Exhibition Road Redux

“Shared space schemes labelled ‘dangerous’ in Lords report”

“A new House of Lords report has called for a moratorium on any new ‘frightening and intimidating’ shared space schemes”

Architects Journal

But a House of Lords report says it doesn’t work well enough.

WE GAVE Exhibition Road a mixed review in Street Design. I visited Exhibition Road a few times and found it over-designed, a frequent problem for 21st century streets. I agreed with our friend and colleague Hank Dittmar, whom we quoted on the subject of Exhibition Road: “Only the parked cars look comfortable.”

It’s in the news this week, because it may be the most famous Shared Space in Britain, at a time when “Shared Space” is the buzzword of the moment for High Streets (Main Streets) around the country. Most local politicians in the UK seem to know about Shared Space, and now a member of the House of Lords has come out with a report that labels them “dangerous”—and in fact many UK Shared Spaces do seem dangerous, for at least two reasons: cars driving on them routinely go faster than is safe for spaces where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars are sharing the road; and they are frequently unsafe for the blind.

I say “frequently,” but I’ve only visited a few Shared Spaces in the UK. I’ve been tweeting for a while with the makers of a film called Sea of Change, however, which shows “the devastating impact of shared space on the blind and partially sighted people of Great Britain.” It premiered at the House of Lords in December 2013.

During the planning process for Exhibition Road (opened in 2012), modifications were made for the blind, but those don’t seem to be enough. In addition, the design speed for Exhibition Road is just too high. In theory the speed limit is 20 miles per hour, but drivers comfortably go faster—and that’s a problem for any Shared Space. The problem gets worse at the northern end of the road, which is in the City of Westminster, where the design speed is even faster than in the southern part in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Of course that traffic behavior spills over. The wide roundabout at the border introduces a little confusion, which slows cars down, but not enough to make everyone drive as slowly as they should in a Shared Space.

That’s one reason why I call Shared Space “Slow Streets.” Shared Space doesn’t work unless the cars are going slowly. And apparently that’s not the case in too many British examples. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

I believe the striping and texture is for the benefit of the blind—but how do they cross the road, knowing that drivers are sometimes going quickly?
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11 Responses to Exhibition Road Redux

  1. Phil Jones says:

    How do you know what the design speed of a street is by looking at it?

    • Mr. Jones, Looking on the internet, it seems that perhaps you were a consultant on Exhibition Road. Is that correct? Thanks, John

      PS: I read your essay in placemakingresource. We seem to be fundamentally in agreement.

      • I don’t know if English transportation planning uses the same definition of “design speed” as America. Ours is quite complicated. Too complicated, in fact, because I’ve discovered in talks that the public thinks it knows what “design speed” means, but in fact they’re wrong. That is why the CNU ITE report came up with “target speed”—but the public has no idea what that means.

        What the public thinks “design speed” means, and what it should mean, is the speed that the majority of the drivers using the road feel is comfortable. My point on Exhibition Road is that the speed which London taxis commonly drive on the street is too fast for a safe Shared Space. That prevailing speed does come from the design of the street.

  2. Tom Bailey says:

    Hi John,

    I debated “Shared Space” with Sarah Gayton the lady behind Sea of Change not long ago at a public health conference in England. My impression was that she’s highlighting legitimate problems with some schemes but also comes from a school of thought where new ideas in street design are distrusted and the volume of motor traffic through public spaces isn’t something that can be changed or challenged.

    The elephant in the room here is traffic volume, and it’s interesting that in your post above you don’t mention it once.

    Do streets need to just be slow in order for pedestrians and cyclists to mix comfortably with motor traffic? Or is the volume of cars, size of vehicles and the nature of traffic (there for access or passing through) also key to designing a street where modes can mix unsegregated?

    In the UK “Shared Space” is clearly attractive to politicians as it’s often being used in a way where they avoid having to make tough decisions on what we do about the traffic. Good public realm is an easy win, but actually making a change to how many cars we allow down a street takes political courage rather than just money.

    You ran into some of the uneasiness over these issues on Twitter yesterday in that when you used a photo of a Dutch street to illustrate “shared space”. Many react back asking whether the way the street operates is mostly due to the tough decisions that the Dutch have made and continue to make on taming motor traffic rather than just investing in design.

