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.”