Rolling back shared space in the East End

Brick Lane

Brick Lane by stevecadman on flickr (cc by-nc-sa)

As the builders move out of the newly completed £30 million “shared space” on Exhibition Road, their next job might be the polar opposite project: rolling back shared space from Exhibition Road’s geographical opposite street. Tower Hamlets council, with £300,000 from TfL, have announced that in the next few weeks they will be replacing the bricks of Brick Lane with a standard issue asphalt carriageway.

I don’t know if Brick Lane has ever actually been claimed as “shared space”, but from my recollection of its construction (and it’s the best part of two years since I was last there, so recall is assisted by flickr and Streetview) it certainly falls within the spectrum of “shared space” that Stuart Reid described at last month’s Street Talks. Though it is not without signs and bollards, and even a bit of guardrail outside a school, it does have features that encourage mixing more than conventional road design. There is delineation between footway and carriageway but it’s blurred, with no kerb and with only a slight difference in the style and colour of the block paving. I don’t know the street well enough to know whether this really gives users the feeling that pedestrians own the street, but that did seem to be the case on those few occasions that I’ve been there (though I know that construction of the East London Line extension closed the top end to traffic for a while, and it might still have been benefiting from that effect last I was there).

It’s not clear whether the works will reintroduce the kerbs, but the council reveal a lot when they say that the reason for replacing the paving with a conventional surface, apart from the fact that the paving is looking “scruffy” (is it?), is to “help to distinguish space for pedestrians from traffic”. That is, this is an explicitly anti-shared space move, intended, perhaps, to put pedestrians back in their place.

I’ve written several pieces critical of shared space. In high-profile cases it has been applied in inappropriate places — to big and busy through routes like Exhibition Road, where traffic will dominate and drive everybody else out simply by weight of numbers. Its True Believers at the extreme “naked streets” end of the spectrum emphasise their discredited hypothesis that giving motorists a free reign will make them more cautious and courteous, and so shared space is often applied in a way that allows motorists to bully their way to dominance. And unrealistic claims are made about the benefits of shared space for pedestrians and cyclists, usually involving anecdotes about crossing the road while walking backwards with your eyes closed.

I can now redress the balance and defend the weaker form of shared space at Brick Lane. Brick Lane is a far more suitable candidate for shared space than most of the high-profile schemes. It is already a narrow single-lane one-way street with a high pedestrian to vehicle movement ratio — a high place status, in the jargon, and little importance as a transport route. And there is none of the “increasing motorist freedom is good for pedestrians” pseudoscience in Brick Lane’s current design, just a few features that help to slow drivers down and make things easier for pedestrians.

Caution infernal traffic
Brick Lane by duncan on flickr (cc by-nc)

(If traffic volume is a bigger problem than I remember then more can be done to discourage non-essential traffic from using the street. Reversing the direction of the one-way traffic south of Hanbury Street, perhaps, so that it can not be used as an inter-arterial rat-run all the way from Whitechapel Road to Bethnal Green Road. And of course, the while lot should be two-way for bicycles. It would also be nice if there weren’t quite such a vast amount of (often illegally) parked cars.)

Brick Lane is exactly the kind of narrow city street — important place for people but unsuitable for and unimportant as a transport route — where shared surfaces could be beneficial, and where, in my (very limited) experience, they’ve been working better than in most of the high-profile shared space schemes. Spending £300k rolling back shared space here while spending £30m installing it on the other side of town seems daft.

Tower Hamlets have been promised a lot of money for all sorts of public works and events, having completely missed out on the Olympics to neighbouring boroughs. You’d have thought that a scruffy inner-city borough like Tower Hamlets would have been able to come up with a long list of worthwhile public works. This one just looks like construction for the sake of construction, with some silly rationalisation.

7 thoughts on “Rolling back shared space in the East End”

  1. That is unfortunate. Brick Lane is a very popular destination, and is too narrow to accommodate the combination of parking, a standard width carriageway, and pavements wide enough for the very large number of pedestrians using the street to move about comfortably.
    Given its popularity as a destination, and that the only through traffic is rat-running the congestion on the A1202 & B108, there’s little justification for motors (aside from delivery vehicle access, which could be managed any number of ways – your suggestion of split 1-way makes perfect sense).
    It’s a nice space precisely because pedestrians feel like they own it, at least at busy times of day. Confining pedestrians to the narrow pavements, & slicing the street in half with fast through traffic, will be a great way to wreck it.
    (To go a little offtopic – the curry houses of Brick Lane, despite their fame, are rather average in quality & with typically very high prices “justified” by their location; there’s much better & cheaper South Asian food to be found a few blocks away albeit in rather less atmospheric surroundings. Take away the overall vibe of the place & I’m not sure why anyone in their right mind would go there ;-))

  2. Pleased to hear that someone else has noticed that ‘shared space’ wasn’t an entirely daft idea – just one that seems to reliably misunderstood and misapplied. I don’t blog myself ( can’t get with the ‘instant response’ thing – need time to think …) but my own ‘umble take on shared space is here:

  3. Well I guess strictly speaking if they never officially shared-spaceified it then they can’t roll it back. It does seem a retrograde step, although in reality Brick Lane gets so crowded and the pavements are so narrow that it is almost guaranteed to stay much the same.

    Isn’t this just pre-Olympics gussying up? I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of this in the next few months (I’ve been told that the route from Leytonstone station to the Olympic park has been rather preposterously painted up to look like picture postcard cor blimey guvnor old Laahndan Tahn, but go back one street and it still looks, well, still very much like Leytonstone). Supplying curry to tourists and transport links are probably Tower Hamlets two main contribution to the Olympics.

    Hanbury Street west of Brick Lane is home to the worst cycle contraflow I’ve come across. The road is so narrow with one carriageway and parking that it’s barely wide enough to get down, and only the indication of the contraflow consists of the tiniest smattering of very worn bicycle logos

  4. Brick Lane’s current surface is falling apart – I suspect due to its being poorly installed in the first place – many bricks stick out at odd angles and tilt as you ride over them. However, resorting to asphalt is a bad idea.

    At times motorists on Brick Lane are maniacal, viewing pedestrians and cyclists as a nuisance to be driven off the road. At face value it is a shared space but really it is dominated by a surprisingly aggressive motorised minority, who behave for some reason as if it is a freeway. Hoards of pedestrians ignore the traffic and are beeped to the edges while cars crawl through at a snail’s pace and drivers pull their hair out. When there are fewer pedestrians on week night, cars race through at dangerous speeds and often on my bike here I feel as threatened as on any main road. The fact is it is a narrow street with a thriving market and tourist trade, and not a wide boulevard as Exhibition Way. By rights it should be closed to motor traffic on weekends when it becomes all but impassable to motorised traffic.

    I feel asphalt will only reinforce the impression that Brick Lane is a road rather than a street, and is in my mind a regression.

  5. I lived in Whitechapel for about 8 years, and from memory there’s not much reason to keep it as an open road really. There are roads parallel to it for the side-streets to get out onto. In the evenings at especially at the weekends there are so many pedestrians spilling onto the road that driving a car up there must take ages. Allow loading on weekday mornings before 10am so the innumerable curry houses and off-licences can stock-up, and close it off the rest of the time.

    And if you want a curry then Tayyab’s just south of Brick Lane is the place to go.

  6. Who are the idiots behind this idea? Did some councillor just get a new car and they can’t bear to drive on those bumpy bricks?

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