Imagine a city with no sidewalks. Not because the cars have disappeared, or because the pedestrians have been banished to bridges and tunnels, but because all kinds of traffic are sharing the public spaces. The conventional division of the space of our streets no longer valid. – We understand human behaviour much better now than we used to, says Ben Hamilton-Baillie.
Ola Bettum og Einar Lillebye talked with one of the leading spokesmen for so-called shared space.
Ben Hamilton-Baillie is the leading international expert on the development of “Shared Space”. Shared space is the term increasingly used to describe an emerging set of principles that allow traffic to be integrated into the social and cultural dynamics of towns and cities, challenging conventional engineering assumptions about the need for separation and controls. The Norwegian Roads Authority hosted a seminar on 24th November 2010 at the Litteraturhuset in Oslo at which Ben Hamilton-Baillie was the key speaker. After the event, Ola Bettum and Einar Lillebye spoke with Ben about shared space.
Ola Bettum/Einar Lillebye: Shared space would seem to be part of a wider renaissance in street design. Why do think this is?
Ben Hamilton-Baillie: Economics, combined with greater understanding of behavioural psychology and the importance of public space. Town centres have become functionally redundant as essential markets for goods and information – we can aquire all the goods and services we need from out-of-town superstores or through the internet. In its place we increasingly use cities because we wish to, not because we need to. And this change in the purpose of cities has huge implications for the quality and distinctiveness of public space.
We are also learning much more about human complexity. The Genome Project, understanding our DNA, and the remarkable intricacies of our interconnections, has allowed us to question many of the assumptions that gave rise to conventional traffic engineering and the principle of segregating traffic from other civic and social aspects of cities. I used the analogy of the ice-rink to illustrate this issue of counter-intuitive outcomes and complexity, and the contrast with simplistic traffic modeling.
OB/EL: Does this chime with political changes?
BHB: Yes, I believe so. During the last century, governments of both the left and right tended to assume that the state should assume responsibility for resolving all potential conflicts and interaction through increasingly complex regulation and control. The evolution of the traffic signal illustrates this tendency perfectly, removing the need to think and respond from the driver, and attempting to control behaviour through technology and legislation. We now understand more about the downside of states over-regulating and over-planning.
In addition, the fiscal realities of the European Union are having an effect. Even if they wished to, governments can now no longer afford the huge costs of regulating, controlling and enforcing every aspect of traffic behaviour. Traffic lights, signs, markings, barriers and bollards cost a fortune, and the recent public spending crises have highlighted the need to question the role of the state in many areas. The idea of streets and spaces being left to informal negotiation and local social protocols chimes with initiatives such as the new “Localism Agenda” in Britain, or what David Cameron refers to as “The Big Society”.
"Governments can now no longer afford the huge costs of regulating, controlling and enforcing every aspect of traffic behaviour."
OB/EL: You are fairly critical of much conventional traffic engineering?
BHB: I am quite happy with traffic engineering applied to single-purpose spaces, such as motorways or strategic roads. But streets and some rural roads or highly complex places, serving multiple roles and having to adapt to a wide range of circumstances. Treating streets as merely corridors or sewers for moving people and vehicles about ignores the real purpose of cities and of public space. I think shared space represents a fundamental rethink of the principles of segregation espoused by Colin Buchanan and his team when he wrote the influential “Traffic in Towns” in 1963. In contrast to Buchanan, I see no need to separate or segregate urban traffic from other aspects of civic space. Conventional engineering, especially safety engineering, also ignores the growing understanding of “risk compensation”, and the remarkable complexities surrounding safety and hazards explored by academics such as Professor John Adams of UCL. As he has said “Road safety is not rocket science – it’s much more complicated!”
"I see no need to separate or segregate urban traffic from other aspects of civic space."
OB/EL: Much debate in recent years has centred on removing cars and shifting to public transport etc. How does shared space fit into this debate?
BHB: I hope that shared space allows us to move on from the “pro-car / anti-car” debate. Cars and trucks are part of our social and economic structure, for better or worse. Shared space allows traffic to be integrated into the dynamics and social structure of cities. Rather than fighting the car, shared space principles simply allow the car to be used more efficiently in towns and cities. That is what is so encouraging about the findings that lower design speeds in places like Drachten in The Netherlands, Lund in Sweden, and Ashford in England are generating better journey times and reducing congestion and delays. Traffic and movement is the life-blood of cities, and treating the driver as human appears to generate more efficient flows as well as more civilized spaces and interaction.
