“Shared spaces”: a clever trick for safer roads or a step backwards into chaos?

Shared space in Chester, circa 1890. Image: public domain.

We all know how roads work. Different types of traffic are marshalled across junction in turn. There are timed traffic lights, speed limits, blocky coloured signs, and lane divisions. Most would probably agree that we’ve come a long way since the days when chickens, carriages, horses, pedestrians and children all ran about together on medieval streets.

But within the past 20 years, an entirely different arrangement has emerged in cities across Europe. There are few signs, few markings, and no traffic lights. On London's Exhibition Road, there’s a lone bench floating in the middle of the road, unprotected by barrier or even a raised bit of concrete.

These are “shared spaces”, areas of road where it’s basically every bike, car, or pedestrian for themselves  much as roads worked hundreds of years ago. The theory runs that, if you take away the types of signal you can mechanically follow, drivers become more alert, and drive much more slowly.

The concept seems to have come from Hans Monderman, the Dutch traffic engineer who created “Woonerfs”: specially marked shared residential streets where cars are restricted to walking pace.

But it was Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British urban designer, who brought the concept to Britain – and, he claims, coined the phrase “shared space”. As part of a study fellowship, he travelled to mainland Europe in 2000 to see how they were coping with traffic management in towns and cities.

As he tells me now over the phone, “It was clear that something new was emerging there.” While it played out differently in different towns, there was one common element: “Deliberately engaging the driver in the context of his or her surroundings, rather than trying so segregate them from the processes.”

In 2003, Hamilton-Baillie set up a UK-based practice, Hamilton-Baillie Associates, to design and advise on this new type of urban space. Since then, it's been gathering momentum. In 2008, shared spaces were discussed in a segment on Newsnight titled “The Case Against Traffic Lights”. In 2011, the Department of Transport released a special local transport note on shared space, posing it as a challenge to the idea that segregating cars and pedestrians always improves safety.

That year, the practice was preparing its biggest project yet, on the busiest road yet: a large junction in the centre of Poynton, a town in northeast Cheshire.

The village isn’t huge – its population is around 16,000 – but the intersection of two big roads at the village’s centre was destroying any sense of community and delaying journeys, especially those taken by foot. As one resident put it, in a video made about the project by broadcaster and traffic reform campaigner Martin Cassini, the junction “changed this place from being the heart of the village to being a traffic signal-controlled wasteland”. 

A bypass had been proposed, but wasn’t forthcoming – so local authorities, and, in turn, Hamilton-Baillie’s practice, were left with the tricky job of improving the junction without decreasing traffic volumes.

In the end, they opted for a radical £3m reimagining of the junction, which would remove all signals, traffic lights and crossings. It replaced the junction with a bulbous set of roundels, around which cars must now carefully navigate in a figure of eight, avoiding other cars and pedestrians alike. Here it is, in all its unregulated glory:

Image: Martin Cassini.

As in other shared spare schemes, the road surface is the only hint drivers get of what’s coming: tarmac gives way to lighter, uneven patterned brick, which hints that they should expect the unexpected. Its slightly uneven texture and appearance encourages drivers to slow down, much as rumble strips on motorways do. 

Hamilton-Baillie sees the project as an unbridled success, as do the residents interviewed in Martin Cassini’s film. One said he was “delighted”, and that the scheme had restored “vitality” to the village centre.

Speeds and accident both dropped after the junction change, and the three intervening years haven’t changed that. As Hamilton-Baillie points out, though, the reduction in casualties in shared spaces is mostly due to the fact that cars are driving more slowly: “Broadly, you find that the change in safety is to do with the severity of accidents rather than their number.”

It’s not all roses and roundels, though. In a 2014 research paper, transport planner Simon Moody and lecturer Steve Melia argued that the concept has been rather lost in translation in its move from the Netherlands to the UK, and that the government’s advisory note was based on suspect figures. Abroad, it argues, shared spaces are only introduced to roads with very low traffic volumes, like the residential woonerfs; here, both government guidance and shared space firms seem keen to introduce it in busier areas.

They are particularly critical of Hamilton-Baillie’s adaptation of Ashford’s Elwick Road junction, formerly part of the ring road, which has been very unpopular with residents. The pair found that cars rarely gave way to pedestrians at the junction, even at marked out “courtesy crossings”. Parents interviewed for the study said they wouldn’t be happy letting their children navigate the junction alone.

Hamilton-Baillie’s diagram of the Ashford junction.

Hamilton-Baillie tells me it’s “not particularly surprising” that some pedestrians aren’t happy, since “crossing a fairly busily used traffic route is unlikely to feel particularly comfortable in any circumstances”. He notes that the only way to tackle this would have been to remove all traffic – not part of the brief his practice was given. Safety at the Ashford junction has improved, so from that point of view, the scheme was a success.

However, Hamilton-Baillie agrees that the schemes would by no means work everywhere. The way he sees it, there are two kinds of streets: high-speed roads “intentionally shorn of any context”, so drivers can travel quickly without being forced to make decisions; and much slower, local roads, filled with everything from cyclists to pedestrians and traders. It’s the latter which, in his opinion, can benefit from the increased human interaction and reduced speeds of shared spaces.

Perhaps, then, it’s about where you draw the line between these two types of road. It may be too much to hope that high-volume roads through towns could ever be the kind of idealistic, mixed space some might want. Sharing space can make drivers more conscious and slower (one study even implied that this increased alertness lingers even after they’ve left the area); but it can’t cut down the sheer number of cars.

After all, as solutions go, it’s a relatively simple one. As Hamilton-Baillie is the first to acknowledge, “there’s nothing new here. If you look at the earliest film clips we have of streets the first reaction is 'wow, it's a shared space' – everyone's all over the place, responding to each other through informal negotiations and social protocols, not through regulation.

"It's the way streets have always been.” 


The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.

The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.