. No mode of transport should be prioritised; we should all be ‘equal’ on the stage of ‘shared space’.

It’s not a hugely enticing vision.

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14 Responses to A ‘shared space’ vision

  1. ORiordan says:

    …however it may be an enticing vision for local politicians who don’t want to annoy car drivers.

  2. benhamilton-baillie says:

    See Strong Town podcasts for more recent interviews. http://shoutengine.com/StrongTownsPodcast/ben-hamilton-baillie-take-2-4984

  3. paulc says:

    This cost a ridiculous amount to put in in Gloucester as part of the link between the Quays shopping center (and the historic docks) and the city center… they took out an existing pedestrian crossing here and put in shared space… now the elderly, disable and young are terrified and take their lives in their hands getting across the road… the expected reduction in road traffic from the completion of the Hempstead bypass did not happen, too many people are still using the road as a rat-run to avoid taking the bypass!!


    the Quays shopping center is off to the left and the city center is to the right… as you can tell from the streetview car, it’s not a nice place anymore…


    above is the signage warning motorists on entry… it’s like putting elephants, hippos and rhinos in the small mammal enclosure and expecting no casualties…

  4. Karl says:

    Yep, this sort of crap is coming to a town near you soon. Sutton is looking at this on one, if not the most, dangerous road in the town. They have already tried it out in Hackbridge. Old ladies can’t cross the road now.

  5. Jitensha Oni says:

    I tend to agree with the comments here and the OP, but is this my/our prejudice? Works fine in its natural habitat, here:


    But has the concept been fully tested to breaking point anywhere? I’m not sure there are enough examples to make a balanced judgement over the range of the applicability or effectiveness of shared spaces yet. A few experiments are perhaps in order.

    From what I’ve seen in high bicycle mode share settings such as in Sonnenfelsplatz in Graz, bikes rule the space. This might be even more marked in London, where many riders have been taught to be assertive. So I wonder if Lambeth/Westminster/TfL or whoever is responsible could make the Lambeth Bridge roundabouts shared space. It seems to me it would be an excellent opportunity test the limits of the concept. If not, why not?

    • jeldering says:

      The google maps link to that woonerf in Lunetten, Utrecht is really a completely different thing than anything in the UK I’ve seen described in the UK. A Dutch woonerf is invariably a quiet, dead-end residential street, and in particular in Lunetten, the whole residential neighborhood is a “dead-end” with only one(!) road leading out of it (for cars, that is).

      That’s a stark contrast with anything I’ve seen in the UK, and the difference is clearly visible e.g. on Exhibition Road: the whole stretch from Brompton Road Northwards you see a strict separation of pedestrians and motor traffic, and no pedestrians leisurely crossing the “main carriageway” that is still effectively there. On the other hand, the dead-end side South of Thurloe Place indeed shows a bit more of the characteristics I would expect of a shared space: people wandering freely and pedestrians, cyclists and cars sharing at slow speeds.

    • fonant says:

      Shared space works pretty well if you remove the extremely dangerous motor vehicles. But if you let heavy motor vehicles dominate the space it doesn’t work at all. Motor vehicles don’t do sharing.

      The odd thing is that people still think you can allow motor vehicles to share spaces with people, and that somehow the people who are protected and insulated from the outside world, with masses of power at their command, will play nicely.

      In practice all that power corrupts: myself included – why do I get so upset when someone else in another car overtakes me? The insulation means that car occupants have absolutely no idea of the terrible environment they’re creating for everyone outside cars.

      • pm says:

        Yeah, there does seem to be quite a profound philosophical dispute behind all this. Personally my experiences leave be inclined to believe that power differentials are almost always abused, even by well-intentioned people, its in its nature.

        The ‘shared space’ concept seems closely linked to right-wing kinds of anarchism, that choose to ignore all the power imbalances in society other than those imposed by ‘regulation’ or the state.

  6. benhamilton-baillie says:

    For a more recent update on the concept, see the keynote to the 2014 Congress for New Urbanism, held in Buffalo, New York in June 2014. Starts from timeslot 17:00. Better than the Norwegian publication, where the interview was translated from English into Norwegian, and then back into English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKvLvEs2VJc

  7. Of course, bollards might cost a lot less if motor vehicle drivers didn’t keep driving into it and destroying it.
    Mind, when the bollards aren’t there the drivers are free to mow pedestrians down, unless the pedestrians keep well out of their way. Hardly shared space.
    Looks like Kingston is planning for some shared space in their Eden Quarter regeneration plan. Can’t wait to have my children sharing space with buses whose drivers are on time constraints.

  8. ari rasku says:

    another interesting article / interview with Mr. Hamilton-Baillie you can find here:
    I think his vision about shared roads is revoltutionary !

    • pm says:

      There’s a strangely cultic aspect to the whole shared-space thing. Your comment here, that doesn’t engage with any of the criticisms of it but just links to a rather hagiographic article, fits that pattern.

      That, as we see repeatedly, people are killed or injured by motorised vehicles _even when on the pavement_ surely demonstrates the flawed nature of ‘shared space’?

      I don’t want to share space with large, heavy, smelly, dangerous motorised vehicles. I want as few of them near me as possible. Nothing in that article seems to adress that.

  9. mikey bikey says:

    “I see no need to separate or segregate urban traffic from other aspects of civic space”. Ben seems tragically unaware of vehicle – person collision statistics. People killed and injured while cycling and walking (some even when walking ON the pavement) make ‘separation, segregation’, and reduction of motor traffic, the prime enhancements of ‘civic space’. Bless!

  10. P.Ash says:

    I’ve been reading all the comments on the shared space issues. Very good cross section of views. My own experiences are Gloucester City/ Access to the Quays-yes it looks nice but too much traffic, not going any slower than before, so not a pedestrian friendly place to cross over and still have to wait to cross- Ashford Ring Road,-better than the race track one way system it was, but not easy to cross ,- shared space roads work best on low traffic volume residential streets as the Dutch use them. Can we have some of their views and updates on their experiences?
    I think keeping all or majority of traffic away from shared space streets is a “no brainer” unless they have to be there. Yes get rid of street clutter-get rid of unnecessary barriers-yes protect with segregated areas vulnerable people walking and cycling where we can- but there is no one size fits all solution as the Shared Space fanatics would have us all to believe. And no I don’t like the old traffic dominated roads and streets anymore than anybody else-too much noise, traffic pollution, not people friendly -but until we really segregate out unnecessary traffic what do we do? Perhaps if we had the money to revise streets with much higher quality materials and some overall design rather than what we have today ,they will work better socially, visually, for access and be safer.
    But the costs of some of these new spaces are mind boggling when you think how our road network is failing.
    Just a thought for the zealots who have “dined off” shared space streets to date. How are we going to have streets that people suffering from dementia recognize if we loose what we have now? How do we teach children about different streets and how to use them since they will experience them all ? Do we still ignore groups of people who are genuinely frightened of the new spaces? How do the shared space supporters respond to comments that in the Netherlands people have stopped using some of the new shared space junctions because they are frightened of them. If true then they don’t bloody well work !
    Time for the shared space supporters to have some honesty and admit they can’t sort every problem out with doing away with the kerbs ,taking down signs and spending a fortune on fancy materials!

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