Shared Space

Areas such as that around Temple Row in Birmingham are pleasant for cyclists and pedestrians, and are indeed in widespread use across Europe. Often they are marketplaces, and have traditional features such as cobbles, quaint street furniture, and pavement cafés. But such spaces are often new, recreations of what was there in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s town planners ripped up traditional streets and town squares, and replaced them with multi-lane highways and car parks. These were unpleasant and hostile, and they killed off trade in town centre shops. Sometimes they killed off people too, and guard rails were erected on the pavement to keep people away from motor vehicles. So more recently town councils have closed the roads to motorised through-traffic and rebuilt their market places as they were. People returned, and trade bounced back. The cobbles, the street furniture, and the lack of hard traffic engineering (such as guard rails, kerbs, signage, and traffic lights) obviously makes such areas visually appealing, so when cities such as Birmingham started pedestrianising the city centre, they used similar architectural features.

In The Netherlands a man by the name of Hans Monderman noticed that these areas (original or new) were very pleasant, and also noticed that motorised vehicles did not dominate non-motorised traffic. He came to the conclusion that this was because these areas had architectural features that made vehicle drivers feel they were not on a road and did not have right of way. Noticing that everyone shared the space on equal terms, he coined the name “Shared Space” and marketed it as a solution for town centres and junctions on busy roads. Obviously the visual improvement to areas given the Shared Space treatment was considerable, and has made the idea popular.

Unfortunately Monderman's conclusion was wrong. The reason why people in traditional market places were not dominated by motor vehicles was not because of the visual treatment, but because the motor vehicles had been largely removed. The remaining motor traffic is for "access only". The Dutch do not call such places Shared Space, they call them autoluwe areas, autoluwe meaning “nearly car-free”. In Britain we typically call them pedestrian zones. Unfortunately when the name “Shared Space” left The Netherlands, people applied it to existing spaces where pedestrians shared an area with a small number of motor vehicles. However, the use of the term in this way is incorrect. Although some people refer to Temple Row as a Shared Space, it is in fact an autoluwe or pedestrian zone, as witnessed by the signage. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the critical difference between autoluwe areas and Shared Space areas is whether non-motorised traffic predominates, or motorised traffic predominates. In an autoluwe area non-motorised traffic predominates, whereas in Shared Space as invented by Monderman, motorised traffic predominates. This has a big impact on how people move in the area. If motorised vehicles predominate, vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists are bullied into submission. The bizarre reality is that Monderman Shared Space areas never involve motorised transport sharing space on equal terms with everyone else.

Haren Shared Space in the Netherlands

This is Haren high street, in the Netherlands. It was built as a Shared Space, so there are no restrictions on motor traffic. Locals quickly found they were unable to cross the road (a common complaint with Shared Spaces), so formal zebra crossings had to be retrofitted. That makes it no longer a Shared Space, but an expensively paved road. And cycling here is just as unpleasant as cycling on any other busy carriageway.

Restricted traffic zone in Erlangen, Germany

This is Erlangen high street in Germany. Although it has constructional features in common with the Shared Space on the left, it is not a Shared Space, but part of a large area where motor traffic is restricted by regulation (note the pedestrian zone sign on the far right). People walk and cycle in safety. It is pedestrians and cyclists that bring trade to shops on the high street, not a queue of motor traffic that makes an area look and sound busy.

Monderman had an untimely death, but the concept is one that has now been monetised by others. People make out that they are specialists in this area, and sell the idea to the unwitting. The language used is invariably obfuscated with vague assertions about how the streetscape will turn everyone into a thoughtful, co-operative human being. This is coupled to claims of improved safety that are not bourn out in practice, particularly in the long term once drivers have become familiar with the new layout. Standard design procedures, such as traffic flow modelling, are made to sound special. Standard traffic control techniques are given new names, so "roundabouts" become "roundels". This all makes the product sound novel and good without actually conveying real information. This allows them to justify the huge amount of money required for the block paving, the special Shared Space street lights, and all the other expensive bling. And, of course, their consultancy fee.

Roundels are not safer than roundabouts

The only only day-to-day difference between a painted roundabout (left) and a Shared Space roundel (right) is the latter are more artistic, but the former are much easier for road users to see, being high contrast against the blacktop. To this we can add that Shared Space roundels are vastly more expensive to build and maintain. However, in both cases there is a smoothing of traffic flow, and drivers and cyclists will mostly go around the circle (though a few incompetent individuals will drive straight across, risking a collision). Contrary to what Shared Space aficionados will have you believe, roundels posses no magical traffic-reduction or safety properties. For pedestrians and cyclists, in neither case is the centre a safe or pleasant place to be. On the other hand, Dutch engineers have designed roundabouts with excellent safety records for all road users, roundabouts that at first glance look just like conventional roundabouts. And of course the central island is a good place for artwork or greenery, to make the junction more attractive.

Some Shared Space junctions do work better than what was there before, but a conventional junction of the same type (eg a roundabout rather than a roundel) would achieve exactly the same for vastly less money. Once road users are used to the new junction, the Shared Space treatment achieves nothing other than a visual improvement. The Shared Space product doesn't work. It doesn't work in the Netherlands, and it doesn't work here in the UK. It can, and often does, make things very much worse. Vulnerable road users start to complain they are intimidated, visually impaired people complain they are disoriented, and the expensive pavers start to sink and crack under the weight of heavy motor traffic. Injuries and deaths follow. As the problems become apparent, so the fundamental tenants of Shared Space are abandoned and formal crossings, signposting, and barriers are quietly installed. The Shared Space is no longer a Shared Space, though the people who were sold the scheme will continue to use the term. However the sign they retrospectively erected that says "Shared Space - SLOW" automatically disqualifies the scheme as Shared Space. It is now what is known technically as a "road", or a "junction".

Of course the proponents will always say that a particular Shared Space doesn't work because it's not a true Shared Space. But fortunately Push Bikes has visited a Shared Space to which Moderman gave his personal approval, and guess what - it failed. This web book will take a look at it, and a few others.

If you want to see a safer, more liveable environment, there are ways to achieve this that actually work. Dutch engineers have developed conventional junctions to make them safer and more intuitive for everyone, no matter what form of transport they are using, and that encourages people to opt for walking or cycling. It's important to copy the good ideas, not the bad ones. This website (along with many others) detail good design. Unlike the Shared Space peddlers, Push Bikes does not receive a single penny for promoting these good designs.