Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 14th, 2013

Let’s discuss Shared Space

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The need for this post stems from the use of twitter. In 140 characters you can be witty, snappy, concise – though a lot of people aren’t. And the back and forth can look like a debate, or sometimes just a trading a fixed positions. This one started because Gordon Price tweets the posts on his blog – just as I do mine. But instead of there being a debate under the blog post, this one took – or rather – is taking place – on twitter. And it needs a bit more ventilation than that.

It started with A Radical Old Idea for the intersection of Burrard and Cornwall. “Essentially it would square up the intersection, making it much more like a typical part of the classic Vancouver grid, adding some green space while retaining the number of lanes and capacity.” I suggested that more could be achieved if it was given a more radical treatment. And Richard Campbell responded that shared space is less safe for cyclists and pedestrians – especially  pedestrians with disabilities.

This has now cropped up again with the release of a new video about the reconstruction of a major intersection at Poynton in Cheshire, UK. While a lot of shared spaces treatments have been successful in residential areas (“Woonerfs” for instance) their use on urban arterials is still controversial

Exhibition Road in Kensington London is another example of shared space treatment of a very busy combined arterial road and urban shopping street. I am pointing to a discussion of that scheme as opposed to a diatribe – or even a peer reviewed learned journal article, because I think there is indeed need for an exchange of views. As opposed to trading blows between preconceived positions.

One thing does need to be stated at the outset, and that is that places are – and should be – different, and local people need to be consulted about what they want to see happen in the places where they live. Even a peer reviewed paper can be distracting when the “before” situation looks a lot more like shared space already (compared to typical Vancouver arterial intersections) – and the objectives seem to be a lot less clear than Poynton.

Obviously Burrard and Cornwall is not directly comparable to Poynton. There is much less retail activity in the immediate vicinity, for instance. And the only thing that the current City proposal seems to want to achieve is keep the intersection working as it does now, but get some more green space. Poynton’s objectives were much grander – lets try and rescue our village from economic oblivion. I also found it very encouraging that there are now more cyclists there than less- and that vulnerable pedestrians (a mum with a stroller and toddler, a lady in a wheel chair, blind people with and without guides) all find the new arrangements preferable. There is also a sort of chorus, from locals who were at least skeptical if not outrightly hostile but  who now support the scheme.

It is indeed possible to find other examples that were less successful, but that does not damn the whole approach. It simply illustrates that these things need to be designed carefully, and you may well need to go back and redo some things in the light of experience. What is clear is that our present obsession with concentrating on keeping the cars moving quickly is not working from the perspective of other road users. Furthermore, the conventional road safety approach of adding barriers, signs, signals and hard landscaping not only proves unsatisfactory in terms of improving overall safety – but fails in terms of place making. Because what Poynton wanted to do was create a place where people would want to linger. If they spend more time there, they might well spend more money. They might actually enjoy visiting Poynton, and go there more often, instead of the out of town superstores and big box centres.

But what is also clear is that when humans are enclosed in steel safety cages, and look at the world through a screen, they miss all the signals that we are so good at sending each other – nonverbally. Which is why pedestrians tend not to collide with each other very much. Unlike motor vehicles. And when motor vehicles collide with pedestrians and cyclists it is not the driver of the vehicle that gets hurt. Taking cars out of the mix works – but only by creating more car only streets. Places where people who are not driving are forbidden – and speeds are increased. Collisions are fewer but of much more frightening intensity. Cities evolved long before motor vehicles were invented, and the experience of getting cars – and car drivers – to behave better within cities has always required them to slow down and pay attention to other road users.

Shared space does seem to me to more productive of overall urbanity than an all out war on the car, and one that is likely to be much more successful – on a whole range of measures, including collision numbers and severities.

 

Written by Stephen Rees

February 14, 2013 at 6:00 pm