For fifty years, separation of traffic and people has been the aim of all street design, but now planners are keen to mix it up. What’s happening, and why?
Pavements originated as cleaner walkways at a time when the streets were made of mud, horse manure and worse. With the advent of motor vehicles and tarmac, they became a safe refuge from the traffic. This separation of pedestrians and vehicles was enshrined in planning policies with the publication in 1963 of ëTraffic in Townsí, a report for the UK Ministry of Transport by the architect, civil engineer and planner, Professor Sir Colin Buchanan.
Schemes inspired by Buchanan have defined our urban landscapes ever since, though many of his most radical proposals such as a network of new roads for London and a tunnel under Bath were never completed. Key to Buchanan-style planning was the separation of vehicles and pedestrians. Motor vehicles needed clear roads and people needed to be kept from harm, hence kerbside railings, pedestrian underpasses, footbridges, pedestrianised streets and shopping centres, cycle routes and elevated walkways.
This type of street design has been around so long that it seems the natural state of affairs, but it’s far from perfect. Everyone has an opinion on how their local streets should be improved, but they rarely agree. Opinions tend to fall into four groups:
1 Drivers with places to go want clear roads so they can go quickly, no speed bumps, no on-street parking, few pedestrian crossings.
2 Townspeople using local shops and amenities want wider pavements, more pedestrian crossings and traffic calming.
3 People from out-of-town want convenient parking, ideally right outside the shop they are visiting.
4 Shop keepers want space to load/unload vans, parking for passing trade and display space on the pavement to draw people in.
You can’t satisfy everyone by just tinkering with the Buchanan model.
If you are designing a new town you could, possibly, create enough space to enforce strict separation of cars, pedestrians, buses and cyclists, but it would be expensive. In an existing European urban area with narrow streets it simply isn’t possible to do well, so rather than doing it badly, why not share the space?
Schemes like these developed first in Holland, Denmark and Germany, generally in residential areas and small towns, and were of course named in their native languages. The use of the term ‘Shared Space’ in English seems to have originated with Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a street designer who has designed a number of such schemes here. It’s not universally accepted though, when Transport for London compiled a report into the topic in 2006, they referred to ‘Simplified Streetscape Schemes’ and considered signage clutter as well as how the space is used. ‘Shared Space’ is a neat phrase that encapsulates an idea, but it isn’t a set of rules.
The thing people notice most about shared space schemes is that the visual dominance of the highway is reduced, kerb heights are reduced and lines removed so the space feels more open. The lower kerbs make life easier for the disabled and people with children in pushchairs. Formal pedestrian crossings are usually absent, the interaction of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists is governed by informal negotiations, social protocols and normal civilities. Just like in, say, a supermarket car park or a local road. But it isn’t just a case of removing things and creating chaos, or it shouldn’t be.
Shared space schemes need to be carefully designed and are usually much more site-specific than a bog standard highway authority lines and signs job. Subtle cues are often used, coloured surfaces, textures and patterns that hint at how the space should be approached, but don’t dictate. All users, but especially drivers, need to realise that they are entering a shared space. This can be achieved by the use of gateway features, changes in road surface and colour and other subtle signals.
In a well-designed space, traffic filters through slowly and safely, relying on the perception of hazard to reduce speeds. The time taken to drive through a shared space is often no more than under a conventional scheme, trickling through at 10 to 20mph without stopping for any length of time, and it can be faster than being stuck at lights for several minutes, then risking your licence dashing to the next set.
It is fair to say that Shared Space schemes are not universally welcomed, as some motorists and motoring organisations see them as anti-motoring. Some organisations representing disabled people are concerned too. Criticism is not necessarily a bad thing, no doubt some schemes could be better and fair criticism encourages designers to do better in future. Some completely miss the point though, and online forums are full of drivers criticising schemes that make them feel unsure, wary and nervous. Where previously they understood right of way and could put their foot down, now they are on edge. But as Ben Hamilton-Baillie says, ìWhen you are in charge of two tonnes of moving metal with the potential to kill people, you should be wary.î
Some traffic authorities have carried out rather cavalier experiments that have caused problems. A scheme in Reading came in for justifiable criticism on ëThe One Showí last year. All the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings were switched off, but no other changes made to the street layout or furniture. In the film, a blind person with a guide dog is shown trying to cross the road. The problem is that the dog takes its owner to the crossing point, just as it has been trained to do. Drivers see a traffic light that isn’t working and just drive on. It’s an accident waiting to happen, and it proves that badly designed experiments yield poor results.
Blind and partially sighted people do have problems with any change to street design. Many rely on memory to fill in the gaps between one identifiable location and the next, and any changes need to be relearned. Guide dogs are taught to take their owners to particular places via particular routes, and to wait at crossings. Lowered kerbs are an issue for people who use a long cane to find the edge of the pavement, which is why most schemes use kerbs about 40 to 50 millimetres high. Traffic authorities should work with disabled people’s organisations (DPO) to reduce problems at the design stage, and local social services departments should collaborate with DPOs to provide information and training.
The biggest challenge though is to drivers. We tend to develop a right of way mindset. The signs, lines and lights are there to dictate who may do what, and when things go wrong they are used to apportion blame. In a shared space you need a different approach, and to ‘give way to everyone’.