“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.” 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.