The Paradox of the Shared Space

First developed in The Netherlands and France, the Shared Space concept is not a new idea but one that continues to divide both opinions and communities. Defined as an urban planning method aimed at removing segregation between pedestrians and vehicles, it has been championed as the way forward in town planning by many local authorities.

It could be argued that a system that removes the physical boundaries of the street creates greater freedoms for users. Pedestrians gain right of way and are not restricted to cross at specified points; the removal of features such as traffic lights puts the onus back in the hands of drivers in terms of negotiating this free space and monitoring their environment, which is in turn viewed as a positive by cyclists who for many years have complained of feeling invisible on our roads. But is the situation so black and white? Whilst local authorities knock down physical barriers, are they creating new social ones?

The shared space system has many flaws. One is the removal of kerbs. For decades, the kerb edge has been the defining line between the safe and the unsafe. How many of us were taught as small children not to cross that line without an adult and went on to teach our own children the same message? At what point did we suddenly say it is fine to walk amongst traffic?

However, it should be argued that those people impacted on most by the scheme are those living with sensory loss. The shared space concept relies on people being as aware of the traffic as the traffic are of them. But if you fail to hear or see what is around you, what then? The charity Guide Dogs has advised its service users not to go into shared space areas alone. Guide dogs are trained to guide their owner along the centre of a pavement using the kerb as a marker. No kerb, no safety marker. And when you consider that when someone applies for a guide dog they do so in the hope of retaining independence, to suddenly require another person to accompany them to the shops, work or to socialise is a considerable step backwards.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind [RNIB] has also aired grave concerns about shared spaces. Cane users are struggling, as again the kerb edge acts as a marker. And as for crossing, this is impossible when you cannot make eye contact with approaching drivers. This is no small number of people being forced out of our town centres. There are 2 million people [collated by RNIB, 2015] living with significant sight loss in the UK, nearly 300,000 of that number being formally registered as blind or partially sighted. Add that to another 8.7 million people [figure based on RNID statistics] who are deaf or hard of hearing, and you will soon see that as many as 1 in 6 of our total UK population would have difficulty using shared space, on grounds of diminished sensory perception.

Let’s not also forget about vehicle users. The ideology of the scheme, where all parties interact in harmony and complicities, does little to belie the risks involved for drivers too. The removal of designated pedestrian crossing points means drivers have to be even more aware than normal of their surroundings, and the slower speeds required to do this only lead to unnecessary bottle necks and congestion where once traffic flowed more freely. Poynton, Cheshire, is a classic example of this with low traffic levels moving to and from the area, but no longer flowing through the centre as easily due to Shared Space.

Unfortunately, these safety concerns are not unfounded. There have been several deaths already linked to the use of shared space including the death of 3 year old Clinton Pringle in Jersey’s Millennium Town Park, earlier this year and the death of David Thompson in Coventry, in 2013. There have also been frequent reports of injuries and numerous near-misses all with the shared space concept at their core. Admittedly, no idea is flawless, but for shared space to be pushed forward with no or little consultation with the charitable bodies campaigning on behalf of those liable to be most adversely affected by its implementation, and at a time when our town centres are facing economic struggles, isn’t it time the government committed to ensuring safe access on all our streets for all?

By Sam Heaton


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