Why making streets risky improves road safety

Mixing cars, cyclists and pedestrians may appear more dangerous, but ‘Shared Space’ approaches are reducing accidents across Europe. 
Noordlaren Primary School uses an \'abacus fence\', distinctive lighting, benches and paving .../ Credits: Ben Hamilton-Baillie

Article at a glance

Road safety orthodoxy says cars, cyclists and pedestrians must be segregated. But is this commonsense approach correct? Successful ‘Shared Space’ experiments integrating road users suggest that making streets appear more risky encourages more careful, considerate behaviour which enhances safety.

Driving through a playground

Noordlaren had a road safety problem. Traffic was speeding past the local primary school, posing a threat to pupils. There had been an accident. Parents wanted something done.

The obvious solution would have been to build a bigger wall around the school’s playground, put up a high fence or install traffic lights.

Instead the Dutch village, in the province of Groningen, did something unexpected, something radical that on the face of it appeared to be downright dangerous - it removed the wall completely and extended the playground across the road.

Now the only barrier between children and vehicles is a low, one-rail fence decorated with colored balls. There are no road markings, no signals, no signs. Yellow benches have been placed in the road area. It is as if motorists are driving through a playground.

And a surprising thing has happened. “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 psychology of ‘Shared Space’

Noordlaren Primary School is a bold 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.

The late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman saw things differently, however. It was he who persuaded the people of Noordlaren to make their school’s playground more, not less, visible. Monderman’s idea was to make drivers slow down by changing their mindset, forcing them to focus on the school and make them think, “I am a guest here” rather than “I am in charge”.

Segregation reduces drivers’ perception of accident risk, he argued. Motorists who encounter uniform, predictable, highly-regulated streets drive accordingly: faster and less cautiously or considerately. This is known as the ‘risk compensation effect’ - if streets look like highways, people drive as if on highways.

By making an environment appear more dangerous you help people act more safely, explains Hamilton-Baillie, who is something of a Shared Space evangelist. The goal, he says, is to create “intrigue, uncertainty and ambiguity”.

With no clear right of way road users are forced to communicate in order to proceed, using eye contact and gestures to negotiate their passage. It’s like an ice rink, says Hamilton-Baillie - smooth, harmonious movement is enabled by human interaction.

The new thinking is not restricted to Noordlaren. The German town of Bohmte has scrapped all traffic lights, road signs and pedestrian crossings while levelling the sidewalk and road.

Another Dutch town, Drachten, has turned its Laweplein intersection into a square with a roundabout—a ‘squareabout’— with no signs or bicycle lanes.

Elsewhere, road markings, guard rails, traffic signals, formal crossings and kerbs are being removed. Benches, lamps and trees are being added. The boundaries between sidewalks and roads are being blurred. Integration is replacing segregation. One of the most extensive, high-profile transformations has taken place in the heart of London’s museum district, South Kensington.

Safer streets or no-go areas?

A study of seven European Shared Space projects from 2004 to 2008, backed by the European Interreg IIIB North Sea Programme, supports Hamilton-Baillie’s view. “There are fewer accidents,” it concludes. “When a situation feels unsafe, people are more alert.”

Unexpectedly, the study also found that despite motorists driving more slowly in Shared Space zones traffic delays were reduced - by up to 50% at the Laweiplein, which sees 22,000 vehicles pass through each day.

Traffic lights, road marking and pedestrian crossings have also been removed in Ashford in England - which has seen “a 60% drop in accidents in the first three years”, says Hamilton-Baillie.

Not everybody is convinced. A survey in Ashford published by the University of the West of England found that found that 80% of respondents felt safer under the previous road layout. The lack of boundaries was a particular concern for blind people, those with disabilities, and the elderly.

But Ben Hamilton-Baillie remains convinced that the accident statistics show that the Shared Space approach to road safety is the way forward.

“There is an argument that one shouldn’t feel entirely safe,” he says. “There is a constant dilemma in this field; whether we are seeking improvements in perceptions of safety or improvements in actual safety.”

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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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