2 of 17: People + Vehicles = Shared Space

Do we use fewer resources by sharing road space with pedestrians or is this merely a pipe dream, aimed at reducing the prominence of vehicles in congested public spaces? Shared space draws no lines between the pedestrian and vehicle, which in a South African context has proven to be disastrous. But can this work elsewhere or in certain parts of Cape Town? Is the concept of Shared Space an opportunity to reduce our reliance on cars, by simply blocking these road spaces with pedestrians. Adam Davies of Walkanomics explores the concept.

For most of us, when we’re walking in the city, the safest place to be is on the pavement or sidewalk. However a new movement in urban street design, called ‘Shared Space’, is challenging this kind of thinking. Shared Space streets aim to reduce the dominance of cars by getting people and vehicles to share the road space. Controversially, this sometimes includes removing kerbs so that there is no physical demarcation between the pavement and the rest of the street. Surprisingly, this risky strategy has arguably made streets safer for pedestrians, with less accidents and slower vehicle speeds. Now the UK government has released official guidance on Shared Space, which not only shows the benefits and problems of the idea, but also attempts to provide advice on how to create high quality Shared Space streets.

Riskier street = safer streets?

The new research examined a range of streets, from traditional streets with kerbs to ‘Shared Surface’ streets, where it is hard to tell where the pavement ends and the carriageway begins, such as New Road in Brighton. The study found that by removing kerbs, vehicle speeds were reduced below 20mph, although the researchers were quick to point out that this was a result of a combination of design measures. The research team also found that drivers were fourteen times more likely to give-way to pedestrians in shared space streets. This more considerate driver behaviour was attributed to:

  • Lower vehicle speeds;
  • Removing kerbs;
  • More people walking in the carriageway, which is encouraged by shared space design.

These kind of findings bring some much needed evidence to the controversial debate about shared space.


Holistic placemaking

The study also produced guidance on how to design shared space, which should prove useful for the many local governments that are planning schemes to revitalise failing high streets. However throughout the guidance it is stressed that a successful shared space scheme is not just about getting rid of kerbs. The most effective shared space streets combined several different placemaking designs such as high quality materials, street trees and level surfaces. There is not one ‘silver bullet’ that will make a street more walkable, but rather a holistic approach to street design is most likely to achieve the best results.


Does shared space work for everyone?

However ‘Shared Space’ isn’t all good news, a very significant proportion of disabled people find streets without kerbs very difficult to navigate. This was reflected in the research which found that blind and partially sighted people felt more comfortable in traditional streets with pavements and kerbs than shared surface streets. The official guidance tries to address these concerns by encouraging designers to take disabled peoples needs into account and provide ‘comfort zones’ for vulnerable users. However this is unlikely to fully satisfy some groups representing disabled people, who have launched several campaigns against shared space. So shared space has its benefits and its problems, however with one of London’s most popular streets about to embrace the idea, it seems like the concept is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

Images courtesy of nurpax, yellow book and La Citta Vita on flickr Disclosure: In a previous role I worked on the DfT study on Shared Space.

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.

There are 3 comments

  1. James de Villiers

    Wouldn’t these streets only be effective with a small amount of traffic. As traffic increases= space taken up increases?

    1. Rashiq Fataar

      That is a good point, but the aim is not to prioritize traffic but to prioritize other modes, so it may not make sense to introduce this into an area like Long Street dominated by cars, but we also need to shift the mindset, and stop planning around cars, but plan around people and mass transit.

  2. Disability Solutions

    Shared spaces do work in smaller, quieter environments in places like the Netherlands (where cyclists are treated as the priority on the streets by all users). I cannot see it ever working in any of our CBD’s. Their rapid adoption in many places in the UK has been questioned, and in many cases slammed by a wide range of users, especially as you say Disability groups. Much of the research given in favour of shared spaces is seriously flawed. http://www.rudi.net/node/23010
    Given the aggression, and poor manners of many South African drivers, this would be a recipe for disaster in Cape Town CBD, or almost anywhere else (apart from, perhaps some leafy suburb, with already light traffic. I don’t believe it is “here to stay” at all; it is a passing (seriously flawed) fad, which may work in certain very specific instances, but should never be contemplated for a city centre.

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