Friday 5 February 2016

The Myth Of Shared Space

What is "shared space"? I think it means different things to different people and in this post, I will attempt to show it as being a largely mythical concept.

I have put off writing this post for a long time because so many others have written about shared space (from a variety of standpoints) and I am not sure that I really have anything new to add. I will declare that I am not an opponent of some of the concepts per se, but I really do think many ideas have become toxic with the way they have been implemented.

Let's start with an important definition (well, my definition) of shared space which is in the glossary to this blog;

Shared Space
A street where several functions either share the same space at the same time or sometimes separated in time. For example, a footway may have loading bays on it which are only operational during times of low pedestrian flows or traffic signals separate different movements and modes by space and time.

Shared space can also mean more radical layouts where traffic, pedestrians and cycle users share the same area on a single surface, such as Exhibition Road in London. The concept seeks to blur demarcations between travel modes and enhance the street scene or public realm.

Let's also pause for a minute and take a look at the current official UK guidance on the subject in the form of Local Transport Note 1/11 - Shared Space which defines the concept as;

A street or place designed to improve pedestrian movement and comfort by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and enabling all users to share the space rather than follow the clearly defined rules implied by more conventional designs.

So immediately, the "official" view ignores those riding bicycles, but acknowledges that motor traffic is an issue - this should be about pedestrian comfort and reducing traffic (OK, my interpretation!). LTN 1/11 also defines "sharing";

The ability and willingness of pedestrians, facilitated by the sympathetic behaviour of motorists and others, to move freely around the street and use parts of it that, in a more conventional layout, would be considered largely dedicated to vehicular use.

This is a problem for me as it suggests that shared space relies on those driving to behave sympathetically towards pedestrians and this is all rather too simplistic. LTN 1/11 also defines "level surface";

A street surface with no level difference to segregate pedestrians from vehicular traffic.

I mention "level surface" (sometimes referred to a single surface) as shared space and level surface are often conflated and used interchangeably which is not right. A level surface has distinct advantages for people with impaired mobility, wheelchair users and people pushing buggies, but is can be a significant barrier to visually impaired people. We also have the concept of "comfort space";

An area of the street predominantly for pedestrian use where motor vehicles are unlikely to be present.

We also have some key statements which kind of give the reason for looking at a shared space scheme;

  • Shared space enhances a street’s sense of place.
  • As the level of demarcation between pedestrians and drivers is reduced, the amount of sharing increases.
  • In shared space, a design speed of no more than 20 mph is desirable.

Some commentary is given in support of these statements, but there are plenty of health warnings (!) given in the document. In no particular order of important, I think the following points are worth bearing in mind;

The Manual for Streets (DfT, 2007) suggested that, above 100 motor vehicles per hour, pedestrians treat the general path taken by motor vehicles in a shared space as a road to be crossed rather than a space to occupy. However, this figure is not an upper limit for shared space. Shared space streets with substantially larger flows have been reported to operate successfully, albeit with reduced willingness of pedestrians to use all of the street space.

A key benefit of shared space, particularly where there is a level surface, is that it can allow the street to be used in different ways. For example, street cafes and the like may be present during the day, while at night the area occupied by daytime activities could be given over to people visiting night-time entertainment venues. A street could also host regular street markets or occasional events such as street theatre.

[D]uring research into user interaction in shared space, no instances of negotiation by eye contact were observed – indeed, there appeared to be very little overtly demonstrative communication of any sort between pedestrians and drivers. Eye contact cannot be relied upon, given the difficulty in establishing it with a driver through a vehicle windscreen, especially at a distance. It is important that this is understood to avoid undermining the confidence of blind and partially sighted people using shared space.

There is a great deal of advice in the document and in my opinion, if some of the more well-known shared-space schemes were "measured" against this advice and the design the criteria (which are guidelines), they would be abject "failures". The three points I have reproduced above suggest that traffic flows shouldn't be high if we are inviting pedestrians to dominate; level surfaces can have wider benefits and the often-quoted concept of "eye contact" is cobblers. Please have a read of the whole thing as in my view the proponents of the shared space movement don't seem to follow even this.

So, why do we get shared space schemes? They are actually nothing new and in countless locations, things we would call a "shared space" pre-date the motor car - just think about any old town or city market square which has operated just fine without cars. 