    Personally I feel that a good “shared space” scheme can deliver vast improvements even if it does what is politically achievable right now rather than delivering the ideal. I get very nervous when I see people designing in high traffic volume sharing on brand new streets or laying out new communities where buses mix with kids on bikes. More latter perhaps… 🙂

    • Thanks for the insight, Tom. I think it would be easy to visit a high-volume, poorly-designed Shared Space and conclude that Shared Space is a problem. That doesn’t mean it’s an unsolvable problem, OR that all High Streets should be Shared Space.

      There was also a problem in the Twitter discussion about people concluding what Shared Space is NOT: if it’s X, Y, or Z, it’s not a Shared Space—which I disagree with. Wikipedia says, “Shared space is an urban design approach which seeks to minimise demarcations between vehicle traffic and pedestrians, often by removing features such as curbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and regulations.” It might be better to start with something like (off the top of my head), “Shared Space is a thoroughfare designed to be safely shared by motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians on equal terms, without giving priority to any.”

      Having bollards on some stretches does not mean that a street does not operate as a shared space in the roadbed. Debating whether or not a street meets the Dutch definition of an “autoluwe” is NOT debating whether or not it is Shared Space. Etc.

      Others want to show that David Hembrow proves that there are better ideas than Shared Spaces, which I think gets us back to individual and national definitions and understandings of what Shared Space means. And I think you’re right that some have made up their mind that Shared Space doesn’t work for this reason or that. Then you have the usual internet faction that just likes to oppose and argue, using any argument that works. All in 140 characters, which obviously leaves out a lot of subtlety and explication.

  3. Tom Bailey says:

    Often bollards unavoidable due to services, “fly car parking” or basements that protrude under the street (which may be the case in the Amsterdam Canal Street that you liked). As you say a street can be shared with or without them.

    “Shared Space is a thoroughfare designed to be safely shared by motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians on equal terms, without giving priority to any.” works well enough for me. Which kind of begs the question as to whether some of the high profile UK schemes like Exhibition Road or Poynton are really shared space – the volume of traffic and in Poynton the high number of heavy vehicles meaning that equal sharing without priority is probably unachievable.

    I used to work for Sustrans in the UK where we built a lot of segregated bicycle infrastructure aimed to deliver a standard of be usable by an “unaccompanied 12 year old” (some better than others ;-). We came under a lot of flak more recently for involving ourselves in shared space schemes which didn’t achieve this and were more aimed at delivering the maximum (politically possible) shift away from motor traffic domination in a location. Even if you fail to achieve the ideal, as a designer focusing on a vulnerable user of the most fragile transport mode is a good approach.

    If looking for a definition of “shared space” that means 12 year olds on bikes can share equally then I suspect that you end up with something that looks like a subset of the Dutch AutoLuwe streets i.e. no more than a few thousand motor vehicles per day, few trucks or buses, design used to achieve v.low speeds.

    I’ve always thought that the real aim behind the Exhibition Road scheme was to create something that would build momentum towards future reduction in traffic and maybe even part pedestrianisation. The time to judge is maybe 10 years time when hopefully more of the street will look like the southern end where traffic volumes are low enough so pedestrians do dominate. A cynic might ask, how many £/$million of granite does it take to buy long term support for traffic reduction and defeat the taxi lobby?

    Not all High Streets should be shared space. In the UK we have a few bad schemes still to come driven more by dislike of traffic signals than by a real desire to make streets less motor dominated. The Sea of Change people are right to fight their corner although I do hope they eventually start talking about traffic reduction rather than dismissing all “slow streets” as unworkable.

  4. Mark Treasure says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve been commenting back and forth with you on Twitter. My concern, principally, is an over-arching focus on ‘shared space’ (whatever that means, and I agree there are many different ways of interpreting what ‘shared space’ actually is), rather than on street design that actually works, for all users.

    The discussion on the streets in Amsterdam is instructive; you are obviously interpreting these as ‘shared space’, when no Dutch traffic engineer or urban planner would do so. The road layouts on these streets is actually entirely typical autoluwe design, used on explicitly very low-traffic streets (in fact I’d argue that traffic levels on Singel are almost certainly too high, both for this kind of layout, and in general).

