Why did the blind man cross the road?
I have been campaigning for some time against a street design approach known as “shared space” which has, de facto, led to the creation of unsafe environments which discriminate against blind people and negatively impact the vast majority of users.
The Department for Transport defines shared space as:
“A street or place designed to improve pedestrian movement and comfort by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and enabling all users to share the space rather than follow the clearly defined rules implied by more conventional designs.”
The key part here is a desire for “all users to share the space” so “traffic signals are often removed, with indications of priority at minor junctions omitted… conventional kerbs are omitted and pedestrians share an undifferentiated surface with vehicles.”
On Wednesday I gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee whose inquiry into disability and the built environment has asked “to what extent do shared space schemes in roads and highways cause barriers for disabled people and how can these be resolved?”
Throughout the course of my campaign, increasing numbers of professionals have responded by asserting that shared space is no longer a useful term. Indeed, the man who claims responsibility for introducing the term in 2003, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who also gave evidence, claimed that “the term has stuck in ways it was never meant to.” Discomfort over the term has even extended to one local authority currently introducing a scheme in Bodmin, where the council website now states “technically we are not delivering a true shared space scheme.”
Whilst, like any campaigner, I am pleased to have arrived at an area of consensus, and I can certainly agree that “shared space” is a complicated, confusing and contested term I would also have to insist that as long as the government continues to use the term in official guidance the confusion will continue.
A further area of agreement that all sides have arrived at is the need for much better data. It seems very hard to find evidence that satisfactorily answers questions about the accessibility of these schemes as it is so rarely included as an objective, or indeed consideration, of a design plan.
Clearly, arguing about a definition of shared space is far less useful than taking a closer look at design components and what impact those features have. I am in no way opposed to: innovation and change, a more attractive public realm, or town centre regeneration but it is absolutely essential to look at how this is achieved.
If inclusive design is not the bedrock from the outset, schemes will inevitably fail, exclude, cause confusion, chaos and significant potential cost to councils facing legal challenges and further works. Pedestrian crossings are a key area. Of the 14 local authorities enacting U-Turns on their so called shared space schemes, 11 have reintroduced crossings.
The DfT have suggested that a review of shared space currently underway by the Chartered Institute of Highway Transportation will reconcile many of these concerns although CIHT stated yesterday at the evidence session that although their review will make recommendations it will NOT be sufficient to update guidance and that that would require further input from the government.
Real change will only be achieved when local authorities put inclusive design at the heart of any work in the public realm and this means asking at the outset “how does a blind person cross the road”?