Shared Space, the evidence on accidents

This post reviews some of the evidence about the ‘shared street’ campaign; and also  responds to a very interesting post on ‘As Easy as Riding a Bike – the delusion of shared space‘.

‘Shared Space’ is a concept that is gaining much praise for improvements to the street environment, and has emerged from a much larger movement looking critically at the previous rules for the design of streets.

Through the past 60 years residential streets have been governed by strict ‘rules’, latterly set out in Design Bulletin 32 (DB32), which stipulated requirements for forward visibility, junction radius, road curvature, junction spacing etc. The result helped in producing much vilified ‘anywhere estates’ across the country. Much of the design requirements were based on false assumptions that have now been tested (and are still being tested), resulting in the emergence of the Manual for Streets (CLG, 2007). This publication was followed by Manual for Streets 2 (DfT, 2010), promoting the concepts for residential streets for use in High Streets and other high volume traffic situations.

For some further history, together with some examples of recent shared space schemes, see this briefing document. For years many of our streets have been blighted by design primarily for traffic and smooth traffic movement; and in many cases historic streets praised by local Councils were impossible to replicate, because their own ‘rules’ forbade it. The new guidance in the MfS 1 and 2 overturns the status quo, and has already produced some much better residential environments.

Shared street and parking at Upton, Northampton

Shared street in Upton, Northampton

The idea of the new approach to residential street design was to consider environment first, with vehicle movement as a lower priority. The main aim was not to reduce accidents, but produce a better environment. Many residential streets have seen great environmental improvements, and data so far shows that accidents on these streets has not increased, and in many cases the ‘side effect’ of environmental improvements has been a decrease in accidents (see tables on pp30-31 of this Appraisal of Shared Space, DfT 2009).

In particular, Kensington High Street was one of the first high profile schemes to emerge from the wave of new street design placing greater emphasis on the physical environment and pedestrians. The street was ‘decluttered’ in 2000-2001 with signage and railings removed in favour of promoting eye contact between driver / cyclist and pedestrian in order to change driver behaviour.

The evidence points to widely reported reductions in accidents at Kensington High Street.

Years later, a greater variety of different schemes have been completed (including Ashford in Kent, and Exhibition Road in London) and the evidence is still being collected.

These schemes are not necessarily the panacea they might at first have seemed. Where vehicle levels are high, there is a danger that pedestrians will be intimidated. In Ashford, evidence from University of West of England shows that pedestrians are not using desire lines but giving way to vehicles, many feeling safer under previous street arrangements.

Caernarvon square

 

Whilst the Exhibition Road scheme was generally lauded (although not by ‘As Easy as Riding A Bike’ – see above), shortly after opening it suffered its first accident. Caernarvon square is hailed as a success. Opinions are divided, and the acceptance of different schemes varies greatly. It is important that the evidence base is improved so that we can weigh up the elements of these schemes that make them work, and what needs further improvement. No one wants to go back to the cutting edge street design of the 1960s and 1990s. A trip to Basingstoke will tell you that.

 

Vauville, Normandy: ‘shared’ street design

Vauville is a small village in Normandy, France. There is not heavy traffic throughout the day, although it becomes busier at peak hours and provides part of a tourist route.

A narrow road width, keeping traffic speeds slow, with a raised footpath on one side, and a footpath separated from the carriageway by a drainage channel, providing temporary road widening for passing vehicles, also slowing passing vehicles down. Minimal obtrusive signage.

A footpath on one side, with parking bays, garage and front door entrances delineated on the opposite side by a drainage channel and setts.

Temporary street closure without a song and dance.

Simple unobtrusive street lighting kept out of the way.

Separation of footway from carriageway without kerbs: the carriageway can be used by pedestrians and cyclists; refuge can be taken as necessary without needing to bump up kerbs.

Sustainable urban drainage.

Forbury Square, Reading

This part of Reading is slightly off the beaten track, ideal for taking a quick break after being in town. Forbury Square is also a great example of modern architecture integrating with historic buildings.


Forbury gardens provides a great setting for the Forbury hotel (on the left), a c1910 building originally the Shire Hall for Berkshire. Forbury Square interacts with both the hotel and the gardens. The modern buildings sit well with the surroundings, with the new brick gable of 1 Forbury Square (on the right) complementing both the modern glass facade and the Forbury hotel opposite.