    Importantly, the principal ingredient of these streets is actually the removal of through traffic. I agree that there are the ‘softening’ features typically associated with shared space, like less distinction between footway and carriageway, but that really is an ‘optional extra’, the 5% improvement on top of the large reduction in motor traffic, to levels below 2000 vehicles per day.

    Indeed, to turn to a more well-known example, it’s motor traffic levels more generally that explain why Exhibition Road fails at the northern end, and succeeds at the southern end. The southern end is an access road, with very few motor vehicles using it. It’s a pleasant place, with people using the whole width of the street. By contrast, the northern part – which, notably, has exactly the same layout! – feels just like a normal road. Because of the volume of motor traffic – around 15,000 vehicles per day.

    Getting bogged down in a discussion about what is and what isn’t shared space I think deflects from this basic issue. Streets ‘share’ well, regardless of how they are designed, when motor traffic levels are very low. They aren’t ‘shared’ well when motor traffic levels are high, and design should actually reflect that.

    And this is at the heart of the Dutch approach; low traffic streets *look* like low traffic streets, and higher traffic streets *look* like higher traffic streets. It’s a fundamental (and very useful) honesty about the function of roads and streets, one that will be lost if we attempt to bundle all roads and streets up in ‘shared space’.

    • Tom & Mark, Thanks, this is a MUCH more satisfying discussion than the bullet points on Twitter. I will respond, but it’s a beautiful day here, and I’m going out for a bike ride and photographing some streets.

      • Saving this for later discussion:

        Variations on the approach have long been used with general approval on narrower streets within the urban core, especially those that have been made nearly car-free (“autoluwe”), and as part of living streets within residential areas. As a separate concept, “shared space” normally applies to semi-open spaces on busier roads, and here it is controversial.

        That’s from the opening discussion on the Wikipedia page on Shared Space, which has quite a bit of good information, even though I disagree with the opening sentence, which focuses on the means rather than the end.

      • I’m working on a post on this subject. I’ve been looking at your website, Mark, which has some good posts, and David Hembrow’s, which also has some good posts. I’m coming to think that a source of some of the friction is that I come at this from the angle of urban design, placemaking, and Vision Zero, which gives me a different perspective than those who advocate “cycle transport.”

        Some quick responses. I visited the new Exhibition Road four times and altogether probably spent 5 or 6 hours there. I never saw heavy traffic, and usually saw very light traffic. I’m sure your traffic count is right, which means there are times when it has a high traffic count, but I want to say that it failed as shared space during the times I saw it. Therefore I can not agree that the reason it fails as shared space is because there is too much traffic.

        Also, the design does change at the northern end, as I mentioned in the post. The City of Westminster wanted a more conventional design than the Royal Borough, and they got it. Like the 30 mph surrounding streets that you mentioned, that matters.

        As you see in the Wikipedia article, many countries have their own issues with shared space. England focuses heavily on traffic volume, which I think is a red herring. As I mentioned on your website, a colleague has submitted a shared space study to the Transport Research Board here which concludes that slow speed, not traffic volume, is the key. They document a few shared spaces with a daily traffic count over 20,000 cars. The common denominator in the safe ones is that the cars go 17 miles per hour or less. I will let you know when that paper is online.

        The Dutch have an emphasis on cycle transport that appeals to many British cycling groups. I am coming to think that an emphasis on cycle transport can lead to problems similar to those produced by traffic engineering. The Netherlands may have the best long-distance cycling in the world, but by my standards for walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets the Netherlands is a mixed bag. They have some of the most walkable streets in the world and, as well, a lot of new streets and cycle tracks with poor placemaking. So I don’t necessarily find the arguments of cycle transport advocates in Holland as persuasive as you do, particularly when they argue against successful experiments in the Netherlands. Nor do I really care about the Dutch definition of “autoluwe.” I care about great walkable streets, and those speak for themselves.

        More to come.

  5. Jason says:

    Hi John

    I was in London over the Summer and happened to ‘stumble’ across Exhibition Road whilst out walking with my brother. It was a bit of an odd thing really as I’d heard about it so frequently that I was expecting ‘more’. The space was busy but with taxi’s and there certainly was no dawdling in the space – you had to be quick on your feet and get across the ‘road’. It left me with the impression that it was just a large scale ‘enhancement scheme’.

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