Whether testing cars new or old, the streets where we live could soon be very different. Simon Hacker looks at the growing movement for shared space – and asks whether it’s time for us to go “naked”.
1. If you’ve driven along Exhibition Road, Kensington or New Road in Brighton, you’ve already experienced a “shared space” experiment.
They are now arriving throughout the UK and at least a measure of the idea can be found in most “core areas” of regional cities.
In a way, a shared space is a naked street: a road environment where kerbs are removed along with, in some cases, just about every demarcation line and even many road signs – the end result being a street where smooth flow and bump-free movement is the norm and the demarcation lines for pedestrian, bike and car areas are subtle – often no more than contrasting colours to the paving.
2. If your car boasts ultra-expensive alloy wheels, this could well sound like you’ve died and driven to heaven. Yet beyond selfish paranoia among car-obsessed narcissists, there appear to be some other advantages too, not least that the more you strip away in terms of a framework of rules for motorists and pedestrians, the more you create uncertainty…
3. Uncertainty, you cry… surely that’s a guaranteed way to keep A&E choc full? Hardly: nearly all of our mishaps on the road occur out of human error, and most of that error stems from complacency or over confidence.
To try this yourself, drive to work via a new route and see how more alert your driving is. The principle forms the bedrock of mini-roundabouts: because most drivers tend to approach with uncertainty, rightfully mistrusting what other approaching drivers are likely to do, speeds are reduced and defensive driving engendered.
In a shared space, so the same theory goes, a driver will ease off and drive tentatively because all the obvious rules of the road have disappeared.
4. Pedestrians, cyclists, pushchairs and skateboarding adolescents all rule equally in this uneasy democracy, with no God-given right of way for anyone.
In psychology, we’re talking ‘risk compensation’ – when you feel safe, you take risks, and hence the old joke about the safest car in the world being one with no seat belt and a metal spike projecting from the steering wheel.
The bloke to blame for parachuting shared space onto us, if your rule-loving nature is beginning to panic already, was a Dutchman called Hans Monderman.
5. Monderman was so confident of his designs that he would demonstrate them by walking backwards into busy traffic (he died from cancer).
While he was shy and retiring, his death garnered high praise: “Monderman pioneered an approach that respected the driver’s common sense and intelligence instead of reliance on signs, road markings, traffic signals and physical barriers,” said the Guardian.
“He recognised that increasing control and regulation by the state reduced individual and collective responsibility, and he initiated a fresh understanding of the relationship between streets, traffic and civility.”
6. So although the EU has now picked up and promoted Monderman’s ideas, they are the opposite of state interference and regulation.
In a shared space, close human interaction is crucial for safety – eye contact is made between drivers and pedestrians and all journeys are negotiated. But what if the pedestrian is blind or partially sighted?
It’s a question that has triggered new research from University College London for the Department of Transport, largely in answer to the strong concerns voiced for guide dogs.
An initial key finding of this research suggests that dropping kerbs to lower than 60mm is an unsafe option for real-world streets.
Clearly the shared space theory is still evolving, but the principles behind it make sense for us all – wherever we are in the road.
Does it work?
Quantifiable evidence suggests a yes… London’s Exhibition Road scheme has shown that in the year before it began there were 71 casualties, while in the first year of the new format the figure dropped to 40.
And in Brighton, the space has encouraged drivers to get walking instead, with a reported 93 per cent reduction in motor journeys. Average traffic speed has meanwhile dropped to 10mph.