'Riskier' streets reduce accidents

Making roads seem more dangerous improves safety. ‘Shared Space’ traffic engineering prevents collisions by mixing motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.
Noordlaren Primary School uses an \'abacus fence\', distinctive lighting, benches and paving .../ Credits: Ben Hamilton-Baillie
Noordlaren, a small village in the Dutch province of Groningen, had a problem. Fast-moving traffic passed beside the primary school playground. There had been an accident. Something had to be done. The obvious solution was a bigger wall or fence between playground and road, or new traffic lights. But instead, the school removed the wall and extended the playground across the road.

The only barrier between children and vehicles is now a low, one-rail fence decorated with colored balls. There are no road markings, signals or signs. Bright yellow benches extend into the road area. It’s as if motorists are driving through a playground.

That was the point. Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman persuaded parents and teachers that making the playground more, not less, visible was the surest way to slow drivers down. Suddenly aware of the school, they would think: ‘I am a guest here’ not ‘I am in charge’.

It worked. “Speeds have come down very substantially, by 6-7mph (9-11km/h) in the 5-6 years since the changes,” says Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British urban architect. “There have been no accidents.” The children also have a better understanding of traffic, he says.

Noordlaren Primary School is a radical example of ‘Shared Space’; a road safety approach that turns decades of conventional wisdom on its head.

Orthodoxy maintains that to reduce accidents you must segregate motorists from cyclists and pedestrians using barriers, kerbs, lights, signals and other ‘traffic calming’ measures.

Hans Monderman and others in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands rejected segregation, arguing it reduces drivers’ perception of accident risk. Motorists encounter uniform, predictable, highly-regulated streets and drive accordingly: faster and less cautiously or considerately.

This is known as the ‘risk compensation effect’—people modify their behaviour based on their perception of risk. If streets look like highways, people drive as if on highways. Towns and villages are not highways. To adapt driver behaviour, Shared Space pioneers introduced risk.

They removed road markings, guard rails, traffic signals, formal crossings and kerbs, deliberately blurring boundaries between sidewalk and road. Benches, lamps and trees added to the effect. The fundamental principle was to replace segregation with integration.

Bohmte in Germany scrapped all traffic lights, road signs and pedestrian crossings while levelling the sidewalk and road. The Dutch town of Drachten turned the Laweplein intersection into a square with a roundabout—a ‘squareabout’— with no signs or bicycle lanes.

The goal was to create “intrigue, uncertainty and ambiguity,” explains Hamilton-Baillie, himself a Shared Space evangelist and consultant, and to distinguish places from mere routes. This creates unease and curiosity, making drivers in particular more cautious. By making the environment appear more dangerous, you help people act more safely. This is the counter-intuitive philosophy of Shared Space.

Crucially, people must communicate in order to proceed, as there is often no clear right of way. Using eye contact and gestures they negotiate their passage rather than feeling entitled to it.

“A shared space...relies on social protocols and negotiation rather than on state control,” says Hamilton-Baillie, like an ice skating rink, where smooth, harmonious movement is enabled by nothing more than human interaction. Why shouldn’t city streets work like that?

Some already do. Seven Dials in London—where seven streets converge on a monument—has seen vehicles and pedestrians mingle and flow without formal management for over 20 years.

Safer streets or no-go areas?

But does Shared Space actually improve road safety? “There are fewer accidents,” concluded 'Shared Space', a study of seven European projects from 2004 to 2008 supported by the European Interreg IIIB North Sea Programme. “When a situation feels unsafe, people are more alert.”

Unexpectedly, the study also found that despite slower speeds traffic delays reduced; by up to 50 percent at the Laweiplein, which deals with 22,000 vehicles a day.

In 2007, a separate study by the Dutch Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden (NHL), University of Applied Sciences found “a significant reduction in the number of total injuries” in the Laweiplein after remodelling in 2003. Accidents fell from eight a year to just one in 2004 and 2005 respectively, despite larger traffic and pedestrian volumes.

Seven Dials has an excellent safety record, says Hamilton-Baillie says, while Ashford in England—where traffic lights, road markings and pedestrian crossings were removed—has seen “a 60 percent drop in accidents in the first three years”.Not everybody is convinced. In the UK, critics include The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association which found in a 2010 survey that blind and partially sighted people felt that Shared Space streets were “no-go areas” because of the lack of boundaries.

“People with disabilities and particularly visually impaired people generally prefer conventional streets,” found Dr. Steve Melia and Simon Moody when surveying pedestrians in Ashford’s revamped Elwick Square, most of who avoided traffic and gave way to vehicles.

Their 2011 paper ‘Shared space: Implications of recent research for transport policy’ published by the University of the West of England found that 80 percent of respondents felt safer under the previous road layout.

Cyclists may also feel intimidated. “A lot of cyclists say they do feel unsafe,” Hans de Jong, a former Dutch government road safety engineer, recently told BBC Radio, despite statistics showing the opposite.

This returns us to the risk perception effect. “There is an argument that one shouldn’t feel entirely safe,” says Ben Hamilton-Baillie. “There is a constant dilemma in this field; whether we are seeking improvements in perceptions of safety or improvements in actual safety.”

Other questions to explore include whether Shared Space is appropriate for increasingly aged, frail populations, whether it may perpetuate car use in streets that would be safer (and greener) through pedestrianization, and whether greater acceptance of Shared Space could mean unease decreases and accidents rise.

Notwithstanding these doubts, Shared Space seems here to stay, and has important implications for future traffic policies and urban engineering. Not that it is anything new, as an old film of a trolley ride through San Francisco in 1905 shows; Shared Space is simply a return to the streets of old.

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Comments (3)

dev dongol: 15.06.2012, 14:22

riskier or difficult to drive/ slow driving road? that is safe to both driver and pedestrians? 13.06.2012, 23:53

This should say making roads SEEM more dangerous makes them safer - because if making them SEEM more dangerous actually improves safety, they are not more dangerous, correct?

Concerned: 16.04.2012, 17:32

I believe there was a fatality recently on a shared space scheme in Coventry.

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