Sustainable Safety and ‘Shared Space’

There was a bit of back-and-forth on social media last week on the subject of Exhibition Road, involving – in particular – the Conservative councillor Daniel Moylan, who had a major role in pushing the ‘shared space’ scheme through.

One of his tweets was – for me at least – particularly intriguing.

Fairly clear! But why might a fan of ‘shared space’ be so hostile to Sustainable Safety – the policy which lies behind the Netherlands world-leading road safety record? After all, the Netherlands is the country where Moylan’s version of ‘shared space’ largely originates – with the ideas of Hans Monderman.

If we look at the principles of Sustainable Safety, the answer quickly becomes clear. The ideology behind Exhibition Road (and Moylan’s attitude towards how it should function) stands almost directly in opposition to those principles.

Let’s take the first principle – Monofunctionality, or Single Function Roads.

This is a bit of jargon, but it essentially means that every road and street should be classified according to its function. The Netherlands has three categories –

  • Access road
  • Distributor road
  • Through road

There should be no ambiguity – a road should either have an access function, a distributor function, or a through-road function. Since the early 1990s, when Sustainable Safety originated, The Netherlands has been busily classifying their road network, and adapting their roads to ensure that they function according to their classification. In particular, access roads must not have through traffic using them. They are places where people live, work, shop – where they engage in everyday human activity. Flows of through traffic should, quite rightly, be separated from these activities.

Exhibition Road, of course, doesn’t fit neatly into this typology. It very obviously has through traffic on it, exemplified by the long queues of motor traffic at either end. But at the same time it has the pretence of being a place – a ‘cultural heartland’, a destination for tourists and visitors to London. So it’s a curious hybrid of public space, where people gather, and a busy through-route for motor traffic, with something like 13,000 motor vehicles per day at the northern end, and around 8,000 per day at the southern end.

Public space – a genuine destination – or a through road for motor traffic?

Under Sustainable Safety principles, this isn’t acceptable – something should have to give. Either through motor traffic should be restricted (with access still allowed for residents), with Exhibition Road becoming a genuine access road, or alternatively the design of the road should be altered to more explicitly reflect its function as a through-route for motor traffic. At present, Exhibition Road is a through-road dressed up like an access road.

The second principle of Sustainable Safety is homogeneity of mass, speed and direction.

Again, this is a bit of jargon, but what it amounts to is that, on roads and streets, we should try to only mix things if they are of similar mass and speed, and if they are travelling in the same direction. If we can’t do this – for instance, if we can’t ensure that things are all travelling in the same direction, like on a motorway – we should try to ensure that mass and speed are equalised as much as possible.

A ‘homogenous’ environment in the centre of Utrecht, composed of objects of similar low mass and low speed

Applying this principle to Exhibition Road, we find that we shouldn’t be mixing low-mass objects like human beings with heavy mass objects like coaches, buses and lorries (and to a lesser extent, vans and cars). These kinds of large mass vehicles shouldn’t really be on the kind of street where there are many people milling about. And if they do have to be there, we should be careful to make clear which mode belongs where, and to separate them as much as possible.

Yet this is of course the exact opposite of the ‘shared space’ ideology that lies behind Moylan’s vision of Exhibition Road – namely, that the distinction between low mass objects like human beings and have motor vehicles should be deliberately blurred, apparently to create uncertainty, and to foster ‘negotiation’ between people walking, and people piloting large vehicles. This is even in the face of evidence that the vast majority of people simply don’t want to ‘negotiate’ with those large vehicles. While it is arguable the the design of Exhibition Road may slow motor traffic more than the previous road design – which had pedestrian guardrail – in other respects it stands in direct opposition to the homogeneity principle.

The third principle of sustainable safety is that road design should be instantly recognisable.

Users should know, just by looking at a street or road, what kind of behaviour is expected from them. To quote Mark Wagenbuur’s excellent summary of Sustainable Safety –

Road design should be so consistent that road users instantly understand what they can expect and what is expected of them on a certain type of street or road. The road design itself gives information about the type of road/street. If the street is paved with bricks, there are parked cars and the street is shared with cyclists and gives access to homes, the road user will instantly know and feel this is a 30km/h (19mph) local access street. However, if the road has two carriageways separated by a median, there is no parking and cyclists have their own cycle paths, it is clear to the road user that this is a through road.

By this stage you will of course not be surprised that this is the direct opposite of the impression created by the design of Exhibition Road. It attempts to looks like an access road where people should be driving very slowly and carefully, yet has a through road function, with plenty of motor traffic moving in a straight line down the road. The impression for all users is one of confusion, rather than clarity (and again, this is an apparently deliberate hallmark of this ideological form of ‘shared space’).

Instantly recognisable road design should be predictable, and not spring surprises on users; it should have clear and consistent design types, rules and markings. This doesn’t fit at all with Exhibition Road, where a through road is composed of unusual and ‘uncertain’ design elements.

The fourth element of Sustainable Safety is Forgivingness. This principle acknowledges that human beings are fallible and that we will make mistakes, and indeed that sometimes we will deliberately break rules. Our road and street environments should therefore be designed to accommodate these mistakes and rule-breaking, without serious consequences.

