Monday, 19 May 2008

Shared space

There's a new vogue for the concept of Shared Space, apparently pioneered by the late Hans Monderman of the Netherlands. The idea derives from the much earlier Dutch experiments with Woonerven (literally living yards, but now known as Home Zones in the UK). Instead of trying to segregate different road users by physical (footways, cycleways) and temporal (traffic lights) means the Shared Space concept throws them together in an anarchic way and lets them all "negotiate" their conflicting ways by "eye contact".

It works surprisingly well, we are told, at least in the Netherlands. The lack of road markings, signs and priorities means everyone is in doubt about how to proceed through the Shared Space, so they do so slowly and tentatively, looking other road users in the eye to establish that fundamental human contact which at least acknowledges the other person's existence, and by extension their equally valid claim on the space being competed for. Because the approach requires a lot of the clutter of road signage to be removed, public spaces are left looking better.

But a word of caution. The UK is not the Netherlands. We do not have their tradition of respect for cycling or their familiarity with the concepts of sharing space. The attitude of many motorists is that they pay for the roads and they have prior rights over walkers and cyclists, who they see as freeloaders. That attitude is bolstered by continued references to Road Tax instead of Vehicle Excise Duty, even though Road Tax as something specifically raised to pay for roads was abandoned well over 80 years ago and only lasted for 16 years anyway!

In any case, Shared Space is hardly a new concept. Apart from the partial segregation of walkers using pavements (footways), the public highway has always been a Shared Space in principle. The roundabout is an example of Shared Space which is far more common in the UK than elsewhere in Europe or North America, but in most cases they are perceived as hostile to cyclists and walkers. For decades in the UK the pressure has been towards more segregation, often at the request of walkers and particularly cyclists, who look enviously at the extensive networks of segregated cycleways in the Netherlands.

So let's not assume that Shared Space is a panacea for our traffic problems. Without a fundamental change in attitudes on the part of all road users it will simply allow motorists more scope for using their inherent might to assert priority over walkers and cyclists, exactly as has happened over the last century. Not only do motorists need to understand that they have no greater right to road space than anyone else, but walkers and cyclists need to be encouraged to be more aware and assertive of their rights. Perhaps only giving walkers and cyclists prior rights over motorists will restore some kind of balance.


David Hembrow said...

In general, English language discussion of Shared Space has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so I'm very glad to see a note of caution here. It is not received with quite the same enthusiasm in the country where you will see it most: The Netherlands.

I am British but live in the Netherlands. We have quite a few Shared Space areas around here and I ride through them quite often. The national cycle campaigning group, Fietsersbond, tends to oppose such schemes because they lead to less good conditions for cyclists and I have found their concerns to be real.

In general, cycling here is a pleasure. However, through some of the Shared Space areas at busy times it is less fun. Cars come too close, and bully cyclists in these areas. Not all the time, and not all drivers, but definitely more than happens when you use normal Dutch cycle paths.

Shared Space in villages seems to work better than in towns.

The Shared Space in this city (Assen) is all a few years old. I think it's on the way out. Newer developments have not used this model. However, things evolve. Perhaps the recently build "bicycle road" (no longer a through road for cars, and where cars are considered to be "guests of the bicycle") could be considered to be a type of Shared Space.

It's a mistake for anyone to try to pick just one of the Dutch traffic innovations and stick to it. What they've done here works as a whole, but individual parts would not work.

The cycle network here is first class. It has to be. The Dutch make about the number of journeys by bike as the whole of the English speaking world put together. They know what they're doing and when they do something less than good, it changes quite rapidly.

Good luck with the Cycling City thing, btw.

Chris Hutt said...

That's very helpful input. I've taken the liberty of providing a link to the cycle planning page of your site on my sidebar since it contains a wealth of further links.

I made several cycling trips to the Netherlands about 20 years ago (how time flies!) and was generally very impressed. Cycling was relaxed and stress-free, as it should be. Not a cycling helmet or conspicuity aid to be seen anywhere. Cycling felt so "safe" that such things would be rather ridiculous.