OB/EL: Norway is a much more rural country than the south-east of England. Do you think shared space has relevant to life outside major cities?
BHB: Indeed. I do. In fact an increasing proportion of our work comes from rural areas and small villages, often bisected by a busy road. A very common problem is where a main road acts as a barrier between the two halves of a village. As a result each half withdraws into itself. So the post office, the pub, the small shop have not got a big enough catchment area, and close down. So the village life dies. The conventional response is to turn to clumsy traffic calming or signs or cameras.
Such clutter and devices are expensive. But they also erode the identity of a village, and thus reduce the human response to the context. Interestingly, the late Hans Monderman's work emerged from rural village schemes. He came from Friesland, a rural province of the Netherlands. As head of Road Safety for the northern Dutch provinces, his experiments with simplifying streets and removing clutter began in small communities. Only after many successful rural schemes did he start to test the principles with busier, more urban, intersections and streets in Drachten and Haren and so on. The principle of contextual design and low-speeds is as relevant for rural places as for big cities.
OB/EL: You placed great stress today on the importance of “design speed”.
BHB: I use the term “design speed” to distinguish from “speed limits”. Most of the discussion about speed is framed in terms of speed limits. But the critical question is not the speed limit, but what speed you want drivers to drive at. On a motorway, you want speeds of 110-120 kph. But in complex city spaces, there are clear disadvantages in designing streets where the speed is too high, because it means you have to build in long delay for each of the intersections. You want speeds that relate to the evolved capability of humans. Our physiology, our capacity to anticipate and communicate, has all evolved around the maximum speed of a fit young hunter, capable of running at around 28-30 kph or 18-21 mph.
"The critical question is not the speed limit, but what speed you want drivers to drive at."
We deliberately try to avoid saying that the design speed is a round number, like 20 or 30, because people will start thinking that's the limit. It's much easier to say "around 17 or 18, 12 or 22 or something". To design streets for 17 mph was a strange idea for some. But those differences in speed are really crucial to how a street works. New Road in Brighton has a design speed of 12 to 14; Ashford has a designed speed of 19 mph (28 kph).
OB/EL: Interesting – the speed of the tram through Oslo City Centre is about 16 kph or 10 mph.
BHB: Indeed. In most cities, the average journey time for traffic remains at around 9-10 mph, a speed determined by the efficiency of intersections, not the speed between them. Intersections work much more efficiently at low speeds, and low-speed, continuous flows can improve on such speeds. Thus in Bern, the City Engineer Fritz Kobi succeeded in improving capacity and safety and reducing delays on the key arteries into the city by removing all traffic lights and formal pedestrian crossings. Pedestrians just cross wherever they want, interacting with the slow, continuously flowing traffic. It turns out to be both cheaper and more efficient, and overcomes the barrier-effect of major roads.
OB/EL: There are different types of streets in any city. How do you see shared space in relation to busier strategic streets with high traffic volumes?
BHB: Well, cities need to be served by single-purpose, high capacity highways, and such roads are not appropriate for multiple use – for shared space. But we are learning more that shared space is not incompatible with high traffic volumes. Fritz Kobi’s Bern schemes have shown us that, as has the work to transform Kensington High Street in West London, which carries around 42,000 vehicles per day.
Rather than there being a hierarchy of street types, I prefer to think of a simple divide between the “highway” (single-purpose, consistent, predictable, state-controlled) and the “public realm” (multi-purpose, complex, unpredictable, informal, social). This means that you need clear transitions between the two, and that the character and form of these two worlds are completely different. There are aspects of shared space in the way the Diagonale in Barcelona functions, or the Champs Elysées in Paris. Both carry huge volumes of traffic, yet both are integral, iconic components in their respective cities, generating pedestrian promenading, and commanding high rentals. By contrast the Euston Road/Marylebone Road in London plays no urban spatial role – despite the huge potential offered by the great museums, libraries, railway stations, universities and institutions connected with it. It has just been conceived as a traffic sewer, with no urban quality whatsoever. Ironically it functions less well than its Barcelona and Paris equivalents, with comparable traffic volumes.
