We Britons love the idea of sharing space. Well, other people’s space. We love to come up with holistic transport solutions through these shared spaces, sometimes incorporating an architects sketched vision of roads reduced to near emptiness, an extra tree or two and everyone walking and driving with a sense of equality and good cheer toward their fellow humans, maybe pondering where to buy their next latte or iPhone.
Exhibition Road in west London is a prime example (as shown above). The blog ‘Cyclists in the City’ summed it up beautifully for me with the headline ‘Sustainable Travel in London means spending lots of money to make car parking look prettier’ . It manages to acknowledge without commiting to removing the danger that you’d expect in an area of London where a very high tourist footfall for the wonderful museums nearby meets Transport for London’s commitment to cramming as much ‘smooth flowing’ traffic as it can through Central London (presumably for a bet – I’m running out of ideas as to why they are behaving the way they are). Instead it seeks equality by changing the surface treatment, adding street furniture and, in some cases, removing the split level between road and pavement. Its trying in effect to create a level playing field for all users. This is all very well, and I salute the intentions, but the day motorists think they are equal with other users will be the day when Hell freezes over, or introduces its own shared use facility.
In creating a shared space, an area has been created where groups such as the visualy impaired can feel far more vulnerable and their voice can easily sway the powers that be in a country already reluctant to positively embrace the bicycle. Exhibition Road became the subject of a judicial review raised by Guide Dogs for the Blind and in Woking, Surrey, cycling is now banned in part from what were shared use cycle/pedestrian areas in the town centre (as covered here by CTC’s Chris Peck in Guardian Bike Blog). Instead of working together, the humble bicycle has again become a common enemy.
Another concept of shared space that Britain will probably get spectacularly wrong is that of the ‘Woonerf’
Last August, from Bike Biz
A new road safety poll has found that the majority (58 per cent) are in favour of holding drivers legally responsible for accidents between cars and more vulnerable road users in pedestrian priority zones.
The poll was taken for road safety charity IAM (the Institute of Advanced Motorists) and quizzed 4,000 people on pedestrian-priority zones. Most were in favour of importing the ‘Woonerf’ zone concept from the Netherlands, used to encourage cycling and walking and designed to be used at walking pace.
Forty eight per cent thought the concept – with no pavements, giving cars, pedestrians and cyclists equal use of the same road space – is a good idea to bring to the UK, while 27 per cent thought they were a bad idea.
36 per cent said the pedestrian priority zones should be located in shopping areas, with a similar amount advocating the zones be installed where there is high pedestrian traffic. 33 per cent said they would be best used in certain residential areas, while 16 per cent said they should be used for all residential roads.
Improved pedestrian and cyclist safety were seen by 49 per cent and 43 per cent respectively to be the most beneficial result of bringing pedestrian-priority zones to the UK.
“Our poll reveals a surprisingly positive attitude towards better protection of cyclists and pedestrians, both in road layout and legal responsibility,” said IAM director of policy and research Neil Greig. “On the continent, attractive street design is used to make it clear where pedestrians have priority but this approach is in its infancy in the UK.
“The IAM supports any move to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, but research is needed into the best way to inform drivers about changes in legal responsibility, and also on the effect a Woonerf might have on the road sense of children brought up in such a zone, when later exposed to less protected areas.”
Respected blog Amsterdamize contacted BikeBiz to elaborate on the Woonerf concept: “The IAM’s incorrect about ‘woonerf’ and ‘confuses’ it with elements of Shared Space. ‘Woonef’ only relates to residential streets (home zones). Woonerven (plural) block cars from using it at as through ways, slowing cars down to walking speeds. Pedestrianised (commercial) zones in the Netherlands allow certain vehicles in at certain times (with automated rising pillars). There are more, different models giving priority to pedestrians and people on bikes. There’s no single solution but a range of proven means to pick from, as it goes hand in hand with urban design.”
Essentially, a ‘Woonerf’ isn’t a through route to anyone. Therefore it is easy to reduce the speed to walking pace and create parity between residents because it would be patently stupid and anti-social to have it any other way. The sign in the picture above says it all; there’s a house and people playing outside with the car set at a smaller scale. The car has its uses but it isn’t important in this area – people are.
I don’t have a problem with this country trying shared space. I do have a problem with what appears to be this country’s complete and total inability to look at other countries and learn correct interpretations and best practice approaches to shared space, home zones or cycling infrastructure that people can actually use as opposed to us doggedly sticking with something that would have made Evil Knievel think twice. LCC recently voted in favour of persuing ‘Go Dutch’ at their AGM and already people are warning of ‘segregation’ and nodding gravely even though they haven’t the faintest idea what it means in a Dutch context.
When the London Cycle Superhighways launched, I cautiously welcomed them as I thought they were a good idea in principle. However, I stupidly believed that they lent themselves heavily on the Danish model (right down to the colour) – Copenhagen had tried creating cycle routes on minor roads parallel to main roads that cyclists were using as they were quieter (a bit like London Cycle Network +) but no-one used them as that was the planners telling cyclists where they thought they should go as opposed to where cyclists were actually going (Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize explains this and more in a talk he gave in Melbourne which I urge you to watch. The relevant bit is here). The result is a typically weak British compromise that has now resulted in two needless deaths in three weeks at Bow Roundabout in East London. Painting the same crap Barclays Blue doesn’t change anything – like when Marathon changed to Snickers.
Outside London, Warrington Cycle Campaigns ‘Facility of the Month’ site gives ample rib-tickling moments of Authorities trying to ‘get’ the bicycle and ‘get’ the idea of shared space rendering shopping area, bus stop and pavement potentially dangerous to cyclist and pedestrian alike.
It’s like we’re stubbornly using a Sat-Nav instead of stopping and asking directions even when it’s blatantly sending us miles out of our way creating more delay to our collective journey. I guess in this case the Sat-Nav is a PC with Google Streetview where we can look at a Dutch, Danish or German street and delude ourselves that we can instantly understand the context and can speak with authority on it. All we have to do is stop and ask directions and start a proper dialogue with our neighbours. Now that would be sharing.