Is there a better way to share our streets?


Ben Hamilton-Baille wants cars and people to share the same street space and he believes that this will make cities safer for pedestrians and drivers

Ben Hamilton-Baillie likes taking risk. He thinks we all need more of it in our daily lives.

“How we manage and live with it is part of the natural orders of life. Trying to mollycoddle motorists and cocoon them in safety equipment is good for neither the driver nor the other road users with whom they share the streets.”

Hamilton-Baille, an English engineer and architect, has some rather counter-intuitive ideas about how we could better manage the relationships between road users in urban areas. “The policy of segregation, so central to urban traffic engineering, has assumed that risks should be minimised in the pursuit of safety,” he says.

“But as many psychologists have pointed out, risk is essential to human activity and to the creation of successful public space. A recognition of the “risk compensation effect” prompts a fresh understanding of the adverse effects of measures such as traffic signals, signs, pedestrian guard rails and barriers on safety, and of their tendency to discourage informal physical activity. It may seem perverse to argue that well-being can be improved through making spaces feel riskier, but that is the firm conclusion from both research and from empirical studies.”

His grand vision: switch off the traffic lights, take down the pedestrian barriers and signs that state the blindingly obvious, and let the motorist, cyclist and pedestrian share the roadspace more freely.

“It’s about redefining the urban city streets. It’s not about changing the management in areas where cars are the sole users, such as dual carriageways or motorways, but in built-up urban areas with shopfronts onto the street and plenty of pedestrian traffic. In these areas we need to open up that central piece of road currently a no-go area for pedestrians. But it’s important to understand that this model, which I’ve coined shared space, is not cutting the car out of the city. It’s about re-introducing civility between road users: the idea is not to segregate but to learn to share.”

By simple low-cost changes to the likes of surfacing and removing the certainty of traffic lights and controls, you get a greater sense of communal use, where motorists instinctively slow down. He claims it has been proven to work on the continent and in Britain, where the shared space principles look set to be adopted as policy by the current government in its plans for future urban street planning.

“The principle of separation and segregation has guided policy in relation to our built environment since the advent of the motor car, to the detriment of the public realm that should make up our streets. Increasing numbers of examples suggest that the removal of the familiar characteristics associated with the highways and national roads, such as road markings, traffic signals, signs, kerbs, bollards and barriers can dramatically change the relationship between people, places and traffic. In the absence of rules, predictability and certainty, drivers have to rely on cultural signs and informal social protocols.

“Speeds reduce, eye contact becomes the norm and the driver becomes a part of her or his social surroundings and context. The less the manifestations of the main roads are evident, the more drivers rely on their remarkable ability as humans to read situations and adapt to circumstances,” he argues.

To demonstrate his ideas in practice we take a walk down Dublin’s Dame Street.

“You’ve got a wonderful thoroughfare that ends with one of the most iconic buildings in Dublin: Trinity College. But it’s lost because so much of the road is devoted to a traffic flow that says nothing about the city. It could be any nondescript urban route in Europe.

“At the Christchurch end you need to clearly signal to drivers that they are now entering an urban area. That doesn’t need to be a clutter of big signposts, but more subtle indicators, such as a change of colour on the road or a different road surface.

“Simple intuitive signals work, like changing to a cobblestone format. We’ve used these indicators in other areas to good effect, in cities and towns in the Netherlands and in Denmark for example, where traffic flows would be similar or greater than what you have here on Dame St. It’s a lovely street, a window on the city but the clutter of signs and the width of the road given over to cars and the like isolates either side of the road, Even the footpaths are too narrow to carry the level of pedestrian traffic, making it uncomfortable to walk,” he says.

Under his plan, all you need to leave is a six metre lane for cars and devote the rest of pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians shouldn’t be herded onto traffic islands and pedestrian crossings either. Instead they should feel free to meander between the traffic. By doing so drivers become alert to the fact they are in an urban area, sharing the road with others. Ultimately they become more aware of the risks.

Another of his suggestions is to convert the entire area in front of the Central Bank into a square that runs right to the other side of the road. “Carrying over the footpath format to the other side and letting people criss-cross with the traffic would intuitively slow down the speeds to appropriate levels and would create a more open inviting landscape. The cars and buses would automatically slow as drivers sought to share the space rather than see the road as defined solely for their use.”

But what about the lunatic fringe, who might abuse such formats and speed ahead or bully their way through junctions? “You can’t create a system around the off-chance that some idiot will drive too fast in an urban area. There are laws and rules that apply in those cases.”

And what about Irish drivers? Are we not more discourteous than our European colleagues, more prone to abuse the freedoms such a system would introduce? “In every country we’ve worked, the authorities and planners claim that their drivers are the exception, averse to rules and need to be policed by road signs and strict traffic light controls. Yet in the cities where we’ve put these shared space principles into practice, the results have been a reduction in both speeds and serious injuries.

“In Ashford, Kent, there was a three-lane road in the centre of the town with traffic lights, roundabouts and pedestrian protection barriers. We removed them all and created a more communal zone for all road users to find their way around. When the barriers were in place there was an average of one death per year and nine serious injuries. Since we’ve cleared away the clutter the most serious reported injury was a grazed knee.”

Hamilton-Baillie’s seemingly contrarian views don’t end with road developments, however. In terms of car safety equipment, he argues that seatbelts should be banned from use in urban areas, increasing the risk to the driver and thereby their awareness and attention in built-up areas. It’s not a viewpoint widely supported by anyone left to clean up the carnage when things go wrong.

Talking to Hamilton-Baillie, you’re left wondering if the learning curve as drivers adapt, or perhaps even become complacent, is a price worth paying. You also suspects that sharing the road with crowds of wandering pedestrians criss-crossing in front is likely to turn urban cities into de facto pedestrian zones. The slower speeds and delays for motorists may simply mean fewer drivers use the route and are effectively forced out of the cities.

He denies that that’s the intention. The ideas are challenging and there is evidence that they work. And while it might seem like madness to mix two-tonne cars with distracted shoppers, it might make drivers more aware of the potential risks they take behind the wheel.

Ultimately the question for town planners is whether the shared space approach is a risk worth taking.