The work of Allan B. Jacobs and his colleagues draw on many shared space principles in their exploration of busy, high volume boulevards. But the design of major boulevards and multi-lane parkways is another whole subject for analysis. In our work we are increasingly developing a language where, by creating continuous flow, low- speed environment, you can still handle 35-40-50 thousand vehicles a day, but still retain it as part of the city.
OB/EL: Some people might be a bit confused that you are including Kensington High Street in the shared space category, because of its broadly conventional arrangements. How much regulation can you accept in a shared-space street?
BHB: Well, Kensington High Street is, in many ways, a very conventional looking street, with crossings and signals. It is also a very cleverly designed, elegant street. Councillor Daniel Moylan, the politician responsible for its regeneration, described it as a street wearing a classic, well-made suit. It is not flashy, or a whim of fashion; it doesn't shout too loudly. It is timeless, and will last for many, many decades. It's classic in every sense. But Kensington High Street is built entirely within the current regulatory framework. Entirely. As is every other scheme we've worked on. Ashford, New Road (Brighton) – they are all within the current regulatory framework. And what's interesting is that the regulatory framework is much less limiting than most engineers and politicians believe it to be. If you look at the actual regulatory framework of most countries; it hardly exists. There are guidelines and there are conventions. But that's different from regulations. In almost all cases the regulatory framework is much more flexible than most people assume. The UK's Institution of Civil Engineers, the ICE, has done a lot of good work to try to overcome some of the myths that constrain engineers into merely doing what they've always done because they believe that's what the regulations require. Many myths! You can usually do anything you like so long as you use your professional judgment.
OB/EL: Do you think the ugliness and clumsiness of many streets stems from poor engineering methods?
BHB: I think that good engineering always looks elegant. I don't believe there's a schism between good engineering and elegant design. When you look at all the great examples of engineering, they have a natural elegance to them. But when you look at the way we have configured responsibility for our streets, a strange schism has developed between different professions. I often ask local authorities, "Who's in charge of your streets?", and they can rarely answer. Because someone is in charge of street-lighting, somebody else in charge of drains, somebody else in charge of safety, somebody else is in charge of trams and buses, and somebody else in charge of bicycles, and so on. There are usually 20-30 different agencies, and no overall vision or co- ordination. So you get streets that look like somebody has tipped the contents of a rubbish bin all over them - a complete mess. Because no one is taking overall responsibility. I think we're being damaged or limited by people saying "I'm an engineer" or "I'm a landscape architect", or whatever, because that already sets up a silo around them. And one of the things that I find most important to do when addressing a street problem is to free people from the definitions that describe their profession.
"When you look at the way we have configured responsibility for our streets, a strange schism has developed between different professions. … So you get streets that look like somebody has tipped the contents of a rubbish bin all over them – a complete mess."
At Ashford we worked very hard to build an integrated design team. And that meant that the engineers, the landscape architects and street-lighting people, technicians and artists and everyone else developed an intimacy, a relationship which allowed them to really work as a single team. And that was very hard work! But it turned out to be quite a creative partnership. It meant accepting a lot of conflict, a lot of fights within the team. But that's good; a successful family has a lot of tension, you have arguments like a good community has a lot of friction within it. And I really worry when I go along to urban city meetings and the engineers are sitting along one side of the table and the design team on the other and they're being very polite to each other. Such standoffs do not generate good creativity. There needs to be an intimacy.
I think there are three things that need to happen in order to create great streets. The first is that you need a range of technical design skills. These can be learned, and can be adopted or copied from elsewhere; how to create low speed environments; how to create streets which encourage certain patterns of movements and so on. They are design skills, and they're important, but they are useless without two other things.
The second is organizational change. You cannot create great streets if one bunch of people working in one office block deal with highways, another bunch of people work in another building, with different values and different backgrounds, work on urban issues. Guaranteed failure! You have to re-organize your governmental functions, your community functions, to bring together all the necessary skills required. And that's a tough challenge for city managers or chief-executives in charge of organizational change. Because it means removing people from the security blanket of their professions.
"You must have politicians capable of determining, developing and articulating a vision of what you want your streets to be."