This attitude to human nature – both our fallibility, and our propensity to deliberately break rules – flies in the face of Moylan’s rather sunny attitude to human behaviour, which assumes that drivers will always be benign and kind-natured, won’t deliberately break rules, and will respond rationally and sensibly to the environment around them –

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.

Sustainable Safety, quite sensibly, doesn’t take this benign view, and builds safety into our road environments by recognising that we human beings will often make mistakes, and make flawed judgements, rather than relying upon our supposed good nature and responsibility.

Finally, the fifth principle of Sustainable Safety is State Awareness. In short this amounts to education of users to ensure that they are familiar with rules and how they operate, but it also includes the recognition that not all human beings are the same. Some may be more prone to risk taking; some not so good at processing information, determining speeds, and so on (e.g. children, the elderly). The environment should align with these capabilities, rather than with those of some idealised human being. This is particularly important if the ‘task demands’ being loaded onto a user exceed their capabilities. A good example might be someone who is tired, or ill, attempting to drive across a junction that is needlessly complex. The risk of collisions will obviously be increased if the demands being placed on a user – in the form of multiple interactions having to be dealt with and processed in quick succession – exceed their abilities.

While conventional Dutch road layouts aim to simplify and reduce the number of interactions that have to be dealt with at any time, applying ‘shared space’ on busy roads, with many different types of objects moving in different and unpredictable directions at different speeds, will challenge the ability of people to process information and adjust to it. Again, we see that ‘share space’ of the Moylan form doesn’t sit easily with Sustainable Safety.

So there we have it! I hope that’s a reasonably clear explanation of the principles of Sustainable Safety and why it stands opposed to the ideology behind Exhibition Road.

You can read more about Sustainable Safety on the Cycling Embassy blog, on the Bicycle Dutch site, and on A View from the Cycle Path.



This entry was posted in David Hembrow, mutual respect, Pedestrianisation, placemaking, Shared Space, Sustainable Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Sustainable Safety and ‘Shared Space’

  1. Mike says:

    It may come as no surprise to Mr Moylan that we too wish he would hide in a cave instead of attempting to impose his half-arsed ideas on the public. Why is it that so many of our local politicians are so incompetent?

  2. baoigheallain says:

    It’s shocking that he doesn’t see how mad and bad Exhibition Road is but it is even more shocking that he is wilfully turning a blind eye to it.

    The museums are a major attraction in London and, given that there is probably no hope of pedestrianising Cromwell Road in my lifetime, the pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road would be of enormous benefit to these millions of visitors (over 10 million each year). It could become one of the most sought after “places” in London.

    Yes, why are our politicians so incompetent?

  3. paulc says:

    same thing happened in Gloucester… the local council rammed through a ‘shared Space’ scheme saying it was going to make the bit between the Docks and Southgate Street a place. They were hoping the newly opened Hempstead Bypass would have a massive reduction in through traffic. However it didn’t. It remained a rat-run to avoind going the long way round. pedestrians, especial the disabled, were having a nightmare ;negotiating’ with traffic in order to cross. Then they put in a non-legal ‘Zebra Crossing’ and now the drivers are complaining like heck. The place desperately needs to be made access only.

  4. D. says:

    I haven’t been to That There London for many years, but I’ve watched coverage of the Exhibition Road experiment on blogs such as this. Does *anyone* seriously believe that road is ‘shared space’ where no one mode has priority over any other? I wouldn’t dare just wander out and try to “negotiate” my way across there – I’d treat that like any other main road, and run for it when I thought there was a big enough gap!

  5. Bmblbzzz says:

    I’ve only been to Exhibition Rd a couple of times as a tourist but I’m familiar with Gloucester, as mentioned by paulc a couple of posts previously. I think this and Exhibition Rd highlight that one of the most important features of shared space is to reduce the total volume of traffic (probably all traffic but most importantly motor traffic). For instance, staying in Gloucester, the Northgate, Eastgate, Southgate, Westgate area centred on the Cross, works quite well as shared space (though I don’t think anyone calls it that, it pre-dates the term, but it is). Difference is that those are not through roads, just access for shops; and of course, that they are lined with shops and cafes, which the road round the Docks (as opposed to the Docks themselves) is not.

  6. marmottz27 says:

    David Hembrow is very critical of shared space, any kind of shared space…

  7. michael says:

    Given the track history of K&C Tory councillors, I’d be quite surprised if it weren’t the case that one of them would rather ‘hide in a cave’ than show any concern for the health and wellbeing of anyone outside his immediate social circle.
    Surely it’s clear by now that that’s just how they roll?

  8. Henk says:

    The picture of the centre of Utrecht will be outdated pretty soon. That street will be pedestrian only as of 2018, see (in Dutch).

  9. Martin says:

    The first time I was at Exhibition Road, I unconsciously interpreted the white bands which go diagonally across the road as recommended routes for pedestrians to cross. I was most of the way across before I realised how silly this was – fortunately I had got a large enough gap in traffic not to encounter any.