I'm going to spend the rest of this post giving some examples of what shared space might look like, despite me saying it is a myth and then I shall round up with some conclusions. First, here is one of the many squares in the wonderful city of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic;

The city has lots of squares which are in many places just large open spaces with streets running into them. The image above is fairly typical and one can very clear see the tram lines running through the space. There is no parking allowed, but loading can take place where required, although don't ask me if it was permitted when I took the photo. It could be shared space, but it was like that before cars.

In terms of traffic flow, it will be the trams being the issue rather than the motors, but I would argue there is a very high sense of place. I would suggest that the layout is rather poor for visually impaired people as it is a wide open space of paving with no help for navigation; and it's probably an issue for many people with mobility impairment because of the traditionally cobbled surface. Those very important issues aside, pedestrians dominate the space and are enabled to do so by the lack of vehicles. Next, a street in Deventer, The Netherlands;

Again, this is a level surface shared space, although "footway" areas are nominally picked out in a slightly lighter paving. In this street, we have have car parking (and lots of cycle parking as one would expect!) but the street is access for cars and deliveries only - through traffic has been filtered out and flows will be significantly less than the 100 vehicles per hour given as the guide level in the LTN. Let's keep it going. This is Venn Street, Clapham, London;

Although once again a level surface, Venn Street has more traditional footway areas a "carriageway" along the centre and the granite cobbles is a resident's parking bay (achieved without paint, but with a sign on the building). There is also a loading bay in the street, but no parking allowed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (at least it was when I last visited) which means the space can be used for other things (such as a market). So not only is the space shared by transport modes, it can be shared with a market. 

The street is also one-way (towards us, although this should be changed to allow 2-way cycling) and again, only of use to those who need to be there. Compare the above photo with how the place looked in 2008. I would say that if it wasn't for the British traffic signs and English shop names, this could be anywhere in Northern Europe! Still in London, I want to show you the same street, but it is a street of two parts. This is the famous Exhibition Road which has been controversial over the years (and remains so);

Again, we have a level surface, but there is an 800mm strip of "hazard" warning tactile paving which is set behind a black slot drain. The warning strip demarcates a comfort space for visually impaired people. The first three photos were taken between Kensington Road and Cromwell Road

The last photo was from the tiny section south of Thurloe Place which provides access for those delivering or needing to access some residents' parking bays in Thurloe Street. In essence, one can drive through a couple of roads which form a loop and then the exit puts you back before where you started (if that makes sense). In other words, unless one has business there, it is pointless driving in.

Next we have Marine Parade, Southend-on-Sea. This street is right on the sea front and for many years consisted of a wide dual-carriageway road with lots of parking. The road was a significant barrier between the promenade on one side and the pubs and amusements on the other. A few years ago, the area was redeveloped with the central reservation coming out along with 2-stage staggered crossings and the road being made a single carriageway with hugely widened footways, some on-footway loading for the businesses and some uncontrolled crossings with some level surface thrown in. 

The area is a shared space because the huge traffic signs at each end tell us so and there is a 20mph speed limit which is enforced with average speed cameras (which I like). The top photos shows the extent of the cycling infrastructure (there is none) and it really is a wasted opportunity, especially as the new area is a break between adjacent protection (t a varying quality). The lack of controlled crossings will be an issue for some sectors of the community, although on a nice sunny day with lots of pedestrians, people on foot can assert themselves as the second photo shows.

Southend is a really interesting example. Undoubtedly, it is head and shoulders above what was there before. Had the cycling infrastructure been continued to link up the seafront and a couple of zebra crossing been thrown in, I think it could have been pretty good. But is it "shared space"? I am not sure it is, we have a conventional carriageway between wide footways and the carriageway takes levels of traffic which allows sharing momentarily as pedestrians scurry across. Contrast this with the "nice" end of Exhibition Road, one is not going to stand in the middle of Marine Parade eating an ice-cream!

At each end of Marine Parade, the road layout goes back to pretty standard UK stuff (even with the cycling infrastructure) and so Marine Parade is essentially part of a much longer motor traffic corridor, despite having the A13 running parallel to it. The sea front could have bee transformed into a series of east-west cul-de-sacs with connections every so often back up north to the A13 - I suppose I am on about unravelling networks. Let's have a look at a few more examples where I think there has been far less noise. Here is New Road in Brighton;

It's another level surface scheme, but with restricted motor access to the point where again one can deliver and only a blue-badge parking bay is available. Motors are only allowed in from one end (cycling allowed both ways) and as a result, people walking, cycling and sitting at tables dominate the space. It is shared space? People will say it is, but really, the sharing is not on equal terms, it is a pedestrian space within which people cycling are guests and people driving don't need to be there unless they are making a delivery. This is the opposite to the "through route" schemes like Southend and Exhibition Road. This next photo is St James' Terrace in Southwold, Suffolk;

