Traffic-free routes or shared space: what’s best for pedestrians and cyclists?

Local Transport Today Issue 575, May 25th 2012

Bristol was the venue for an absorbing debate this week between a leading advocate of separating pedestrians and cyclists from motorised traffic and a pioneer of shared space.

Andrew Foster

Should we separate pedestrians and cyclists from vehicular traffic or encourage them to mix? That was the question that attracted more than 100 people to a debate at the University of the West of England in Bristol this week. The debate pitted UWE academic Steve Melia, an advocate of separation, against Ben Hamilton-Baillie who coined the term ‘shared space’ in 2002 and, through his consultancy Hamilton-Baillie Associates, has since designed many such schemes across the country.

The idea for the debate came from the interest generated by a recent paper Melia authored with a colleague Simon Moody, which reported widespread public dissatisfaction with the Ashford shared space scheme in Kent and questioned the way the DfT’s Shared Space Local Transport Note had interpreted evidence prepared by MVA Consultancy (LTT 2 Dec 11).

Melia, a senior lecturer in transport and planning, spoke first and began by taking the audience back to the 1963 Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns. This had been blamed for many of the mistakes in urban planning but he said one of its most important recommendations – the creation of environmental areas in which vehicle access was restricted – had been overlooked in the UK. The concept had, however, flourished in mainland Europe, both in town centres and residential neighbourhoods, and the areas were highly popular. Traffic-free environments gave pedestrians and cyclists protection but Melia emphasised that this wasn’t a debate about accident statistics. Most fundamentally of all, pedestrians and cyclists felt comfortable and safe in these settings.

Melia conceded that the debate was a little artificial – it wasn’t a black and white issue, and he accepted that sharing space could work in areas with low traffic volumes. “I’m sure some of Ben’s schemes have brought improvements,” he said.

But he expressed concern that the shared space movement had become too powerful, with a growing belief that sharing space was superior to separation. This had led to local authorities not even considering whether they could achieve separation, such as pedestrianisation, in places where it was possible.

European cities with the best walking and cycling mode shares typically had excellent segregated networks for both modes, he said. “But in the UK we have shared surface, shared pavements and shared bus lanes. We think real cyclists want to be out there mixing with the traffic.” This all led to conflict between road users, he said.

Hamilton-Baillie traced his interest in shared space back to a 1980s Department of Transport road safety advert ‘One false move and you’re dead’ that depicted a child’s foot on the edge of the kerb, suggesting the kerb was a boundary between two different worlds.

In towns and cities across the UK the principles of separating modes had created a bleak, unattractive public realm, he said, with “incredibly clumsy layouts”, such as junctions with guardrailing and staggered pedestrian crossings.

Sharing space was about moving from a regulated, controlled world to one governed by social protocols, he explained. It went with the grain of human behaviour whereas legal and regulatory frameworks to separate users were dehumanising.

Hamilton-Baillie contrasted the features of highways and public realm using a classification he developed with the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman.

The highway was regulated, impersonal, linear, had a single purpose, was consistent, predictable, systematic, state-controlled, and governed by lines and markings.

The public realm, on the other hand, was culturally defined, personal, spatial, multi-purpose, constantly changing, unpredictable, contextual, and governed by cultural and social rules requiring eye contact.

Reducing the speed of vehicles was crucial to achieving a successful shared space, said Hamilton-Baillie. The scheme on New Road in Brighton had transformed what was a “bleak and declining street into a quintessential part of the cultural quarter”, in which behaviour wasn’t regulated by a set of principles but instead by the nature of the street.

In the discussion session, a resident of Bradford on Avon voiced the fear that a shared space scheme being implemented in the town would have a negative consequence on civility because there was no alternative route for traffic to take. The first phase of the project involved replacing a zebra crossing with an informal courtesy crossing on a road that saw between 700 and 1,200 vehicles an hour. Drivers would be frustrated by the new arrangements, he said, and elderly residents would be disadvantaged. “We call it a confrontation crossing, not a courtesy crossing.”

Another member of the audience emphasised that there was no rule book for successful shared space schemes – each required deep study of the specific location. Too many traffic schemes were the result of rule books and relying on professionals, he said, whereas really successful environments relied on community involvement and careful study. “I say let’s have lots of Bens!”

There was no clear winner in the debate and perhaps Hugh Barton, a professor of planning at UWE, spoke for many in the audience when he said he had found himself being “completely convinced” by both presentations! Different environments justified different answers, he said.