And the third, and maybe the most important element, is that you must have a vision for your street or city. And of course, that is a political decision, not a technical or a professional one. You must have politicians capable of determining, developing and articulating a vision of what you want your streets to be. Without that, no amount of brilliant, technical support or organization or structure will deliver if you don't know where you're going. You’ve got to have a vision. And that's also quite rare to find. Because very few politicians realize that they have the capacity to create a vision. Kensington High Street was successful because all those three things came together. You had a bunch of very skilled designers who could provide the technical skills. You had no organizational or cultural separation between the engineers and the planners and the environmental team and the landscape architects. That was a political move. And thirdly, most importantly, you had a politician who was capable of developing, articulating, and sticking to an absolutely clear set of principles about what he wanted the streets of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea to be like. He wanted simplicity elegance, durability, timelessness. Of course, there's no right or wrong vision. Brighton wanted streets which were jazzy and hip and interesting and would attract a certain lifestyle. Ashford wanted a different sort of image. And every city, every place has a different set of values that they wish to express. But it's a political job to make sure that vision is communicated. Once you've got the vision, the organization, and the technical skills, you can do it. Then it's easy.
OB/EL: Ever since Gordon Cullen 50 years ago, observers have remarked on the loss of streetscape. Why has change taken so long?
BHB: Breaking away from established ways of doing things takes time. Hans Monderman warned me, just before he died, to expect 30 years of hard work before I saw much change. But in fact I have been lucky to be able to build on the pioneering work of people like Hans Monderman and Joost Vahl, to see change happen fairly quickly. I only coined the term “shared space” in 2003 to describe the approach developed by Hans Monderman and others, and it is amazing to remember how, as little time ago as five years, I was being seen by governments and professional bodies as mildly eccentric in suggesting that traffic could be fully integrated into urban design. Now the term shared space is widely used across Europe and North America, and has become an established part of mainstream policy and practice. The publication of the Manual for Streets in the UK marks an important landmark in the process – shared space has suddenly become an accepted approach to street design in many countries.
OB/EL: There seems to be particularly rapid progress in the UK.
BHB: Yes, this is interesting. Until recently, everyone was looking to The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden for pioneering work in this area. Hans Monderman’s last lecture tour was to London in November 2007, just six weeks before he died. As we parted company, he remarked that he believed that the UK, having started with integration and home zones very late, was now beginning to take the lead in this field. I think he was right. Schemes like Exhibition Road, Ashford Ring Road and New Road, Brighton are establishing a new paradigm and demonstrating what is possible. But there are also remarkable new schemes in Switzerland, such as Kobi’s work in Bern and the amazing Stadtlounge in St. Gallen.
OB/EL: Street design is the focus for many campaign organizations and lobby groups. Does this cause problems for you?
BHB: It certainly does! Streets are very public, very political, places, and every proposal is closely scrutinized by every pressure group, from those championing bicyclists or buses or pedestrians or blind people or business interests. I have had to be very careful in our own work to avoid being associated with any specific campaign group, regardless of my own values and sympathies. Shared space is all about integration, and that means avoiding over-attention on any one factor or group. We see our role as simply trying to help local authorities, governments and developers to spend their limited resources wisely, and not waste money on expensive equipment, futile signs or poor short-lived design. It is a difficult role. Everybody likes to interpret shared space in their own way and claim it for their own. We are asked to support groups campaigning for motorists, and groups campaigning against the car – all sorts. But shared space is not about promoting the interests of one particular group or user over another, but merely about setting the stage for different activities to interact.
OB/EL: That's interesting. It's very promising, given so much past emphasis on enlarging pedestrian areas, improving public transport and getting rid of cars. Shared space approach seems much more pragmatic.
BHB: Yes, absolutely. I think that's right, I am a great admirer of Jan Gehl and his colleagues, and they've done absolutely wonderful work. Copenhagen is a phenomenal success story. But I feel that that generation has run its course in the sense of that there's only so far you can go with exclusion. For them the removal of the car is an overriding theme. At times, of course, it's appropriate. But reality is that the car is with us, for better or worse, for at least a couple of generations. It's a wonderful liberating technology. For all its downside it has transformed most of our economic and social lives. And shared space offers the opportunity to welcome and exploit the good side of motor traffic, as it were. It needn't be a destructive force for streets, for cities.
