Shared spaces - can they protect all road users?

Traffic in town

Shared space is a new urban design concept being considered by the Scottish Government and has been receiving lots of attention in the press and communities across Scotland.

Essentially, shared space means there is no separation between pedestrians, cyclists or vehicles in a public space. This can involve removing kerbs and levelling off of pavements and roads so there is no priority over either pedestrians and drivers.

However, these schemes have raised safety concerns for vulnerable road users such as cyclists and disabled people.

Already East Dunbartonshire Council is implementing a shared space scheme at Catherine Street in Kirkintilloch. However, a series of road accidents have further highlighted safety concerns over such schemes.

Given that this could become a reality for people living across Scotland, what are the potential dangers – and benefits - of shared space schemes?

Dangers and benefits of shared space schemes

Removal of traffic lights and safety barriers

Frequently, shared space can include the removal of traffic lights, safety barriers, and other items which are often termed ‘street furniture’.

By removing these items, it is hoped that drivers will slow down and be more alert as there is little guidance on how to drive in that particular area.

Rather than dedicated signal control crossings, courteous crossings will also be used. This is generally considered to be the positive benefit of such shared spaces.

However, is a shared scheme doomed to failure if it essentially relies on the positive action of drivers and other road users?

Disabled road users may be more vulnerable in shared space

Perhaps the biggest group who are critical of the idea of shared spaces are disabled people.

If we think of how a typical pedestrian crossing in an urban area, it is easily to imagine the dropped kerb and traffic lights which emit a noise when the green man is in use.

Such aids are there to assist pedestrians with a visual impairment. Without having such safeguards in place, how are visually impaired users able to find a safe place to cross a busy carriageway?

Removal of dedicated cycle lanes force cyclists back on roadway

Shared space schemes puts an end to cycle lanes which help separate a vulnerable group of road users from motor vehicles.

By removing cycle lanes, cyclists will inevitably be forced back into the roadway where they are at greater risk of an accident. Drivers are more likely to overtake a cyclist in a shared space whereas at the moment they coexist in parallel lanes on the roadway.

Petition to stop shared schemes

Reflecting the negative views being expressed about shared spaces, there is a currently petition underway in the Scottish Parliament calling for a halt on shared spaces.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf, suggested that it is up to local authorities as to whether or not they take into account the reservations of local access and disability organisations.

Can shared space schemes protect all road users?

Whilst the idea behind shared spaces appears to be to promote a healthier balance between all types of road users and to ensure that neither pedestrians nor drivers have priority over the other, it might be that such an idea is essentially flawed in failing to take into account the need to have such divisions in busy urban areas.

Where we are still able to designate some road users as being ‘vulnerable’ does it stand to reason that where one group is considerably more exposed to potential danger than another, such protection and safe guards need to remain in use to allow the road use equality that shared space schemes are looking to achieve?