John Dales’ recent column for TransportXtra argued that the term ‘shared space’ should be quietly phased out. In fact he doesn’t even use the words in the article, replacing them with Sh… !
… the use of the term Sh… has increasingly become a hindrance to the creation of better streets for all. That’s not just my opinion; it was shared by most, if not all, of the 50+ attendees at a street design seminar I spoke at last month. It’s a term that has led to babies being thrown out with the bathwater; it has led to schemes being implemented that some people find particularly difficult to use; and it has led to streets being shunned by people who could enjoy them simply because they assume, from the description, that they won’t.
I think this is exactly right. ‘Shared space’ (or Sh…!) has become a catch-all word for street treatments that apparently solve problems, or make roads and streets better, often with little regard for the context or nature of the roads and streets in question. I’d much rather see highway engineers and urban designers looking at what works for all potential users, rather than employing ‘shared space’ in the hope that it works (or at least won’t make things worse). In particular, I’d like to see an abandonment of the lazy assumption that ‘removing things’ – crossings, signs, distinction between footway and carriageway, and so on – will always represent an improvement.
To be clear, I think some of the things that might fall out of the ‘shared space’ toolbox do work, in certain contexts. I think there can be a role for reducing the height difference between footway and carriageway in low traffic environments. For one thing, it makes it easier for people with mobility issues to get from one side to the other.
There’s also a role for reducing visual distinction between carriageway and footway, again, in low traffic streets. It makes it clearer to drivers (and indeed to people walking and cycling) that this is a different kind of environment, and different behaviour should be expected.
These are all sensible techniques that can be used to improve streets, and they work in their own right. The problems start to emerge, however, when ‘shared space’ (or Sh…) is picked up and used in an attempt to solve the problems with a road or street, ignoring the reality that some of the elements that come with it might actually be poor design solutions for the particular context.
I’m thinking here particularly of Frideswide Square in Oxford, where a ‘shared space’ design has been pushed through with little sensitivity for the needs and wishes of the users of this busy area. Cycling – a significant mode of transport here – has been totally ignored, despite vociferous objections, with no cycle-specific provision. Crossings of the roundabouts – the main route into the city centre from the train station, and from the west – are ‘informal’, which essentially means pedestrians have to make their own way across busy roads without the reassurance of a zebra crossing, or other types of formal crossing.
Lower Clapton Road scheme looks similar to recent scheme in Oxford. Not good for vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists pic.twitter.com/KiioXbnzNH
— Hackney Cyclist (@Hackneycyclist) February 1, 2016
The overall ‘vision’ – a nice-looking, symmetrical road layout, with pretty paving – appears to have been more important than actual usability. The ‘shared space’ concept trumps the concerns of users.
That’s why the term itself is a hindrance; it appears to have limited the ability of the people responsible for this road design to think clearly about what kind of road design would actually work best. And at the other end of scale – exactly as John suggests – lumping all this together as ‘shared space’ can lead to people being afraid or scared of streets that are very different in nature and character, simply because they’ve been proudly described with exactly the same term.
So the ‘shared space’ term inhibits clear thinking about how we want our roads and streets to work, and how to go about achieving the best outcomes.
A good example of this is the recent changes to Seven Dials in Bath, allegedly improvements for walking and cycling, paid for with £1.2 of DfT ‘Cycle City Ambition’ cash. Apparently the plan was to
re-establish Seven Dials as a key public space with a greater focus on cyclist and pedestrian needs through the use of shared space, which ackowledges the significantly higher pedestrian to traffic ratio. Conventional road signage is removed and perceived hierarchies between users are broken down, enabling greater freedom for pedestrians to use the space. This is encouraged through the use of surfaces and street furniture which reduces the distinction between road and footway.
Here we see the classic, quasi-religious belief in the magical properties of ‘shared space’ to break down ‘perceived hierarchies’, simply by ‘removing stuff’. This ‘ breaking down’ turns out, in the same paragraph, to be merely ‘encouraged’. It’s up to the individual to challenge the perceived hierarchy, rather than the road or street changing it for them.
On the approaches to this scheme, there are signs asking or advising us (certainly not telling us!) to ‘Share Space’.
Unfortunately, despite the flush surfaces and new paving, there was little sharing in evidence, largely because the section of road in the distance is a busy bus corridor.
Queues form behind these buses, creating ‘platoons’ of private motor vehicles too, an impenetrable stream of traffic that essentially makes it impossible to cross the road, despite signs informing you that this area is ‘shared’.
The amount of motor traffic suggested that this is a busy through-route – at least, with the way the roads are currently configured. I don’t really think there’s any ‘greater freedom’ for people to walk across this space than there was before, when the road was surfaced with asphalt, or that any ‘perceived hierarchies been broken down’. A bus is still a bus, cars are still cars, and you will keep out of their way, even if the road they are being driven on looks a bit more like the footway you are standing on.
If the council here were really interested in ‘breaking down hierarchies’, then this kind of scheme should surely involve crossings that establish pedestrian priority, rather than attempting to do so. (Or measures to reduce the amount of through traffic). But that kind of pragmatism is harder to achieve if you are setting out to build a ‘shared space’ scheme, which in John’s words can often lead to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The concept is everything; what might actually work best is in a given location is secondary. ‘Removing’ must be good, because thats’ what ‘shared space’ involves; ‘adding’ a crossing stands contrary to that dogma.
What was most interesting to me is that, just around the corner from this expensive new ‘shared space’ scheme, there are a series of streets that appeared to be genuinely shared, with pedestrians crossing when and where they wanted to.
These are streets where people are quite happy to linger in the road, even if they don’t have the design cues associated with ‘shared space’. They’re happy to do so because there are very low motor traffic levels on them; measures have been taken to eliminate through traffic.
But although there was more sharing in evidence here than in the ‘shared space’, these aren’t particularly sexy streets. The road surface is crumbling asphalt, and they could certainly do with sprucing up. In fact, they’re precisely the kind of streets that would benefit from less (or no) distinction between footway and carriageway, and surfacing and paving that would make them look more like ‘rooms’ than ‘roads’. That’s fine! These are design elements that would make the environment better, given the background context and the nature and function of these low-traffic streets.
The issue is when the same design elements are lumped together and used in the hope of fixing problems they can’t possibly solve, particularly on busy streets. Yes, they might improve things a bit, but if you are spending millions of pounds on a short stretch of road, you really need to engage with what it is you are trying to achieve, rather than supposing that a pretty street design that looks a bit less like a road is automatically going to be better for users than a design which might involve thinking outside the fixed template that the ‘shared space’ term implies. And that might be why the term itself is a problem.