There’s been a fair bit of discussion of ‘shared space’ recently, prompted mainly by the Holmes Report into Shared Space, which was released at the start of the month.
‘Shared space’ is of course a catch-all term that covers a wide range of street and road treatments, but in essence it involves reducing distinction (either visually or physically, or both) between the carriageway and footway – between places where users are ‘expected’ to be, in general.
I don’t think there is any genuine, or ‘ultimate’, shared space out there – one that has no distinction whatsoever across the whole building-to-building width. You will always find some kind of distinction, be it in the form of tactile paving, or colour difference, or a minimal kerb upstand, or bollards, between where different modes should be going.
New Road in Brighton perhaps comes closest, with only a drain breaking up the uniform surface – but here sheer weight of pedestrians numbers, and a tiny amount of motor traffic, make this resemble a genuinely pedestrianised street with limited motor traffic access.
And this points toward something a little bit back-to-front about how these treatments are often applied in Britain. New Road is a bit of an exception; it is effectively an access road, one that makes little or no sense to drive down if you want to go anywhere, because a one-way system sends you back to where you’ve come from.
By contrast, ‘shared space’ treatments are instead frequently applied on roads that are through-routes for motor traffic, carrying it from somewhere, to somewhere else. Poynton is composed of a junction of major A-roads; Exhibition Road carries around 15,000 vehicles a day; Byng Place in Camden is a through-route; major schemes in Coventry and Ashford have both applied ‘shared space’ treatments to main roads. Preston, too, appears to have jumped on the bandwagon in the last year.
Indeed, all the examples of ‘shared space’ shown in the Sea of Change film – areas where partially-sighted and blind users have difficulty crossing roads – involve through routes for motor traffic.
Meanwhile, all the small access roads near these big main road schemes – residential streets, or streets that (should) serve no through function for motor traffic – are left with ‘conventional’ highway engineering, footways with high kerbs, clearly distinct from what look like roads, rather than streets.
For instance, it is the through-route Exhibition Road that has the ‘shared space’ treatment (and a 20mph limit), while, bizarrely, the minor residential side-street joining on to it, Princess Gardens, has a conventional tarmac road appearance, and a 30mph limit.
This is, really, the wrong way round, and entirely opposite to the way the Dutch conventionally design roads and streets, and distinguish between them.
In the Netherlands, the ‘shared space’ style treatments are applied on streets that have been quite deliberately designed to remove through traffic, leaving only a very small number of motor vehicles using them – the access roads. Meanwhile the main roads, carrying through traffic, usually have very clear distinction between the carriageway and the footway (in large part because the Dutch clearly separate cycling from motor traffic on these kinds of roads).
So what looks like the kind of treatment we might see on a fashionable main road in Britain is almost always applied on a very low motor traffic access road in the Netherlands. Examples from Wageningen, Gouda, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Veenedaal, Utrecht, and Assen below – all very low (motor) traffic streets.
Although these treatments looks like ‘shared space’, these are all autoluwe, or very low car traffic areas.
These are appropriate locations for a lack of definition between footway and carriageway because the reason for that distinction – motor traffic – is no longer present.
By contrast, the main roads near these access roads will have clear definition, because… well, these roads are still carrying a significant quantity of motor traffic – distinction is required.
I don’t quite know how, or why, Britain appears to have grasped the wrong end of shared space stick, applying treatments designed for streets that are intrinsically suited to sharing – access roads – onto main roads instead, in an attempt to fix them.
Perhaps it is because of an innate reluctance to accept we have a motor traffic problem. Perhaps we are attempting to convince ourselves that we can turn traffic-blighted roads into ‘places’ simply by changing the way they look, rather than honestly accepting that they are through-routes, or accepting that genuine places require an access-only function for motor traffic. (I’ve written about the need for honesty – and placefaking – before).
There is a role for shared space design (or whatever you want to call it!) in Britain, but it is vitally important that it gets applied in the right places, and in the right contexts. Making our streets and roads safe, comfortable and attractive for all their potential users – particularly those with physical disability or impairment, but also everyone walking or cycling about on them – depends on it.