Tag Archives: shared space

Shared space in Beijing

Beijing doesn’t exactly do shared space.  Beijing is very much at the stage in its car dependency cycle where planners believe that new roads must be built, and that it’s possible to manage traffic.  Perhaps the city authorities believe that traffic management can uniquely succeed in a dictatorship; perhaps they just haven’t noticed that it has failed in every other country.

Beijing has traffic management features.  The wide and regularly spaced boulevards that make up the old city’s grid are scattered with zebra crossings.  Where two boulevards meet, their intersection is controlled with signals.  And pedestrians walk on pavements, raised behind a curb — pavements that don’t even look noticeably foreign, like those North American ones do.  On the famous Chang’an Avenue, between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (pictured, above), the pavements and bicycle lanes are now even segregated from traffic by little metal barriers, and more railings and bollards are being installed every day.

But Beijing traffic does look a lot like shared space, because all of the laws, signs, and hard engineering have zero effect on where, when, and how people actually drive.  The residents of Beijing are actually not very good at being told what to do.  Zebra crossings over the ten lane boulevards are meaningless; anybody hoping to cross the road must simply step out into it, with speeding cars seconds away, and hope for the best — or else give up their ambitions, and just get a car themselves.  (Fortunately the Beijing police are cracking down on this reckless practice of jaywalking, with on the spot fines.)  Though segregated dedicated bicycle lanes are the norm on these boulevards, they are wide enough for cars to drive down them — so cars do, just as they do on the pavement.

(On the motorway, signs on the overhead gantries reminded drivers that the hard shoulder — universally treated as the overtaking-on-the-inside lane — is not to be driven in; and underneath specified the hard shoulder’s width.  As if to say, “NO! … Stop that! … Oh for christssake, at least don’t drive trucks in there, will you?”)

This anarchy creates a situation that is very much like that proposed by shared space: there is little physical separation between transport modes — pedestrians are everywhere, bicycles are everywhere, and cars are everywhere; road, bike path, and pavement, and any and every combination.  And everybody has to look out for each other: there is nobody and nothing in control to dictate who has right of way of any particular moment.  The idea of shared space is that street users will find their environment unusual, complicated, and dangerous, and will compensate for the perceived heightened risks by slowing down and leaving more space.  And within the lawless void of shared space, everybody will learn to wait their turn, and a de facto standard for who gives way in any situation will emerge.

In the anarchic situation in Beijing, drivers push and shove, dart into every little space that opens up, and lock themselves into tight knots at intersections.  The moment the road ahead clears, they accelerate and brake to skilfully tailgate each other up to the next knot.  They cut up cyclists when turning through their lane, and weave through lanes in front of scooters.  They will ignore pedestrians trying to cross the road on the zebra crossing, and push past you at speed even if you’re already half way across.  In Beijing, the only thing a car will give way to is a bus.

In Beijing, where the rules of the road are barely relevant, and where everybody drives, cycles and walks anywhere that it’s physically possible to do so, people don’t slow down, and they don’t drive carefully.  There is no risk compensation because these conditions are the norm, and compensatory behaviour wears off when the risky situations become mundane and everyday.  And so Beijing has absurdly high road death statistics (exactly how high will be explored later this week).  But a de facto standard has emerged for who gives way: the biggest guy always owns the road, and it’s up to you to get out of his way before he reaches you.  Might makes right of way.

And it’s not entirely clear why it would work any differently anywhere else.

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Shared space in Portishead

Every journalist and cycling campaign group can cite one great example of a town where the simple switching off of every set of traffic lights has transformed it overnight into a transport utopia: Drachten, half way between Amsterdam and Groningen in the Netherlands.

Here in the UK, Drachten’s experiment is being repeated with reportedly great success in the nearest equivalent town that we have — Portishead in Somerset:

Portishead is a little smaller than Drachten, with a fast growing population currently at around 25,000, compared to the Dutch town’s 45,000.  But like Drachten, Portishead has no passenger railway line, and is bypassed by a motorway.  In Dracten, Phillips R&D employs thousands; in Portishead, Argos and Homebase employ literally tens of people.  But both towns also serve as dormitories for centres of employment nearby.  Drachten is just down the bike path from Groningen, the largest city in the Dutch north-east, and Europe’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 57%.  Portishead is just down the NCN bike track from Bristol, the largest city in England’s south-west, and the UK’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 5%.

