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The Life and Death of Shared Space?

Just as I am taking pictures of the new Exhibition Road in London, a black cab passes. It skims the first raised kerb around the street lighting, hits the second one full-on and then its tyre explodes with a lifeless *PFLOOF*. Next to the groups of school children. With their heads on bumper height because they decided to congregate on the kerbs. Where used to be the pavement, now school children playfully push each other around, gossip about classmates, on the side of traffic. They clearly ‘felt’ it correctly: Exhibition Road is now a people’s street where pedestrians have the same rights as cars.

Obviously this is not representative of the hazards of Shared Space, but it got me thinking. All the more since last week somebody casually mentioned that  Shared Space was found to be not so successful after all, I decided to take a closer look.

Originally, this new philosophy of street design – which is what Shared Space is – was developed by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman in 2004. (Wikipedia, however, suggest the first notion of it dates from 1980 in France, but Monderman surely made a significant contribution.) Since that time, until his death in 2008, he advocated the idea around the Netherlands and Europe, and succesfully implemented it in practice.

The first implementation of Shared Space as we know it, was in the village of Makkinga (NL) in 1991. A while after that, the cities of Drachten and Haren (both NL) followed in 2001 and 2002, and became the main examples of Shared Space in the Netherlands. Other countries in Europe followed rapidly: New Road in Brighton (UK) designed by Gehl Architects in 2007; Ashford’s ring road (Kent, UK) in 2008; a main square (Homme de Fer) including tramlines in Strasbourg (France). Exhibition Road is the latest addition to the list of Shared Spaces in the UK, opened in early 2012. The opening was ecstatically celebrated: the tune of Europe’s The Final Countdown was played by a brass band, whilst London’s Mayor Boris Johnson handed out pecks-on-the-cheeks to women dressed in robes. Exhibition Road is an “award-winning scheme” and even features WIFI: too much fuss to cover up the hazards?

So, what is this so called Shared Space? Shared Space is not merely a design trick. A Shared Space is an urban streetscape in which all boundaries between traffic flows are blurred. Kerbs, traffic signs, signals and cross walks have been removed, resulting in a minimum of regulations on the desired behaviour of pedestrians, cyclists and motorised traffic. Different from what is often thought, Shared Space does not automatically assume right of way for pedestrians (as is the case in the Dutch Woonerven), but considers all traffic flows as equal.

The main goals of Shared Space are to: 1) improve road safety; 2) increase vitality (e.g. ‘the state of being strong and active’); and 3) reduce vehicle domination and speed. Other institutions also see Shared Space as an excellent opportunity to improve the quality of social life and interaction in public space.

Who advocates it? The main institutions or designers who currently advocate (and implement) the Shared Space-belief are: Gehl Architects (Denmark), Hamilton-Baillie Associates (UK), Project for Public Space (USA) and Kenniscentrum (Knowledge Centre) Shared Space (NL). They do seem to, however, have different reasons for joining this battle.

Where will it work?  Shared Spaces are developed successfully both on streets with car flows of 17,000/day (Exhibition Road, London) and of 1,000/day (New Road, Brighton). It therefore does not represent a particular type of street, though it is most often applied in streets that also function as places. Moreover, it is suggested that pedestrians are comfortable to share space with a traffic flow of up to 100 vehicles/hour (2,400/day). Because its main aim is to slow down traffic and to decrease traffic flow, this scheme will only be successful when it is part of a larger network including routes for faster traffic. (Though my Mathmaticianary partner pointed out that is not necessarily true, referring to Braess’s Paradox).

What is it believed to do? The overall philosophy of Shared Space is that the absence of demarcations forces the users to negotiate their way through the space: they need to make eye-contact with other users instead of assuming safety whilst racing through a green light. Because the streetscape is less defined and will feel less safe to its users, people will compensate these feelings by observing the behaviour of others (e.g. being more aware) and responding to that in an appropriate manner (e.g. driving more slowly and carefully). Surprisingly, the most traffic accidents involving pedestrians take place (well, at least in 1988) in built-up areas and on marked pedestrian crossings1.

In these videos you can see some excellent real-life examples of traffic seamlessly merging with pedestrians and cyclists in Conventry (UK), Graz (Austria), and Bern (Switzerland). Though not surprisingly, the next two videos show how in other parts of the world traffic flows are well capable of organising themselves without the fashionable Shared Space designs: shared spaces in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi (Vietnam).

However, researchers – both traffic engineers and environmental psychologists – have looked into this subject to find scientific (and theoretical) support for the concept. First of all, research suggests that Shared Space leads to a reduction in the amount accidents: a magnificent drop of 41% in Ashford (UK); a drop of 8.3 to 1 per year in Drachten (NL)3. In most cases, traffic also shows a decrease in speed: by 5 km/h in Haren (NL)3, with an average of approximately 24 km/h maximum in UK sites7. In addition, drivers also have shown to behave more courteously towards pedestrians:they are more likely to give way in a Shared Space environment than at conventional crossings4. Next to that, streetscapes that have been turned into Shared Spaces are used more effectively and traffic flows are more spread out instead of the previous formation of concentrated flows of traffic4. Related to that, the lack of demarcations also leads to an increase of free pedestrians movement around the streetscapes (and performing undirected crossing behaviour) at Exhibition road5. Pedestrians also tend to act in a more active way when utilising an unmarked roadway, and they perform more running behaviour to decrease the risk of being hit by traffic10.

