Comment: Beware the return of traffic control clutter, by Phil Jones

A Conservative peer's recommendation to halt the spread of shared space initiatives fails to recognise the real benefits that better streets can bring, says Phil Jones

Phil Jones
Phil Jones

Shared space has been getting a pretty bad press recently – strong criticisms have been voiced by groups representing visually impaired people, as well as cycling campaigners.  Opponents say that such schemes not only are dangerous, with frequent unreported collisions, but also feel unsafe, deterring many people from coming to these places and moving around independently.

A report by Lord Holmes, the former Paralympian, appears to show that people have an overwhelmingly negative experience of shared spaces, with 63 per cent of the 600 respondents rating them as ‘poor’.  A third said that they actively avoid such schemes.  Lord Holmes is seeking an immediate moratorium on shared space schemes, and solicitors Unity Law are planning legal action against five local authorities under the Equalities Act.

What is in danger of being lost in this round of accusations and recriminations is a recognition of the real benefits that better streets can bring. Shared space is something of a catch-all term, but typically has the aim of improving the quality of the public realm in town centres, reducing the amount of traffic control clutter that mars so many places.  It replaces the typical signs and traffic lights with the more basic and natural principles of social interaction and human responsibility. Well-designed schemes reduce drivers’ ownership of the street, lowering speeds and enabling people on foot and cycle to move around more freely – and without having to ask permission to cross the street by pressing a button. 

There is plenty of evidence that less-engineered and more context-sensitive streets can reduce collisions, noise and air pollution and improve vitality and economic performance.  It is for these reasons that many communities, local authorities and developers are keen to build more of them.

That’s not to say all schemes are perfect, and some could have done more to take into account the needs of visually impaired people.  This can be done by offering the means for blind people to find their way around; providing areas that vehicles cannot intrude into; and a way of alerting peole to when vehicles are leaving these safe spaces.  With numerous shared spaces having now been built in the UK, including examples in Preston and Bexleyheath that have been comparatively well received, we have the opportunity to learn important lessons. 

Clearer design standards will also help address some of the problems, and I hope to be contributing to the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation's new government-endorsed guidance.

Work on shared space must continue – if it ceases now then we could begin to unwind all of the progress that’s been achieved over the last 10 to 15 years in reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and creating more attractive and liveable places that work well for everyone.

Phil Jones is the managing director of Phil Jones Associates, an independent transport planning consultant with offices in Birmingham, Reading, London and Bristol.

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