The materials used in the square are great, with nice detailing of the pedestrian footways.

Oddly, though, this square never seems to get busy. My guess is that this is because the square just is not an ‘active’ environment. Firstly, the large grass beds are raised, making it much more difficult to use the square as one space that actively dissuades skateboarders, or scooters, or rollerbladers from using the area. There are studs all over the edges of the stone slabs edging the raised beds to stop boarders ‘grinding’. Why? What better than to sit having a coffee being able to watch some skaters showing off?

The metal buttons aren’t comfortable when you sit on them, and haven’t stopped the edges of the slab being eroded by skaters anyway.

Unfortunately, one side of the square (the east) also seems to be inactive. Although this is a facade of the hotel without entrances, there is actually a gap in the railings with some steps down to a fantastic boutique restaurant.

There are some benches here, which would be ok to eat your  lunch, but not much to watch going on in the square.

It even seems that the cafe/restaurants are unwilling to spill out into the square too much.

This square had the potential to become an extension to Forbury Gardens. But sadly, there are bollards everywhere, with a carriageway designed for vehicles effectively separating the garden and square.

There’s a real opportunity missed here to create a much better pedestrian environment, get rid of all the bollards, extend the square out over the road, make the priority for pedestrians obvious, and integrate the square with the garden both physically and visually.

Forbury Square is a quality formal square, but missed a number of great opportunities to provide better public realm. As a consequence, the long-term values of the area (financial, social and environmental) are unlikely to reach their full potential. That said, this is great square with some excellent architecture.

Caernarvon castle square

Caernarvon’s a pretty amazing town. The castle dominates one side of the town square, linking the commercial hub to the Menai Strait, and the city walls are intact, providing a strong physical and historic context for the town. The castle itself is also very impressive.

A few years ago, the town square was dominated by vehicular routes, and was looked tired and run-down (see this website).  Enclosed on all sides and linking via four or five streets to surrounding areas it’s a location that deserved a full make-over, to breath new life into the heart of the town. The recently completed public works have done just that.

Since the work several years ago at Kensington High Street removing railings from the road side, and the consequent improvements in pedestrian safety, there are now a number of ‘shared space’ projects in the UK where pedestrians are prioritised in spaces shared with vehicle. Completed in 2009, Caernarvon Castle square is one of the largest recent shared space schemes I’ve seen.

The square is simply set out, with an area for the market to the south and street furniture together with tree planting and changes in material indicating a number of potential vehicle routes.

Observing from a cafe at the southern end of the square you can watch the interaction between people and traffic. Without any clear signage, drivers are unsure where to drive, or what route to take across the square, slowing their speeds. The lack of clear pedestrian separation also means that drivers are careful to negotiate the space with courtesy to pedestrians and cyclists.

A number of discrete finger-post signs are located in the corners of the square together with cycle parking – the only other parking originally set out was for disabled drivers and taxis, although now there seems to be a parking area to the east of the plaza adjacent to the water feature.

People using the square seem to mix without any real danger. As I watched the square was used by cyclists, taxis, cars and a coach party, shoppers and tourists. The new shared space seems to have invigorated the community feel of the square, and even on a cold day there were people chatting in the street, sitting at the tables and chairs, and lingering outside cafes. These are the spaces of social vitality that make a town viable, the ‘Great Good Places‘ as the social urbanist Ray Oldenburg describes them.

If I have one disappointment with Caernarvon town square, it is the railings that have been retained at some of the vehicular entrance points, and the fact that not all of the ugly street signage clutter has been able to be removed. I hope that other towns and cities will be bold enough to adopt this shared space approach with their focal public, civic spaces.

The other clear opportunity is to link the square better with the parking area for visitors to the Castle. At the moment the route from car park to square is pretty grim – you get to see some run down backs of buildings and blank retaining walls. But my understanding is that when some more money has been generated (bring on the Tax Increment Fund!), a new grand flight of steps will be cut into the western end of the square.

route to square from public car park by marina

This will lead nicely down to the marina area, where there is an obvious further opportunity for major improvements. I’d be excited if I lived here, to see what further public works could deliver.