Although Shared Space is not merely a design trick, its users also express their appreciation of the aesthetics and the usability of the scheme in Ashford8, and these findings have been confirmed in Haren9. Sadly though, the role of Shared Space in enriching human contact, or even building communities through it (according to PPS) is not confirmed by research. Surprisingly, people tend to communicate via much more subtle signals than eye contact, and there is no evidence to suggest that this way of communication is significantly different from conventional streets6.

Clearly Monderman chose to advocate a daring idea that arouses opposition. Although I had difficulties finding convincing counter proof to the success of Shared Space, there is some to present here. First of all, an often heard criticism is that pedestrians and cyclists do not feel safe in Shared Spaces. As we know from environmental psychological research, there is a difference between subjective safety and the actual traffic safety. Interesting enough, decreasing the subjective safety is one of  the (what I believe) underlying ideas of Shared Space in order for people to act more carefully. However, it could also have an adverse effect if these feelings are too strong. David Hembrow (a Brit living in the Netherlands), for example, suggests that a decrease in subjective safety leads to a lower amount of cyclists. In addition to that, at Ashford’s ring road (UK) pedestrians stated to worry about sharing space, said they felt safer before the changes and feel they have less priority over vehicles8. In the same study pedestrians also suggested that they found the motorists to act hostile and unwilling to share space and that high traffic flow and vehicle speeds are the main cause for their anxiety. Pedestrians also found to prefer safe crossings over short crossings in case of a unmarked roadway, and they perform more running behaviour10. Clearly, these factors do not imply a carefree use of Shared Space. Especially for the more vulnerable of our society, this scheme therefore causes problems. Visually and physically impaired people are often less confident and will feel less inclined to move around freely through the streetscape.

All in all, these are valid concerns, though they are probably related to the balance between the amount of cars and pedestrians. There is a risk of cars dominating the Shared Space. At Exhibition Road (UK)5, for instance, it was found that there is higher chance of people parking in non-designated areas because of the lack of demarcations. However, many other environmental factors influence the perception of safety. For example, the presence of a safety zone, level of lighting, dry surface, trees and plants and seating facilities influence (and increase) the amount of pedestrian traffic2. Drivers’ perception of safety is related to pedestrian density, presence of children and elderly and the lighting level2.

So what is the score? It may be clear that reducing the demarcations between traffic flows in itself does not automatically create a successful and sustainable streetscape. The way in which the design of a Shared space is executed is therefore vital and should make people feel comfortable. (Research has found that women feel less comfortable in Shared Spaces than men2, and that pedestrians who have heard of the concept of Shared Space before feel more comfortable2 than others.)

Hence, there are some criteria to make a Shared Space successful. First of all, it is essential that pedestrians are confident enough to move around the whole of the streetscape. If they do not feel comfortable or safe, they tend to stick to walking around the margins of the street2, thus supporting the traditional traffic flows and invisibly segregate traffic again. Also, urban planning should support Shared Space with destinations pedestrians would attract, such as food-based retail and shops. Only then Shared Spaces can succeed in supporting a lively social atmosphere.

Icing on the cake. This last cartoon (source: Fietsersbond, 2007) definitely caught both the philosophy and the opposition of Shared Space in one single illustration.


Sources

1              Himanen, V., & R. Kulmala (1988). An Application of logit models in analysing the Behaviour of Pedestrians and Car drivers on pedestrian crossings. Accident Analysis and Prevention, Volume 20 (3), 187-197.

2              Kaparias, I., M.G.H. Bell, A. Miri, C. Chan, & B. Mount. (2012). Analysing the perceptions of pedestrians and drivers to shared space. Transportation Research Part F, 15, 297-310.

3              Hamilton-Baillie, B., 2008. Shared Space – Reconciling People, places and traffic. Built Environment, 34 (2), 161-181.

4              Schonauer, R., M. Stubenschrott, H. Schrom-Feiertag, & K. Mensik. (2012). Social and Spatial Behaviour in Shared Spaces. Proceedings REAL CORP 2012 Tagungsband, 14-16 May 2012.

5              MVA Consultancy. (2012). Evaluating Performance. Ehibition Road Monitoring. Report for Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

6              Department for Transport. (2011). Local Transport Note 1/11. Shared Space. Information & publishing solutions.  ISBN 9780115532092

7              MVA Consultancy. (2010). Designing the Future. Shared Space: Operational Assessment. Report for Department for Transport.

8              Moody, S. & S. Melia. (2011). Shared Space: Implications or recent research for transport policy. University of the West of England, Bristol.

9              Methorst, R. (2007). Shared Space: veilig of onveilig? Een bijdrage die er op gericht is om een populaire ontwerpfilosofie te objectiveren. Bijdrage aan het Colloquium Vervoersplanologisch Speurwerk 2007. 22 – 23 november 2007.

10            Zhuang, X., & C. Wu. (2011). Pedestrians’ crossing behaviors and safety at unmarked roadway in China. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43, p1927-1936.

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2 comments on “The Life and Death of Shared Space?

  1. Pingback: Redefining the Lowly Intersection | Shared Space | Blend Images -THE BLOG!

  2. Pingback: Shared Space – an Alternative to Crosswalks? | Public Places Past and Present

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This entry was posted on October 24, 2012 by in articles and tagged , , .
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