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.