Oct 24, 2010

Can "shared space" street design reassure vulnerable users and still be shared space?

Shared-space design for streets and intersections deliberately creates a sense of uncertainty about who should proceed first.

Such uncertainty is not a bug, it is a feature, as they say. In a well designed scheme, the results are said to be almost magical. The removal of clear-cut rules and signs and traffic lights prompts caution, low speeds and a negotiated approach to right-of-way instead of a rules-based approach.

New Road, Brighton - shared space

But there may be a problem. 

Some of the most vulnerable users of streets don't seem to like shared space. It makes them feel ... vulnerable.

In a comment on my post on Shared Space designs in Japan, David Hembrow (author of  a view from the cycle path blog) points out the Dutch cycling advocacy groups are not too keen on Shared Space:
"Don't get too excited about Shared Space. I've yet to meet anyone here in the Netherlands who is enthusiastic about it. In fact, there is much criticism of it due to it having lead to a reduction in safety, and especially subjective safety, for cyclists vs. drivers. Thankfully, there are very few busy shared space areas, and I'm not aware of any more which are planned. Many villages always were like this, of course, and many still are."
David's comment is not the first time I have heard such concerns. He has much more here. In various countries, people with vision impairments have also expressed their worries about shared space. I have been excited about shared space but such concerns cannot just be dismissed.

So here is a design challenge for you. 

Could shared-space design be modified to retain a sense of 'subjective safety' for pedestrians and bicycle users WITHOUT giving motorists too much confidence about their right-of-way? Can the vulnerable street users be given safe havens without prompting motorists to get complacent and assume they will stay within their designated spaces?

Are Dutch-style bicycle paths really not compatible with a shared space? Are protected pedestrian crossings? 

In places that are candidates for shared space treatments, we really want a calm environment that makes people feel very comfortable walking and cycling. We want motorists to proceed with caution and to feel uncertain of their right of way in locations where sharing the streets is important. But we actually DON'T really want vulnerable road users feeling vulnerable or facing uncertainty about their safety.

Can we get such a 'best of both worlds' outcome?  

I don't have a full answer and I have an open mind on this at the moment. I suspect that it may be possible to use clever design to reassure most pedestrians and bicycle users about their safety (and to really keep them safe) while still keeping motorists in a state of cautious uncertainty.

Maybe there are already designs or schemes somewhere which achieve these objectives? I wonder if the result would look more like shared space or would it look more like a typical street in the Netherlands?

In any case, I think it would be foolish to be 'shared space fundamentalists'. It would be lunacy to become obsessed with staying true to the pure ideals of 'naked streets' rather than on achieving their goals. As I have said before, shared space is just one of many ways to  get a 'public space dividend' by slowing down traffic. 

Any thoughts?