Shared spaces

I want to write about shared spaces. These are road spaces that everyone shares – pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, buses, and taxis. Rather than segregating users into their own space, all signalling and road markings are removed and everyone is thrown in together. The theory is that if you remove all the road markings, traffic lights, and signs, then motorists will get confused and slow down, making it safer for everyone. But is that what happens in practice? Apparently the traffic does slow down but it’s not safer and in some examples, the rate of accidents has increased.

There’s a share space in Poynton, Cheshire, which has been the topic of much internet debate, mostly by people who do not live there. I stumbled across an article about it on Medium from 2016 in which a local praises the new design (it’s worth noting that the author is an adult male). Indeed when you see the before and after photographs it looks much more aesthetically pleasing but this is largely because they’ve planted trees in the new design and trees always improve the appearance of a streetscape. The author thinks the new design is a huge success but goes on to describe three problems that still exist with the new design:

  1. No facilities for visually impaired people to cross the road.
  2. Parking on the pavement is still a problem.
  3. No segregated cycle paths forcing cyclists to push their bicycles on the pavement past huge queues of traffic.

I can’t help feeling like they set a low bar for themselves to say it has been a huge success while in the same breath acknowledging these problems. It’s like saying the operation was a huge success when the patient died. There’s also a fourth problem: huge queues of traffic. This was the same problem they had previously. There are too many private motor vehicles and the new design has done nothing to address this. No city has ever solved its traffic problems with the private motor vehicle. If we’re to solve traffic problems like these we need to give people alternative modes of transport. These are mass transit options and bicycles. It wasn’t even in their remit to reduce the amount of traffic. They have not been ambitious enough.

I saw this horrifying Tweet recently:

Imagine if Amsterdam had followed the traffic planner’s suggestion? Instead they took a different route which was to promote other modes of transport like cycling and they are much better for it today. High cycling modal share in the Netherlands is estimated to be worth €19 billion per year to the economy.

Poynton could have done something similar but instead they chose to prioritise cars. Yes, they have slowed the traffic down and yes, they planted some trees to make it look nicer but the high volume of traffic is still there. Would I let my 8-year-old daughter cycle on the road there? Definitely not.

The idea that you can let a child on a bike, a lorry, a bus, a taxi, a pedestrian, and a private motor vehicle loose into the same space with no road markings or signalling is ludicrous to me. The bigger and heavier vehicles will always win this battle while the smaller and more vulnerable road users will be intimidated but forced to make a dash for it anyway if they’re to use the area at all. It’s like throwing a mouse, a cat, a dog, and a lion all into the same pen together. We all know how that will end.

The visually impaired also suffer in these areas because they depend on tactile paving surfaces to know when the pavement ends and the road begins. This next video shows two visually  impaired people trying to navigate the new design with their guide dogs. There are some scary moments there.

The Dutch blogger, David Hembrow, has a video of a new shared space in Assen which is similarly bad for less confident road users. He says one of the big problems with shared spaces is, “It takes away the rights of people who are less confident.” “In shared spaces, might is right”. Full post about it here.

Apparently since the Poynton redevelopment there have been more accidents than before. In the five years prior it was 1.8 accidents per year, 0.2 per year involving a pedestrian. In the two years after the redevelopment there were 3 accidents per year, and 2 per year involving a pedestrian. The accident rate for pedestrians is 10 times worse than it was before.