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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?


  1. Cyclists aren’t at risk; blind people are. Worrying about precious bicyclists distracts from the real danger, which is killing off a few blind people just so urban planners can seem European, modern, and anti-car.

  2. Subjective safety matters for bike usage. If you look at the reasons so many parents drive there kids to school in the US instead of having them walk or ride there bikes to school, its subjective safety - parents just don't think its safe for their kids to walk or ride there bikes to school, so they drive there kids to and from school.

    In the Netherlands kids walk and ride bikes to school because parents still think its safe to do so. Even at distances that in the US we would provide a school bus, in the Netherlands parents expect kids to ride there bikes.

    The rates of injury in this country caused by riding bikes to school in this country is pretty minimal. Obesity and increased rates of diabetes are much bigger public health threats from not riding than risk of injury from riding a bike to school. But because people do such a bad job of evaluating the actual risks involved, you need to add subjective safety measures like protected bike lanes to get people to actually feel comfortable riding a bike.

  3. The shared space concept seems to me to be using fear of hitting people as a mechanism for traffic calming. I would rather use trees or other obstacles to calm traffic, rather than a kid in the road.

  4. The problem with shared space is that there are too many impatient assholes in pickup trucks that think the biggest vehicle deserves to go first.

    Also, I dont understand why it's always "see what europe is doing." Want to see widepread implementation of shared space? Look at India, and then get back to me with their mortality rates.

  5. I live in Germany. The street I live in has recently been turned into a "shared space" place. It's actually quite appalling. No-one has any idea what to do. It's only about 30 metres and on the boundary of a pedestrian area, so a lot of pedestrians think they're in a mall and can safely walk out into the middle of the road, and then so many people just end up confused and quite probably scared. I hardly think that is the intention of "shared space", scared pedestrians.

    A lot of the cars that drive down the street are coming out of a carpark. The street is one-way; they follow the signs to a carpark, and when they leave they have to turn right and go through the unfamiliar shared zone. They're often confused and drive cautiously. Mission accomplished.

    Then there's the regulars. Most of them treat it not much differently than they treat the clearly separated road before it. They drive just as fast and in the inimitable style of German drivers leave almost no margin for error. Again, I hardly think this counts as achieving the desired result.

    The net result is that pedestrians have to keep out of the way of cars, except that they don't have the confidence of knowing that this particular area is out of the way of cars.

    When visiting relatives in Holland, they complained about exactly the same things. It makes pedestrians feel unsafe, it's confusing. How can that be a good thing?

    When I heard about the idea, I thought it sounded pretty good. Now I have experienced it, I don't think it has any value at all. There's plenty of better approaches to traffic calming.

  6. While I appreciate shared space from both a theoretical perspective and the implementations I have experienced, I believe that it is fundamentally at odds with NYC culture. Think of all of your daily experiences in the city, both transportation-related and otherwise. There absolutely must be, in every case, whether it's getting on and off the train, queuing up to order food at a deli, or hanging out in the park, a "don't talk" option. One party must absolutely have the option of completely ignoring the other party. It's simply ingrained in our culture. Should the couple sitting on a blanket eating sandwiches keep their heads up and/or move closer to the periphery of the park, or should the people throwing the baseball around find a more appropriate, space-rich park in which to do so? All New Yorkers have an idea of which party has the "right-of-way" in any given scenario (whether these perceptions match up is a different question). The answer to these questions is never "just be human, be respectful. Figure it out amongst yourselves." Somebody must always have the right-of-way.

    This aspect of our culture is a beautiful coping mechanism for living in close quarters with so many people, but the one aspect of city life that it doesn't translate well to is maneuvering heavy machinary through our streets at high speeds. How many times have you been about to cross at an intersection where there is a motorist waiting to your right or left, and the traffic light is in a transitional phase? Do you and the motorist look at each other in the eye and try to figure it out like human beings? Hell no! You both look to the traffic signal to tell you what to do! Shared space is the antithesis of what makes NYC work--again, with respect to transportation, and other aspects of city life.

    I think shared space schemes have a future in American small towns, and maybe even small- to mid-sized cities, but here, I think it's a long, long way off. So let's keep championing those protected cycle tracks while we still have Bloomberg and JSK at our sides!

  7. I can think of a place in the US that uses this "shared space", and as far as I recall there was never a particular feeling of vulnerability.

    At the University of Connecticut, there were several buildings where the staff parking lot was only accessible by driving on the sidewalk. As in, it was several hundred feet from the nearest road.
    Everybody seemed to know that:
    A) You were supposed to drive on the sidewalk to get there, that the sidewalk had been specifically made wide so cars could drive on it (although not wide enough to pass), and that any sidewalk on campus meant to exclude cars had a couple of huge boulders blocking it so only a bicyclist could fit through.
    B) You were a guest on that sidewalk, and if you hit a pedestrian you were in BIG trouble. You drove at about 5mph, and while most pedestrians would yield to you, that was entirely them being nice.

    I checked out google maps to provide a satellite photo of a parking lot that couldn't be reached by road, but in the decades since I left they've built roads to all of them. :( But in the 20 years I lived in that tiown, I never heard of a single incident of a car hitting a pedestrian on campus, except for one busy street at the edge of campus with on-street parking where jaywalkers would try to cross from between parked cars, often without looking and/or while drunk. And none of them ever required hospitalization, but most folks felt that was only a matter of time.

    So, what I am saying is that the solution to this may be as simple as making it clear, by pavement and signs and other methods, that the area is a SIDEWALK, however it is one that does not absolutely ban cars.
    It is sort of a self-fixing (and self-creating) problem: if the area is full of cyclists and pedestrians, motorists will be used to having to proceed with caution, but if motorists can usually zip in there without interference, they may become complacent and stop paying as much attention, and/or driving faster.

  8. Sharing is a learned skill. Providing a space for sharing, doesn't mean everyone immediately knows how to share well. The language of the street and culture of street users must emphasize education of proper sharing techniques. The implicit contract should be: "by using this shared space, I agree to follow it's customs, or be ejected from it." One of the great things about shared space, is the customs for use can dynamically change to meet the needs of the users. Rush hour now, soccer field later, bike disco tonight!

    That said, here in Los Angeles, I'll take 'uncertainty of safety' over 'definitely unsafe', any day. Dedicated spaces are great, but they are never really exclusive, cars can hit pedestrians on sidewalks in driveways, bicyclists like to ride on sidewalks too, pedestrians like to walk in streets and bike lanes to get to their cars. We all just need to wise up and learn to respect our fellow street persons, then sharing will be easy.


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