No traffic lights, sidewalks, or rules: When Ben Hamilton-Baillie introduces the concept of shared space, his audience often considers him mad. In our interview, the British city planner explains why the success of shared space surprises him, why it makes people more pleasant, and why cities will continue to need cars in the future.
Back in the 1990s, Dutch city planner Hans Monderman came up with the concept of shared space. Together with colleagues and like-minded souls, he wanted to revolutionize the way we understand, use, and design urban space. And the concept was not forgotten after his death in 2008. On the contrary: Today, it is more relevant than ever – due to proponents like Ben Hamilton-Baillie.
Mr. Hamilton-Baillie, just how far has shared space come over the years?
A lot further than we had ever dared to hope. The recent past, especially, gives rise to optimism. Wherever I go, city planners have at least heard of shared space. In the UK, public authorities have even adopted the concept into their guidelines. And this summer, when I attended a major city planning concept in Buffalo, USA, shared space was a big issue. The number of actual shared space projects keeps growing at a rapid pace.
Take London’s Exhibition Road. As the name suggests, this street passes several world-famous cultural institutions like the Victoria & Albert Museum. At the same time, it was getting more and more choked by traffic. From 2002 to 2012, the street was transformed into an urban area governed by shared space principles. While pedestrians dominate, car use is still permitted. This works extremely well. A real breakthrough came in the same year, with a project in a small town south of Manchester called Poynton.
Because shared space literally saved Poynton. Like your average market town, Poynton was located on a large crossing used by up to 27,000 vehicles every day. Although traffic engineers had widened the streets to three lanes, the traffic lights would inevitably cause long traffic jams. The former city center had become an inhospitable place. Of more than 30 shops, half stood empty and their owners feared looming bankruptcy. Politicians were desperate for a solution and finally agreed to convert the crossing into a shared space area.
And how did this work in practice …?
Among other measures, we reduced the traffic lanes from three to one and removed all traffic lights and almost all signs. Traffic has slowed, but rarely draws to a halt. Actually, more cars travel through Poynton now than before, requiring less time to complete their crossing. Instead of waiting at the traffic lights, drivers slot into traffic one by one, paying more attention to other drivers and pedestrians alike. The latter find it a lot easier to cross the square now. And since there is only one lane either way, pedestrians enjoy a lot more space, which in turn benefits local business. Today, all of the shops are back in business, joined by a number of new cafes. In a survey of Britain’s most livable towns, Poynton came seventh last year.
A frequent counter argument seems to be: If there are no rules, someone is bound to exploit the situation – and, for example, speed through the town center at 50 miles an hour.
Well, there is always the danger of that – with or without shared space. And people are more likely to break laws than social rules.
Is that what shared space is all about? Social consideration?
When people are responsible for their own safety and thus also their own speed, it is simply not done to go faster than appropriate. Just like it is not done to burp in church. We are all social creatures and grasp social rules instinctively. To date, there have been few reported incidents of drivers exceeding the design speed of around 16-17 mph.
Which particular results did surprise you?
A resident told us that since people in the center of Poynton have to pay more attention to each other now, the town’s overall atmosphere has also improved – something that obviously pleased me. And I can only confirm her observation. When people have to take responsibility for each other, they tend to be more civilized in general. I recently noticed an older gentleman on the shared space crossing in London’s Seven Dials – he seemed a bit confused and suddenly stopped in front of a cab. The driver simply waited patiently for the man to start walking again.
Some cities consider banning cars completely from certain areas.
That’s certainly sensible in specific cases, but to me this approach can only ever be a solution for isolated areas – sometimes, they can even come with disadvantages. Apart from that, I still think that cars are a fantastic and enormously helpful achievement and that they are likely to play a continuing role in our cities.
So, what’s next on your list?
Recently, I focused on a very complicated project: the area around the Tower of London. Every day, up to 18,000 tourists crowd the narrow passages leading up to the landmark, while approx. 50,000 vehicles pass by the surrounding street. I am often asked about the upper limit of vehicles for a shared space to work? And I always reply that I don’t know. We have to test the limits.
Do you believe such a limit exists?
No, not really. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. It takes decades to change something as fundamental as our streets.
Header image: Hamilton-Baillie Associates