Leading the Way
2018-08-13

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Shared Space – The Vectos Viewpoint

The publication of the Department for Transport (DfT) document The Inclusive Transport Strategy: Achieving Equal Access for Disabled People in July 2018 has led the DfT to ‘pause’ the approval of shared space streets and withdraw Local Transport Note (LTN) Shared Space: 1/11. It is understood that this is in reaction to the National Federation of the Blind's long-running campaign for a halt to shared spaces.

While local planning and highway authorities are currently reviewing their positions, the message seems to be mixed from authority to authority. What is clear is the ambiguity in the term ‘shared space’. Many authorities have temporarily withdrawn their design guidance in response, but some continue to progress applications and approvals that are already in the system or if pre-application advice has been provided. There is also confusion as to whether this updated position by DfT includes residential shared streets or home zones.

The DfT has provided some clarification stating:

“local authorities were being asked to pause the introduction of new shared space schemes, which incorporate a level surface, and which are at the design stage and it is for authorities and their designers to consider if any aspects of schemes they are planning fall into this description. ... tactile paving is not a way to allow planners and designers to use a level surface and that low kerbs would create a trip hazard.[1]

What does this mean for live schemes?

It’s difficult at this stage to predict what the outcome to DfT’s pause on this subject will be. Our advice in the short term is to ensure schemes currently in the planning process have suitable flexibility to introduce traditional street features. For example, often the requirements for adoption include sufficient width for utility corridors, which could reasonably be re-provided as footway, with further consideration of routes around the development and the inclusion of further crossing locations.

What is the future of shared space streets?

Our view in the longer term is that shared space streets offer significant benefits for all road users, particularly in relation to safety, when designed appropriately.

Roads have historically evolved from shared streets; they are not a new phenomenon and people are used to negotiating these environments. On this basis, it’s very unlikely that they will cease to be an integral part of good urban design.

However, a balance needs to be struck. There is likely to be a greater emphasis on designers for a more comprehensive and structured approach to the assessment of design for all road users. There are already processes in place such as Road Safety Audits; Quality Audits; and Walking, Cycling and Horse-Riding Assessments, which may need to be adapted and applied more rigorously and more often throughout the design process.

While it has been withdrawn, LTN: 1/11 already sets out some very useful commentary in relation to the blind and partially sighted:

“Evidence suggests that the most important navigation feature for blind and partially sighted people is the building line, … An outer shore-line is conventionally provided by the kerb. If the context and objectives of a shared space scheme proposal indicate that a kerb-free design is desirable, mitigating measures may be required.

For many partially sighted people, tonal contrast is especially useful in enabling them to perceive boundaries such as the edge of the carriageway or the comfort space. However, complicated surface patterns can be confusing and disorientating, and this needs to be taken into account when incorporating them into street designs.”

As such, the duties under the Equalities Act 2010 are already recognised within LTN: 1/11 and the document sets out the obligations on the designer to accommodate the blind and partially sighted within the scheme.

Over a number of years, campaigns run by action groups have gained significant weight in Parliament, culminating in the release of a report by Lord Holmes in 2015 titled Accidents by Design, the Holmes Report on ‘Shared Space’ in the UK. A letter from the DfT regarding the Accessibility Action Plan consultation appears to have driven the current calls for a moratorium on all schemes of this nature.

Our view is that in the true sense of the phrase, ‘shared space’ designs should continue to be promoted as it is clear that they have a role in reducing vehicle speed, which in turn is likely to reduce the severity of any collisions. Shared space schemes can also prove important for economic regeneration in town centres and can provide numerous safety and economic benefits to both users and neighbours.

However, real cognisance must be given at the design stage to particular user groups who view these schemes as troublesome and dangerous. Particularly the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs), SCOPE and groups such as the United Kingdom’s Disabled People's Council, which represents more than 80 similar organisations.

These user groups have raised concern about such schemes and expressed opinions on not being consulted or engaged with early during the design phase of schemes.

Continuing issues for visually and mobility impaired users are detailed below.

Removal of signal-controlled crossings: One of the features associated with shared space which has by far the greatest impact on disabled users. Crossing removal in theory is a benefit to the average pedestrian user. However, we must distinguish between the average user and those with mobility or visual impairments. A key factor of crossing a shared space scheme is making eye contact between users. This is clearly not possible for visually impaired pedestrians and is leading to a lack of confidence amongst these road users, who comprise 2 million people in the UK.

Level surfaces: The reduction of kerb upstands to level surfaces is the most controversial issue for visually impaired users. Campaigns have been led by groups such as the Guide Dogs and these complaints relate to the fact that guide dogs are trained to stop and wait at defined kerb edges. Without these kerbs how are the dogs to know where to stop? The training of school children to ‘stop, look and listen’ when they come to a kerb edge is another issue. Again, how are they to know where to stop when kerb edges are removed? Retraining and re-educating would be required for all potential users of the scheme. Small upstands can be used to delineate such schemes and a review and investigation is being undertaken into what height and finish of kerbs would represent a trip hazard when installed on shared space schemes.

Removal of tonal contrast between road and pavement: Tonal contrast between road and pavement is critical for users who make use of their residual vision. Many visually impaired users do not use aids to mobility such as canes or guide dogs. There are only 4,500 guide dog users and 100,000 long cane users in this group of 2 million. Visually impaired users who rely on aids would be affected by the removal of kerbs, but not so affected by tonal contrast. Designers need to be more aware of how people with impaired vision use tonal contrast. This can have a big impact on accessibility of public space schemes.

The introduction of different materials and textures within a design will be important for safe shared surfaces. We are seeing an increasing requirement from local highway authorities to reduce the range of materials available to designers to create texture in design, often requiring that shared spaces are constructed using asphalt. This is driven by maintenance cost reasons, with little regard for safety and quality of design.

Decluttering: For visually impaired users who utilise their residual vision to navigate, the removal of street furniture and ‘clutter’ is seen as a positive step by removing sources of trips and collisions. However, long cane visually impaired users note that these features serve as vital navigational waypoints. Security services in the UK also argue that complete decluttering of areas of footway could create an increase in vehicle terrorist attacks in these spaces.

With regards to road safety, more than half of the schemes reviewed by Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) in its recent review of shared space design (9 January 2018) note:

“The impact on road safety was deemed as neutral, meaning overall collision data was broadly unchanged or statistically insignificant upon delivery of the new schemes. In a number of new schemes, the situation appears to have improved when compared with the period before the scheme was implemented. No scheme has resulted in a significant increase in the number of collisions.”

We believe that the key is to move away from the term ‘shared space’. Many schemes that are not true shared space have been labelled as such and this is fuelling the concern from action groups. Instead, we should look to adopt CIHT's approach which recommends that schemes should be described in the following three ways.

The Pedestrian Prioritised Street: Streets where pedestrians feel that they can move freely anywhere and where drivers feel they are a guest.

The Informal Street: Streets where formal traffic controls are absent or reduced. There is a footway and a carriageway but the differentiation between them is typically less than in a conventional street.

The Enhanced Street: Streets where the public realm has been improved and restrictions on pedestrian movement (i.e. pedestrian guardrail) have been removed, but the conventional traffic controls largely remain.

We will provide an update as the process and arguments develop. We hope that DfT and our professional bodies draw a sensible conclusion soon that promotes shared space again and is supported by design guidance that protects vulnerable users.

If you have any questions, please contact us at vectos@vectos.co.uk.

[1] https://transport-network.co.uk/DfT-gives-partial-clarification-after-shared-space-injunction/15210