Are streets more walkable if the pavements are removed?

Written by Adam Davies on . Posted in accessibility, behaviour change, footways, safety, shared space, sidewalks, streets, urban design, urban walkability

For most of us, when we’re walking in the city, the safest place to be is on the pavement or sidewalk.  However a new movement in urban street design, called ‘Shared Space’, is challenging this kind of thinking.  Shared Space streets aim to reduce the dominance of cars by getting people and vehicles to share the road space.  Controversially, this sometimes includes removing kerbs so that there is no physical demarcation between the pavement and the rest of the street.  Surprisingly, this risky strategy has arguably made streets safer for pedestrians, with less accidents and slower vehicle speeds.  Now the UK government has released official guidance on Shared Space, which not only shows the benefits and problems of the idea, but also attempts to provide advice on how to create high quality Shared Space streets.

Riskier streets = safer streets?

The new research examined a range of streets, from traditional streets with kerbs to ‘Shared Surface’ streets, where it is hard to tell where the pavement ends and the carriageway begins, such as New Road in Brighton.  The study found that by removing kerbs, vehicle speeds were reduced below 20mph, although the researchers were quick to point out that this was a result of a combination of design measures.

The research team also found that drivers were fourteen times more likely to give-way to pedestrians in shared space streets.  This more considerate driver behaviour was attributed to:

  • Lower vehicle speeds;

  • Removing kerbs;

  • More people walking in the carriageway, which is encouraged by shared space design.

These kind of findings bring some much needed evidence to the controversial debate about shared space.

Pedestrians and cars share the space at New Road in Brighton which was used in the research

Holistic placemaking

The study also produced guidance on how to design shared space, which should prove useful for the many local governments that are planning schemes to revitalise failing high streets.  However throughout the guidance it is stressed that a successful shared space scheme is not just about getting rid of kerbs.  The most effective shared space streets combined several different placemaking designs such as high quality materials, street trees and level surfaces.  There is not one ‘silver bullet’ that will make a street more walkable, but rather a holistic approach to street design is most likely to achieve the best results.

Dutch ‘Woonerf’ streets use the shared space concept in residential streets

Does shared space work for everyone?

However ‘Shared Space’ isn’t all good news, a very significant proportion of disabled people find streets without kerbs very difficult to navigate.  This was reflected in the research which found that blind and partially sighted people felt more comfortable in traditional streets with pavements and kerbs than shared surface streets.  The official guidance tries to address these concerns by encouraging designers to take disabled peoples needs into account and provide ‘comfort zones’ for vulnerable users.  However this is unlikely to fully satisfy some groups representing disabled people, who have launched several campaigns against shared space.

So shared space has its benefits and its problems, however with one of London’s most popular streets about to embrace the idea, it seems like the concept is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

Images courtesy of nurpaxyellow book and La Citta Vita

Disclosure:  In a previous role I worked on the DfT study on Shared Space.

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  • David Marcus

    What are your thoughts for roads where car volumes are a few times heavier than pedestrian volumes? Is it possible that the shared space would be dominated by cars and make life harder for pedestrians?

    • http://twitter.com/Walkonomics Walkonomist

      The new DfT guidance goes into quite a lot of detail on this issue, stating that:
      “For pedestrians to fully share the space, relatively low motor traffic flows and speeds are usually necessary. The Manual for Streets (DfT, 2007) suggested that, above 100 motor vehicles per hour, pedestrians treat the general path taken by motor vehicles in a shared space as a road to be crossed rather than a space to occupy. However, this figure is not an upper limit for shared space. Shared space streets with substantially larger flows have been reported to operate successfully, albeit with reduced willingness of pedestrians to use all of the street space.”

      They also go onto to say that as well as volume, speed is also important for ‘sharing’:

      “Vehicle speed has a significant influence on pedestrians’ willingness to share the space and drivers’ willingness to give way to pedestrians (and others). As vehicle speeds decrease, the proportion of drivers giving way increases, so the street becomes more shared. This is where the design speed becomes important. The design speed is a target speed that designers intend most vehicles not to exceed and is dictated primarily by the geometry of tracked vehicle paths within the street. For shared space, a design speed of no more than 20 mph is desirable, and preferably less than 15 mph (see Chapter 6).”

      http://assets.dft.gov.uk/publications/ltn-01-11/ltn-1-11.pdf

  • freethinker85

    Hope we can do something like this in New Cross on St James’ Street. The area lacks an urban hub for public activities and I think this approach could work really well to bring people together more in the area, who are currently divided by the busy A2, which makes up our high street. The road is only used for school drop-off, so it would be great to use the space for events and markets in the evenings and weekends. There are no residences on the road except one student block at the bottom and the church at the top of the street is being converted into a gallery space for Goldsmiths I think.

  • freethinker85

    Can’t read the other comments because the white text doesn’t show up against this background

    • Walkonomics

      Oops fixed, thanks for the comments…

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