It is part of a network of historic streets which were not designed as such, more they evolved. There are some very narrow footways and so most people walk in the road in this part of town, which is very popular with tourists. Despite the parking, the streets in this area are generally pretty quiet. The area could do with a couple of modal filters and perhaps a restricted parking zone could clear out all by residents' parking (there is a large car park on the edge of Southwold). But, this and the other streets are essentially shared space streets with a level surface. This has happened by historic quirk rather than expert design, but you will never hear about places like this - they are not new and shiny. OK, last example. The next photo is Trinity Street, Borough, London.

Is this shared space? It's a level surface area with a carriageway-like cobbled route through it picking out a cycle track - there are no cars, but there is sharing going on. On the one hand, people cycling have a clear route through and perhaps they could dominate, although cycle speeds will be low as it is a link. People cycling can share on the terms of the pedestrian and indeed, there is seating and planting around the space which does help shape how it is use. This was not designed as a shared space, this was created by closing a through route to motors. Look at the place in 2008, it had already been closed to motors with the area being transformed soon after. 

The use of the word "shared" is the thing I keep coming back to. Shared conjours up an idea that everyone can use a space on equal terms and this is clearly not and cannot be the case on a through route for traffic. It is why that wherever we see this kind of design plopped on a busy road (and especially busy junctions) we immediately get controversy. 

On the one side, the designers and the forward thinking councillor who pushed for a shared space will be extolling the virtues of smoother traffic flow, capacity gains and a greater sense of place. On the other side we will have visually impaired people and their advocates pointing out how people have now been excluded as they relied on kerb upstands and controlled crossings. We will read local newspaper reports with people complaining that their new "implied roundabout" has caused accidents and we'll also have local cycling groups complaining about the total lack of protection. This is all very familiar isn't it?

I think the examples I have used show that there is no real thing that defines the concept of shared space, although level surfaces come up a lot. The places which are successful from a pedestrian's point of view (going back to official guidance) are the ones which limit motor access to really very low levels and on this basis, it is not about sharing, it is about who exercises the most power. Don't forget, a pedestrian dominated place by day can still attract people driving through to quickly at night.

When all is said and done, I think we need stop being hung up by the term "shared space" it is all about the streets and how we use them and therefore that in itself means that the term is a myth for me. Venn Street and St James' Terrace are more similar than we might imagine in terms if them being the backdrop to street activity. One is very pretty and one is very basic, but they seem to do a similar job because of low traffic levels. Southend and schemes like it with pretty paving plonked on a busy through route may be a lot nicer than they were which us fine to a point, but we really run the risk of creating as much exclusion for some people as the old streets created. 


  1. Good points about the volume. Shared space fails when there aren't low speeds of motor vehicles, it fails when there are too many motor vehicles and it is likely to fail is the blind have no way to navigate. Here are the applications of this sort of design that the Dutch actually use well. Woonerven are not what most people think of, but they could be said to be shared spaces. Again, relying on extremely low volumes of traffic and the really, really low speed of remaining traffic. Not even a through route by bicycle. And the pedestrianized zones are also where this shared space is used. The lines and demarcation blurs, allowing pedestrians to take control. Again, with access for loading at some times of the day only being pretty much the only thing that motor vehicles do in these zones. And the traffic that remains will be traveling very slowly.

    I suggest talking about fietsstraten, or bicycle street, and how a British version could look. Remember, very low volumes of cars, no more than about 2000-2500 absolute maximum and there should be double the number of cyclists projected or actually using it, if not 4 times, the speeds must be kept low, 30 km/h in urban areas and 60 in rural areas, and the roadway must be designed as if it were for bicycles as the primary user, either looking like a slightly wider version of a Dutch bicycle path, possibly with a raised textured median to discourage overtaking, or a pair of cycle lanes that combined make up between half and 2/3 of the carriageway, with access only by motor traffic. Very few stops, few traffic lights, if any, priority over side streets, and smooth transitions. Also bus routes are not a good thing. It is often applied incorrectly outside of the Netherlands.

    1. On the volumes, we also need to think about peak times as well. Overall daily flows can be relatively low, but concentrated into a small window.

  2. Drachten, a supposed model of shared space;

    Can't say it looks like a particularly 'low speed environment' (apparently B H-B and Martin Cassini's currently preferred term).

