Friday 11 April 2014

Shared Space revisited. The hype continues but in reality it still doesn't work.

If you're unsure about what the term "Shared Space" means, please read the wikipedia article. Note that I disagree with much of that article. The video below shows a real Shared Space, demonstrating how real people interact in this space.

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 stand up to analysis when compared with better infrastructure designs. It is also often claimed that Shared Space creates a "place" where people feel safe, though many people see the reverse in practice.

This is Somewhat different from what the architect promised.
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.

People never look happy when cycling
amongst large numbers of cars.
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 from Ceresplein, that part of Assen has become more pleasant. People really do stand around and chat 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. Note that the Ceresplein and Kerkplein videos were made on the same afternoon just minutes apart, one immediately after the other.

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". Last year this was made into a formal 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.

How the Kerkplein has changed
When we moved here in 2008 the Ceresplein was the only Shared Space area in Assen. 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 and not very busy streets in residential areas to be combined by junctions with priority to the right, but less common for busy junctions. This was almost like a prototype of Shared Space thinking - no traffic signals, no painted lines on the road to show priority. Each participant in traffic had to decide who will take priority, how and why. These junctions are 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:

The flags show collisions since 2007. There have been 19 reported collisions in total, four involving cyclists and one of which injured a pedestrian. Note that these figures refer to the time while it had this proto-shared-space layout and not to the layout which we have now. Note also that this single intersection was more dangerous than all nineteen roundabouts in Assen and all the simultaneous green traffic light junctions combined.
Before. Proper kerbs, pedestrian
crossings and central reservations
Due to the re-building this area no longer looks as it did in the aerial photo above.

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.
Unfortunately, not only did the changes made not address the biggest problem with the existing junction - that drivers of cars do not necessarily give way to lighter traffic from their right, but they made other things worse.

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.
The work was completed some time ago and people have had enough of a chance to get used to the junction. There is not too much point in making observations immediately after change because of course people take more care when everything is completely unfamiliar and of course there will be many people unsure of what to do. However, enough time has now passed for the people of Assen to be used to this new Shared Space, and the problems remain.

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.

This woman is crossing Kerkplein with
a child on his own bike. Does she look
surrounded by those cars ?
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
Kerkplein every day: Cyclists choose
the pavement because this junction is
frightening by bike. What will it take
to make them choose not to cycle ?
Given how unpleasant and stressful Shared Space is as a cyclist, I'm quite sure that it has not led to an increase in cycling. No-one seeks out Shared Spaces by bicycle. No-one ever says they prefer cycling in Shared Spaces vs. on segregated cycle-paths. Even some Dutch traffic planners who I have spoken to have pulled a face and declined to answer when I have directly questioned them as to whether they enjoy cycling through Shared Space.

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.

Another day, another Shared Space
in another town. Cyclist riding on
the pavement because that feels
than riding on the road. This
is a very clear signal that the
infrastructure is not good enough to
support mass cycling.
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.

Local politics
A local political party has complained several times about the dangerous situation at the Kerkplein shared space. They've compared the situation with the "Wild West", describing a situation where drivers go over the pavements and cyclists and pedestrians have to run for their lives.

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.

For the architect it's seemingly all about that lamp-post
Myth: According to the architect, the Kerkplein is supposed to look like this - dominated by people walking and cycling. Contrast this view with the video above which shows how this really looks.
The unusually shaped lamp-post on the Kerkplein supposedly "emphasizes the urban renewal and the new identity of the square", "infuses equilibrium in the square, by forming a visual counterpart to the Josefkerk (church) that dominates the square. At the same time, the lamp allows the less dominant buildings opposite the church their own integrity" and was "designed in such as way that the movement of traffic participants across the square is accentuated: the lamp looks different from every angle and seems to move with the spectator."

What amazes me is that people are taken in so often by promises like this. The Kerkplein never looks as shown in the architects imagined images. In reality it looks exactly as shown in my photos and video:

Reality: The Kerkplein is dominated by cars. No-one spends time here on purpose - it's a place which you want to get away from

Reality: The unusually shaped lamp-post is one of very few places in Assen which suffers from fly-tipping. It also gets used to lean bicycles against. Does this "emphasize urban renewal" or somehow "allow the less dominant buildings opposite the church their own integrity" ? Of course not. It's also clearly not managed to "infuse equilibrium" either. Note that even this confident adult cyclist chooses to ride on the pavement and not on the road.
Update: Small note about another example
Poynton in the UK has been the subject of much hype and many claims of improved behaviour and safety. As with other claims about improved safety of Shared Space, which are often made before the real results are known, the claims about Poynton also do not seem to stand up to scrutiny.

In the five years between July 1, 2005 to July 1, 2010, before the Poynton scheme was introduced, there were nine accidents, one of which involved a pedestrian (i.e. 1.8 per year, 0.2 per year involving a pedestrian). Between March 31, 2012 and March 31, 2014, after the Poynton scheme was completed, there have been six accidents, four involving a pedestrian (i.e. 3 per year, 2 per year involving a pedestrian).

