Removing isn’t always better – the problem with the ‘shared space’ term

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.

Reduced height differences between footway and carriageway make it easier to cross the road.

Reduced height differences between footway and carriageway make it easier to cross the road.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 16.50.29

This looks more like a ‘room’, than a road; it’s reasonably clear that different behaviour is needed.

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.

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.

This is, officially, a 'shared space' street; but plainly a very different context from Frideswide Square, with next to no motor traffic.

This is, officially, a ‘shared space’ street; but plainly a very different context from Frideswide Square, with next to no motor traffic.

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’.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.15.00

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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.17.53Queues 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’.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.20.50The 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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.39.55 Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.40.42 Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.41.09These 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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 15.45.43But 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.

This entry was posted in Bath, Infrastructure, Oxford, Shared Space, The Netherlands, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Removing isn’t always better – the problem with the ‘shared space’ term

  1. Notak says:

    Seven Dials? It was just called Kingsmead Square when I lived there! I haven’t seen the latest design but it’s been through several changes of layout since that time (early ’90s) and I think it would be worth comparing the present levels of traffic and people’s traffic-related behaviour to what was there before. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a busy through route either, though the road past the Weatherspoons – I think it’s James St – is a bit busier (and the nearby Green Park Rd is certainly a main road).

    That said, I can only agree that the key factor in the success or not of these ‘shared streets’ is reducing the volume (and then the speed) of motor traffic (while not excluding it completely – maintaining access at least for residents and loading, for instance).

  2. Paul Luton says:

    The problem is frequently getting buses through as they do need to access town centres. There is a road in Kingston in which buses are the only motor vehicles and pedestrians seem happy to cross at will. The google maps image is atypically quiet.
    https://goo.gl/maps/aCnMUHaXtMs
    Currently we are looking at making Teddington High Street suitable for a cycling quiet-route. It would be interesting to see if simply signing would nudge through traffic onto alternative routes.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      You may like to contemplate Breestraat in Leiden as a model for a future Teddington High Street. Loads of buses. https://goo.gl/maps/vFE7e9iL64G2

      The “access” in your “access town centres” is important. That’s precisely what Clarence-Wood Street is in Kingston, but you seem to be describing the future Teddington High Street as part of a (quiet) distributor network. If you went for a bus-pedestrian-cycle street, as in Leiden (and Kingston), excluding most motor vehicles – which I do think *is* a good idea – Teddington High Street should then be treated as a destination for active travellers, not a distributor, with the approaches being access roads. Your “quiet routes” should be the cycle distributors that link to the High Street access roads, if you insist on specific quiet routes.

      Back to the main article, what shared space is doing is seeking to maintain multi-functionality, whereas for some of us trying to achieve the monofunctionality inherent in sustainable safety is a better approach.

  3. 100 vehicles per hour. That’s the only statistic you need to remember. Any more than that and motor vehicles bully all other users aside. Less than that, and shared space has a chance.

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