    I've said it before, but if shared space is truly to work it's got to appear to both a pedestrian and a driver like it's a fully pedestrianised area into which the driver has mistakenly intruded, so that car drivers feel uncomfortable and ease right back on speeds - never mind 20mph - that's still way too fast to be mixing with peds. Of course, this requires that ped flows massively exceed motor traffic flows, creating a 'mobbing' effect, and inducing that feeling of discomfort in the driver.

    Andy R.

    1. This space at least has a couple of zebras and none of the "implied" roundabouts we seem to like that people soon use as roundabouts. Pretty aful - he said 12,000 on the main road 5,500 on the side roads a day - yuck!

  3. This is how it seems to me:
    To work, shared space needs lower speeds, but getting drivers to go slowly is hard. Traffic calming has its drawbacks and limitations, so to really do the trick, shared space deliberately adds some ‘uncertainty’ to the mix.
    On the whole, if you are in a car, the answer seems to be yes. You slow down because you know that someone could come at you from any direction; and you know you have to be ready to deal with multiple hazards at once. This may be worrying or annoying but, you can cope; after all, you are a driver: you have passed a test and have good eyesight and good reactions. Anyway, if it all goes wrong, your steel cage will protect you.
    No, not so good.
    If you are a cyclist or pedestrian then, from a driver’s point of view, you are already less visible and less predictable. With the added ‘uncertainty’ of shared space, drivers are focussing extra hard on not hitting each other. You are smaller and slower so you don’t easily register as a hazard and may get overlooked so, for a given speed, drivers may well be more likely to hit you than on a conventional road.
    Even if, like many experienced cyclists, you are generally quite skilled at avoiding being hit, in shared space there could be two drivers at once, coming from different and unpredictable directions and, you still have to watch out for the child who may be about to run out across the level surface. You are not protected by a steel cage.
    Adult pedestrians can generally protect themselves by keeping to the ‘pavement’ areas, but the young, the old, the blind and the disabled can’t necessarily do that. Nor can cyclists –they are required to mix with the cars.
    The paradox of shared-space is that it may reduce overall injury rates but do it by improving the safety of the drivers (who are actually posing the danger) while worsening the safety of the vulnerable -with the most vulnerable facing the greatest increase in danger.
    Reducing the danger for the most vulnerable needs to be given higher priority in shared space design.

    1. Casualty rates have to be taken seriously of course, but used very carefully; we never seem to measure "experienced" safety and the problem with the "befores" and "afters" of these schemes is we are simply not comparing like with like - the new layouts are totally different and we cannot simply say they are "safer"; they may have less recorded casualties, but that is as far as it goes.

  4. I agree that you cannot measure how dangerous a road is simply by the number of casualties -very few pedestrians get killed on motorways, but we know that is not because they are safe places to walk.
    But, in the case of shared space schemes, I think it would be very useful to properly study the numbers of the different types of road user (car, bike pedestrian, HGV etc) and the number and severity of collisions both after and, as far as possible, before the change. This data should be but does not seem to be readily available and there are instances of people who have quoted incomplete collision data from Poynton.
    In the case of cyclists, it is important to know the numbers who are opting to cycle to understand the actual level of risk. The change in the number cycling may also be fairly closely correlated with the change in the 'experienced' safety.

    1. There is the study of Poynton by Melia (, which suggests that peds weren't 'taking the road' as the designers might have hoped (or as the name suggests they could), amongst other findings.

      NB. It should be noted that Dr. Melia has been accused of being biased against these schemes - by Mr. Cassini, IIRC, that noted fence-sitter when it comes to traffic control (see last weeks blog re traffic light removal).

      Andy R.

    2. Indeed - I think people cycling would be a fair correlation of success of a so-called SS scheme. Poynton seems to be creeping in terms of traffic flow, although the town is meant to be getting a bypass...

  5. For anyone who wants to tell Westminster that Exhibition Rd should be filtered: (i believe this now ends on 26th jan)

  6. Is the fact of driver liability a factor in the Netherlands, which allows schemes to work there that wouldn't work in UK?

    1. Would you think that being financially compensated in the event of a crash makes you want to go and cycle with a truck? It would be like a parent thinking that if a similar law was enacted for babysitters it would be fine to let them stay with a paedophile just because they would be financially compensated in the event of a bad outcome. Look up David Hembrow's blog and my own blog's posts on strict liability for the explanation of why it doesn't affect driver behavior and Mark Wagenbuur(BicycleDutch)'s blog for an explanation of how the laws work in practice in the Netherlands.