However the infrastructure in the Netherlands has been developed over many decades (since the 1930s?) and it's hard to see how we could realistically adopt a similar strategy for segregated cycle tracks here, except perhaps with new towns but then you don't get the national cycling culture to complement the infrastructure.

From my experience I would say that the key thing that makes cycling work so well in the Netherlands is the restraint on motor traffic in town and city centres (where historic street patterns do not allow much physical segregation), giving cyclists strength in relative numbers to counter the intimidation from motor vehicles.

I was very impressed by Houten, a new town just south of Utrecht, which is designed to discourage car use within the town by severely restricting the through routes. As a consequence cycling was easily the dominant mode of transport.

David Hembrow said...

Thanks for your reply.

The Dutch did indeed start in the 1930s, but things went downhill rather for some years after the second world war. In fact, as late as the 1960s they were removing cycle lanes in some cities to make more room for cars.

The big change came in 1972. Since then, cycling has had a budget and priority.

There is a great book showing the city that we now live in as it has changed over time. I reviewed this online and included a couple of photos that show what has been done since the 60s. City centres in most locations here are just as compact as in the UK, but just look what they've done with the space:

There is a different way of going about things, and a constant re-allocation of space to cyclists.

There's a remarkable lack of physical restraint on cars here. You could drive right into the centre, but you simply wouldn't want to because you can't really get anywhere by car on those streets. I imagine that the number of cyclists "in the way" would also make driving a frustrating experience. Suffice to say that private cars are very rare in the centre of this city.

As for Houten. Yes, that's a very impressive place. You see very few cars there but rather a lot of bikes. That town is new and was built from scratch around the bike paths. There's a great youtube video showing some of the aspects of its design:

The video also includes some shots of the instrumented measuring bicycles used here to measure in a reproducible way such aspects as smoothness of cycle paths, directness, how often one has to stop, air quality, sound levels etc.

These are all aspects which come into the design of cycle paths over here.

Chris Hutt said...

That's all very interesting stuff and it makes me want to go and live in the Netherlands, but I wonder how relevant it is to the UK and to Bristol in particular.

For a start we don't have the cycling culture, which as your excellent videos show is something that the Dutch learn as small children. They learn from their parents and peers to cycle in a measured, responsible and social way, resulting in a remarkably smooth interaction with traffic, even when things look fairly chaotic.

Secondly we don't have the cycling infrastructure, so for the most part cyclists have to share road space with motor vehicles. This would be fine if the drivers of the motor vehicles were willing to share, but many remain antagonistic to cyclists as the letters to our local rag show. This of course relates to the fact that in the UK (in contrast to the Netherlands) most motorists have no experience of using the roads as cyclists and little understanding of or empathy with cyclists' behaviour.

Thirdly the topography of Bristol, with many hills, complicates the issue because it results in a wide range of cycling speeds from perhaps 5 mph uphill to 30 mph downhill. So the cyclist is sometimes more compatible with pedestrians, sometimes more compatible with motor traffic and often somewhere in between.

Lastly we simply don't have traffic engineers with the competence to design and manage the roads in a cycle friendly way. Cycle "facilities" (or farcilities as cyclists often call them) are notoriously piss-poor throughout the UK. Traffic engineering just doesn't seem to attract people of an adequate calibre.

So I think we need to develop a different way forward in the UK, based on restraining motor traffic in terms of volumes, speeds and anti-social behaviour. Sadly there is little evidence of our local council recognising that.

David Hembrow said...

I don't think the UK is so different as we sometimes think.

Remember that the UK had 15% of journeys by bike in the 1950s (about the same as Germany now). There was a cycling culture. It is just that decades of bad planning and low funding have allowed it to seep away.

Even the hills are no excuse. Flat areas of the UK have the same general level of cycling as the hilly bits do (go south-west into the flatter bits of Somerset and you'll not find more cycling than Bristol), and in any case the Swiss cycle more than the British.

The secret is to make cycling a normal thing to do, which has real benefits for people. It should be made "irresistible". The Dutch don't use bikes because they're all mad keen cyclists, they use them because it makes sense. The same needs to be true in the UK. John Pucher and Ralph Buehler wrote a good paper on this idea: