Shared Space has been over-sold around the world. Claims have been made of a reduction of danger which I showed earlier this week doesn't seem to stand up to investigation. It is also often claimed that Shared Space creates a "place" where people feel safe, though many people see the reverse in practice.
I first wrote about Shared Space in 2008, especially pointing out problems with the example in Haren. At that time I'd visited relatively few shared spaces but the reality was already quite obviously different from what is presented in pro-shared-space articles.
Since that time, I've visited many shared spaces in the Netherlands and seem common problems in them. When I visited London last year I took time to observe the Shared Space in Exhibition Road and this turned out to have much the same problems as do shared spaces in the Netherlands.
Yesterday I wrote about how a previous Shared Space in Assen which has had motor vehicles removed from it is now a much more pleasant place to be. You can see for yourself how after removal of motor vehicles in Ceresplein, that part of Assen has become more pleasant. People like to stand and talk in that area. Today I'm writing about another area of Assen, Kerkplein, which has been made into a Shared Space. Here you see the exact opposite. Due to Shared Space and the resultant domination of motor vehicles in Kerkplein, no-one stands still in this area. No "place" has been created by making this "Shared Space". Everyone who you see here is in a hurry to get to somewhere else instead. I makes for a stark contrast with the Ceresplein.
In 2008 I pointed out the problems which more vulnerable road users experience in Shared Space areas. I return again today to the theme of Subjective Safety. Unless people feel safe, they won't ride so often. The Netherlands is putting its predominant position as the leading cycling nation in jeopardy by implementing Shared Space.
In 2008 I referred to "a recent road layout change in Assen right next to a 'shared space' style junction". This is that junction. Last year it was made formally into a real shared space and it now looks like this:
The six minute long video shows how people behave on the Kerkplein. Note that while this is edited it didn't take long to collect the material - 20 minutes of raw footage was edited down to six. Similar incidents to those in this video can be seen to occur all day every day at this junction, and at other Shared Space junctions. Note that no-one is standing here enjoying this "place". A very stark contrast with video shot just a few minutes later on the same afternoon showing people doing exactly that on the car-free Ceresplein.
When we moved here in 2008 the Ceresplein was the only Shared Space area in Assen, while Kerkplein was as in the photo below - a junction at which there are no rules other than "give way to the right". It's quite common for small not very busy streets in residential areas to be combined by junctions with priority to the right, but less common for busy junctions to work in that way. This is almost like a prototype of Shared Space thinking - no traffic signals, no painted lines on the road to show priority. Each participant in traffic has to decide who will take priority, how and why. These junctions can be unpleasant to cycle across because you can't rely on motor vehicles coming from your left giving way to you as they are supposed to. Between 2007 and 2012, the Kerkplain was the site of 19 incidents:
|Before. Proper kerbs, pedestrian|
crossings and central reservations
The asphalt has gone, replaced by a tiled surface. The pedestrian crossings and central islands have been removed. A single large and expensive street lamp has been installed to replace normal street-lamps. The road has been narrowed and the pedestrian area on the Northern side outside the Jozefkerk has been widened.
The two junctions have been combined into a "Shared Space".
|After. The Kerkplein Shared Space|
in Assen during a 2013 study tour.
This junction has not been made more pleasant or more convenient to use. In my view, this area is now more confusing than before. One of the obvious symptoms of this added confusion is that the junction is more commonly abused by its users than it was before.
There wasn't a problem with people driving cars over the pavement (sidewalk) when that pavement was separated from the road by a kerb.
It wasn't so difficult for pedestrians to cross the road when there were pedestrian crossings.
The changes that have been made were the wrong changes. They have not addressed the existing problems. In fact, the junction is worse to use now than it was before. In particular, the experience of vulnerable road users has been made worse by the changes here. What's more, while the appearance has been improved, this has not become "a place" where people congregate. Because of the traffic this is an unpleasant location. No-one stays here for any longer than they have to. Contrast the video above with one shot in the car-free Ceresplein a few minutes later.
Why write about it now ?
|By comparison, this junction in|
Assen copes with more traffic and
has a higher speed limit. This
location has proper segregated
provision for cycling so the four
minor incidents here were merely
'fender benders', No cyclists or
pedestrians got hurt. Despite high
traffic levels, no-one feels scared
to cycle here. There are many
well designed roundabouts and
traffic light junctions in Assen.
If you're looking for inspiration
from the Netherlands, look to those
and not to Shared Space.
Shared Space does not serve the vulnerable. Rather, it prioritises the powerful.
I've visited many shared space junctions in the Netherlands, in small villages, towns and cities. I've also observed shared space in London. At every single shared space junction that I have seen, motor vehicles come first.
"Pit Canaries" revisited
The result of building infrastructure which puts motor vehicles first is that an unpleasant environment is created for vulnerable road users. One of my very first blog posts was about how cyclists could be seen as the "pit canaries" of the roads. i.e. you can tell whether cycling is healthy in your area depending on who cycles and how. A mainly young adult male demographic and wearing helmets and reflective clothing is an indication of very low subjective safety. In the Netherlands, cyclists do not look like that, but is because of the conditions which cyclists face. Bad spots are rare. Shared Space remains rare.
Older cyclists and people with disabilities can be seen as particularly sensitive "canaries". They will be the first to show obvious signs of discomfort and the first to stop cycling. The discomfort is precisely what you can see in the video.
This type of junction, which at the very least causes inconvenience but also scares people, is precisely the sort of thing to build more of if you wish to see cycling become the domain of the brave rather than something which is for everyone.
While many claims are made for Shared Space, no junctions designed as shared spaces are truly "shared". This junction design has failed to achieve any aim other than perhaps to "smooth the flow of traffic". You'll notice that motor vehicles flow very nicely, often not stopping even if they should have given way and often pushing their way past even if this means going very close to people crossing the road by foot or driving over the pavement. It is only by removing both the traffic and the threat of violence that comes with it that conditions result which make walking and cycling pleasant. Remove the "sharing" part of Shared Space and the problems go away.
Why haven't shared spaces led to a drop of cycling in the Netherlands
|Another day, another Shared Space|
in another town. Cyclist riding on
the pavement because that feels
safer than riding on the road. This
is a very clear signal that the
infrastructure is not good enough to
support mass cycling.
The truth is that we don't know whether Shared Space has had a negative effect on cycling and it would be very difficult to tell if it has. In any case, as yet, we should expect any such effect to be small.
By one means or another, segregation of cyclists from motorized traffic is very nearly 100% in the Netherlands. Shared Space is still very rare so it makes up only a small part of anyone's journeys, and there are usually ample opportunities to take other routes. Also note that Dutch people almost all already cycle. While it is possible that some people might have given up due to dangerous junctions, I think it far more likely that people who are affected and scared adapt their behaviour to unpleasant junctions as seen in the video. i.e. they get off and walk or they cycle on the pavement.
Other nations have almost exactly the opposite situation. Where only the brave cycle, those same brave people are likely to cycle through shared space without finding it appreciably different to any other street. But in these cases while it may be difficult to observe a negative effect we should weigh up the possibility of something else having had a positive effect.
Shared Space is very unlikely to attract cautious people to take up cycling. On the other hand, proper cycle-paths, especially if installed at the required density, have a proven track record of attracting people to cycle.
This has been covered further in the local news and it was an issue in the recent local elections. Hopefully the situation at this junction will soon be improved.
Half way through writing this article, my friend Terry visited and made the suggestion of opening a Shared Space zoo. "Let the animals and public mix it up a bit". Should be an exciting experience. It might even be safe to walk backwards through such a zoo with your eyes closed, at least if you're selling the concept.