    But the thing that bothers me about calling Exhibition Road “shared space” is that no one seems to be sharing anything – there is a part of the space where pedestrians walk, a part where cars park and a part where vehicles drive, just like any other road. Just the boundaries between them are more subtly marked than usual (but they certainly are marked, with tactile paving and lamp post positioning). I wonder what Councillor Moylan would think if pedestrians shared the space by crossing on whatever diagonal was convenient to them, cheerfully making eye contact with drivers to “negotiate” as they did so.

    • Most discussion of this ‘negotiation’ falls into an insidious little trap… it’s the pedestrian/vulnerable doing the ‘negotiating’. Rarely a mention of a motor ‘negotiating’ its way and often that unspoken understanding (from both sides of the debate) that the motor will simply go. ‘Negotiate’ is a euphemism for the tired old ‘might is right’.

      Notable as well that whilst it is mentioned in the post that people don’t want to ‘negotiate’ in shared space and I truly agree, there is a known fact that many, especially larger, vehicles are indeed quite incapable of partaking in negotiations as they have quite limited visibility and maneuverability. Hell, even going from feet or two wheels to four I notice just how much harder it is for me to be aware of my surroundings; how am I supposed to be an effective negotiator under those circumstances?

      (I just noticed that my use of quotes is in fact intentional, and omitted when I speak of real negotiations rather than the euphemistic term…)

  10. awjreynolds says:

    Reblogged this on CycleBath and commented:
    I suspect that I’ll be mentioning Sustainable Safety and asking why this is not a core part of any public realm redesign.

  11. Pingback: Sustainable Safety and ‘Shared Space’ | As Easy As…

  12. canamsteve says:

    “…the distinction between low mass objects like human beings and have motor vehicles should be deliberately blurred, apparently to create uncertainty, and to foster ‘negotiation’ between people walking, and people piloting large vehicles”

    Ah yes – and could we now take a look at this in the context of recent tragedies the Nice seafront, Westminster Bridge and Las Ramblas in Barcelona? Does anyone seriously believe today that “mixing” crowds of tourists (many schoolchildren) and large vehicles in an “uncontrolled” space is wise?

    Just a few miles away, we went from a semi-controlled space (pavements and automobile lanes) to one where even the cycle routes have huge barriers. But this ridiculous “experiment” remains? Too embarrassed to admit their failure, I suspect. Until…

  13. Bmblbzzz says:

    I’ve been reading Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, by Steve Melia, in which he mentions meeting Hans Monderman, the originator of the shared space concept. He says Monderman introduced the first ones to reduce high casualty rates and congestion at certain junctions, but unlike Exhibition Rd, Gloucester or even Assen, he applied the technique in conjunction with segregated cycling and walking routes; although a photo in the book of the first site, the Laweiplein ‘squareabout’ in Drachten, does show cyclists and cars with no hard segregation. He also mentions that Monderman never intended shared space to be interpreted or applied as a technique for modal shift.

  14. Bmblbzzz says:

    Thought it might be an idea to have a look at Exhibition Rd before the ‘sharing’:

  15. Bmblbzzz says:

    And at the scheme in Gloucester:,-2.2490255,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1saNvo6Z2LVZtEiL47kRdpHw!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656
    That’s it now in its ‘shared’ state.

    This is how it was before:,-2.2490462,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sCHnd9R1urzaNQihOUm5TXw!2e0!5s20080901T000000!7i13312!8i6656

    It’s a misnomer to call it ‘shared’ as the scheme has certainly not enabled pedestrians and cyclists (at least the slower and more timid, the ones who should benefit from such schemes) to share the road space with drivers. It has encouraged negotiation, certainly, but between drivers. This doesn’t mean drivers are unwilling or unable to engage in similar negotiation with pedestrians and cyclists — my experience suggests they can and do — but most people don’t yet feel up to such negotiation with drivers. Probably largely down to the unchanged traffic volumes and partly to the lack of ‘street negotiation culture’ in UK.
    Nevertheless, comparing it to what came before, I think it’s a definite improvement. There was no negotiation or sharing then either! And no possibility of it. Traffic moves more smoothly now (good) and slower (good for roadside activities) and the whole junction is a lot less ugly.

    • michael says:

      Is the small improvement in Exhibition Road worth the substantial cost, though? Just seems to me a lot more bang could have been attained for that amount of buck.

      • Bmblbzzz says:

        I don’t know how much it cost or what else could – or realistically would – have been done for the same sum. I do think Exhibition Road is a particularly bad example of shared space though, ie it seems to have achieved nothing other than some prettiness; so very likely, more could have been done.

  16. Bmblbzzz says:

    Another quote from Melia’s book (I’ve almost finished it!): “To succeed politically, any strategy of urban intensification must provide positive, visible improvements […] The planners of British cities have been much more timid by comparison [with some in continental Europe], too ready to accept second-rate compromises. The growing influence of the shared space movement offers politicians a way to create the appearance of change without really changing anything. Exhibition Road is one example, where £29m was spent on largely cosmetic changes. If civic leaders are to carry their voters and taxpayers with them, they need to be bolder and more imaginative than this.”
    Seems like a fair summary; looks pretty, doesn’t change any use patterns.

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