More accidents and less economic growth: the case against shared space

London's Exhibition Road: the poster child for shared space. Image: Romazur/Wikimedia Commons.

From “shared space” to turning off traffic lights to, most recently, removing white lines from roads. All these recent trends in transport planning stem from one idea: that less traffic regulation promotes more cautious behaviour, which in turn results in safer streets and roads.

Claims of increased safety often come along wide claims of economic benefit, too. A recent Institute of Economic Affairs report made the provocative suggestion that “four out of every five traffic lights should be ripped up to boost the economy and road safety”.

I am unconvinced by both the claims of improved safety and those of economic benefit – and I am alarmed by the increasing popularity of these ideas.

Let’s start with a definition. The Department for Transport describes shared space as:

A design approach that seeks to change the way streets operate by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles, primarily through lower speeds and encouraging drivers to behave more accommodatingly towards pedestrians

The ubiquitous claims of improved safety in shared space – which has been made in CityMetric and used as evidence in the IEA report – are based on a fallacious assumption: that the introduction of shared space schemes lead to a fall in injury and accident. This is not the case.

In Ashford, in the two years before a shared space scheme was introduced at a junction, there were nine reported accidents, all categorized as “slight”; the most recent figures over a similar two year period also show nine accidents, with eight reported as slight and one as serious.

In addition, my own survey into peoples’ experiences of shared space in the UK, found evidence of a significant underreporting of accidents. All involved in this conversation, including the designers themselves, agree on the need for more research and better data.

Sharing, although a lovely idea, is not a reasonable proposition when all parties are not equal. Reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and encouraging more accommodating behaviour are excellent objectives. But they are not achieved by the architectural conceit that places toddlers and tankers, buses and blind people in the same, so called, shared space without pavements, kerbs or signals.

Expecting a blind person to cross a busy road where a controlled crossing has been removed is not safer. Expecting a young child, who has been taught to stop, look and listen, to negotiate that space when the kerb is removed is not safer. Expecting drivers and cyclists to deal with confused and disorientated road users is not safer. People clearly do not feel safer and this was confirmed by my research, published in a report titled Accidents by Design, which found that over a third of people actively avoid using shared space.

That brings us back to the economy. If previously accessible streets are being turned into no go areas for large sections of the community, how can that really bolster an argument that also purports to “boost the economy?”

Ultimately my survey found over two-thirds of respondents reported a negative experience of shared space – and although the problems are perhaps most obvious for vulnerable road users the schemes were equally unpopular with drivers. Perhaps the final word should go to a survey respondent, a motorist: they described shared space as “an absolute nightmare which I seek to avoid”.

Chris Holmes is a former paralympic swimmer. He was ennobled as Lord Holmes of Richmond in 2013.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.