Much the same result has been recorded in Dutch shared spaces, e.g. Haren and Drachten and it is to be expected that the Kerkplein in Assen will also cause injuries.

Update January 2018
This junction is still in place and it's still causing chaos. The newspaper article on the right is a call to "tackle this unsafe situation" from one of the local political parties. Why now ? There's been another injury of a vulnerable person: Last week a woman with a disability who walks with a stroller was left with a serious injury. In October there was a another injury of a person with disabilities, this time depending on an electric buggy as shown in the video above, who ended up injured at the side of the road.

Dangerous incidents and crashes are reported on almost a daily basis.

Several things have been tried in attempts to ameliorate the danger, including more strict cutting of trees and installation of brighter streetlights, both in an attempt to improve visibility. i.e. to try to make sure that drivers of motorized vehicles notice the more vulnerable road users. Unfortunately, these attempts have not made a difference.

When this junction first came into use in 2013, complaints were quick to follow. Peoples' concerns were initially played down as something that would reduce over time as everyone got used to the new situation, but there has been no reduction over time.

Shared Space is not safe even for fit able-bodied people. For those with disabilities it is strikingly worse.

Update April 2022
At last there's some action ! The junction has been rebuilt with two pedestrian crossings (there were three with the previous design, none for the Shared Space design), which should at least make it easier for people to cross the road here:

Of course it's still an unpleasant place to be on a bicycle. That's not changed by the crossings. However we are also promised that cycle-lanes will be re-instated here and also along the route to the East, which hopefully will mean that we're no longer used as traffic calming devices.

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.


Kevin Love said...

I have seen shared spaces work in Toronto. But only when >99% of the traffic is bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Otherwise car drivers bully people and it does not work.

Toronto also has two shared space zoos. See:

The next shared space zoo is my all-time favorite. It is located in North America's largest car-free zone on the Toronto Islands. Generations of Toronto children know it as Far Enough Farm. See:

Elliot Schwartz said...

Thanks for this post. It really goes to show it's not about drivers being nicer there, or afraid of strict liability - it's all about the right infrastructure.

David Hembrow said...

Kevin, Elliot: Thanks for your comments.

Yes, Dutch drivers are just like those elsewhere.

When >99% of the traffic is bicycle and pedestrian, you don't really have a "shared" space. That's more like our pedestrianized or nearly car free spaces. It's the "sharing" with cars which creates the problem.

Your petting zoos sound lovely. We've got several petting zoos in Assen too and you can walk around perfectly safely in them. But like your safe petting zoos, there are no lions or bears to "share" with. If there were, then the experience would be different.

Glen said...

I'm a little confused because most of the photos shown don't actually look like "shared spaces"; they look like calmed streets, which is quite a different animal. A shared space typically doesn't have many/any delineations between the road space and the pedestrian space; it's all the same, hence the greater care by road users in general. Sites like that in the video have a clear indication of where the road is, so it is no wonder that cars are making their way along unimpeded (albeit slowly) and pedestrians are lingering on "their side".

David Hembrow said...

Glen: Your misconception is a common one. Lots of people have opinions about what they think "shared space" ought to be. It comes up every time that the subject is discussed. However in practice the totally 'shared' space eally doesn't work at all, so even those in avour of shared space insist on some degree of segregation, especially of pedestrians. The above is a bona-fida shared share. It's not a theoretical side but a real example of what they look like in practice. Please refer to my update from 2013 in a previous blog post.

highwayman said...

" But like your safe petting zoos, there are no lions or bears to "share" with."

David, you left out the tigers.

It should read thus: "But like your safe petting zoos, there are no lions or tigers or bears to share with (oh my!)"

Maybe the Dutch should raise their paradise to a new level: Yellow Brick Roads would add to the landscape (for bicyclists of course). :)

Keep on blogging!

Unknown said...

Shared space in Gloucester which is terrifying for pedestrians, especially the elderly, disabled and blind:

there used to be a proper pedestrian crossing there. Now it's a complete nightmare with cars just not yielding to pedestrians at all.

Unknown said...

Oh dear, the addition of a new lamp does in no way improve the unpleasant experience that is "using that junction".
It only makes me feel slightly better that even the Dutch get it wrong sometimes.

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

Petting zoos entice people to come and mix with the animals because they're small, gentle and don't look or feel like a threat. They don't feel like they have big teeth, very strong muscles or large claws. How happy are people (unless you have an allergy to the dandruff) when they can mix and play with small goats or bunnies or small ponies? Same with cars. They might be OK riding horse but wouldn't enjoy being under the horse. Or mixing with a sleeping bear. Or lion. They might ride/drive in a car but don't want to be under it or right in front of it.