In short, with so many controlled variables — such striking similarities between the two towns — there can be no reason why simply switching off the traffic lights won’t achieve in Portishead the same clean, friendly, decongested transport utopia as Drachten.  The gentlemen of Bristol Traffic might like to take their white van on a trip to the seaside, and tremble at the power of a dozen orange bin bags, a roll of duct tape, and a yellow “Signals Not In Use” sign.  They might even find themselves spontaneously showing other road users respect.

Only one person on the video questions whether ripping out the traffic management will, alone, solve Britain’s transport problems: it will only work if we also have driver education, to teach empathy and equality.  Ah, that must be what the Dutch have that we’re missing.

Shared space

The latest trend in street engineering is shared space.  It sounds great: the street belongs to everybody, Motorist, pedestrian and cyclist, and we all look out for one another and show some respect.  It’s a reversal of the forced traffic management: the curbs and railings that segregate vehicles from people; the feeder lanes and traffic lights and one-way systems that take decisions about traffic flow out of the hands of the Motorist; the crowds of warning signs and prohibitions, all shouting information at the Motorist who is treated as too dim to work it out for himself; and the omnipresent bollard, that cares for those Motorists who really are too dim even to read the signs.  The idea is that with everybody sharing the road space, we will all have to adopt a different attitude: a new culture will emerge.  We will all be forced to act responsibly and courteously; Motorists will have to drive carefully, pedestrians will have to stay aware of their surroundings, and we will all have to give way until it’s our turn.

It’s a reversal of decades of ever more elaborate schemes to manage traffic and the harmful effects of urban private car use.

It’s nice.  It seems like a cute idea.  My immediate reaction is to like it.  And it’s a popular one.  All the urban planners and sustainable transport groups are saying what a miracle cure it is; all the journalists are falling over each other trying to share the shared space in the transport utopia that is Drachten in the Netherlands.  Politicians are falling in love with the money-saving planning philosophy, and the first samples are being put in place in Exhibition Road and in towns around the country.

But after further contemplation, I find that it says something very interesting about traffic management and the state that we have got ourselves into.  It says that traffic management has failed.

Traffic lights and bollards were not invented to fill a void in council expenditures.  They were invented to solve real problems that had existed without them, real problems that, if left unsolved, would become unbearable.  They are there for a reason.  The widespread use of oversized and overpowered private vehicles in cities causes dozens of major problems: the symptoms of a car sick culture are problems with space, pollution, impaired mobility, conflicts, health, and many more; symptoms that authorities have so far attempted to manage.  The management methods for traffic problems that the planners developed were not random.  They were based on evidence of their efficacy.  They worked.  But now, with more management schemes than ever, the city is also more blighted by the problems of traffic than ever.  We have failed to acceptably manage the symptoms of car sickness for many reasons: because drivers adapted their behaviour around the management schemes; because the roads filled with too many conflicting schemes; and most of all, because over the years the roads filled with traffic, more traffic than could ever be managed.

The idea that shared space might now eradicate the symptoms of car sickness in the city seems optimistic.  The assumption is made, perhaps, that the reason why traffic management failed — the huge growth in traffic density — is the same reason why, when we revert to pre-traffic management streets, we will not simply revert to pre-traffic management problems.  And certainly the absurdly optimistic assumption is made that, while magically solving all of our existing problems, shared space will not create entirely new ones.

Shared space might be a miracle cure.  But it might just as plausibly be a desperate and unrealistic last-ditch attempt to justify continuing to allow masses of inappropriate private vehicles on London streets that manifestly can not handle them.  Sixty years of experiments have been conducted, attempting to find a way that the mass use private cars and fleets of taxis might be compatible with the narrow and complicated streets of London.  Every experiment has failed.  Rather than giving in and acknowledging that mass car and taxi use simply can not work in central London — can not be managed except by physically barring it — the politicians and planners seem to have decided to start over at the beginning, and run all of the experiments one more time.

Miracle cure or last-ditch reprieve for a failed system: my first and second gut reactions.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at where the evidence is pointing — right now, I’ve no idea which way it’ll go.