"Shared space offers the opportunity to welcome and exploit the good side of motor traffic, as it were. It needn't be a destructive force for streets, for cities."
OB/EL: Some of your examples of shared space have emerged from seemingly very conservative communities – St. Gallen in Switzerland or Kensington in London. Does this surprise you?
BHB: Yes, sometimes it does! What is interesting about these examples is that they have all emerged from clear political visions for the particular cities concerned. Councillor Daniel Moylan in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea provided the confidence and clarity to define and articulate a clear and comprehensive vision for his particular streetscapes. Other business communities like St Gallen are recognizing the clear economic benefits of developing a distinctive environment, streets that look and feel quite different to the next town. We may, I hope, see a time when city-streets stop looking all alike, using the same engineering-dimensions, engineering handbooks, and become absolutely different from each other. So the streets of Kensington-Chelsea will look different from the streets of Southwark, and the streets of London look different from the streets of Oslo, different from the streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles. So whatever, that once you strip away the notion of standardization/ regulation, you can be as free to be creative in street design as one can be in architecture. The Opera House here in Oslo could signal the way that you want to approach streets.
Good street design is all about context. So you try to express and manifest local values and local context. Clearly a design for Carnaby Street in London is not appropriate for Pall Mall. Because they have different contexts. The streets serve different purposes. Portobello Road is different from Exhibition Road. They have quite different functions and tell different stories. But both stories are perfectly valid. A small rural village has one story to tell and the market town has another, and a big city, a financial district, has another story to tell. Some cities' story is about heritage. It's about the preserving, reflecting the passing of age. But it's fine, because shared space allows you to reflect values and preferences. That's why I like that cartoon with the road sign, “Do anything you like ahead”. You can do anything you want.
Of course, that makes it sound as if it is easy. But of course, streets are never easy. And particularly developing a design language that allows somebody who is blind or partially sighted or so on to navigate their way through a street requires some very intelligent creative responses to reading space and navigating and so on. And I think we've begun to get as far as reaching base-camp on a journey to make more accessible and more readable environments. I think we can do much better than just the odd bit of tactile paving on the ground and crossings and blinking traffic-lights and all that.. And I hope that Exhibition Road and Ashford are beginning to explore how to do that a bit better.
OB/EL: Traditional safety engineering seems to be a block towards innovation and shared space? How have you tackled the risk-averse caution of the industry?
BHB: To take this forward one has to keep talking and keep discussing these issues at a variety of different levels. Firstly, it is very important to speak to politicians, because it empowers them to develop a vision to their city. Secondly, technically. You have to work with technical people, engineers in particular, Engineers are vital. And thirdly, publically. You also need is the support of the broader public. And that means working with the press, working with the media, working with television. You have to be creative about how you create a story and not be afraid of using the press; getting stuff into the public, even if it sounds absurd. No publicity is bad publicity. And when Jeremy Clarkson wrote his two-page rant in The Sun newspaper against Ashford ("this is madness, millions will die"!) It was great because what he articulated there was exactly the underlying scepticism of the public. It allowed us to really open the debate about safety, and two years later say "What was the problem?".
"This is madness, millions will die!" Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the television show Top Gear, commenting on the Ashford project in The Sun newspaper.
But yes, certainly having something on the ground. Once you've got one scheme that feels right, the second and third are really much easier. Ashford has given us a scheme in Britain which has reassured people and unlocked the door. Before Ashford I had to take the politicians and the engineers on study tours to the Netherlands and Denmark and Sweden. Because you have to experience it direct. And of course, study tours are expensive and they're time consuming. But once you've got one or two examples in your home country or hometown which can be visited, then people can begin to expand those ideas.
OB/EL: You draw on a wide range of material to convey the potential for shared space. Is this deliberate?
BHB: Yes. Of course, it means trying to find ways to communicate the principles in ways that will keep people’s interest; entertain, provoke, make it funny, make it intellectually challenging. The subject of traffic engineering is not normally a very sexy subject. So I think you have to find creative ways to explore these issues, because it's so important to our lives. It's so important to cities. And I find that once your break through the notion that this is not just about some dull engineering documents, that this is about life I've never yet found a public meeting that thought this was a boring subject. Everyone looks at it. Because everyone loves streets, and likes public space and they have a view about public space and what public life should be about.