Shared space, where the streets have no rules

(CNN)The future of urban roads may be one where motorists, pedestrians and cyclists act as one. Spaces where these usually segregated members of the population live -- or move -- by the same rules. Most importantly, these rules would be social, not formal, to befit the increasingly popular trend of 'shared space'.

"Shared space breaks the principle of segregation," says Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a street designer who coined the term with the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman and brought these spaces to the U.K., which now hosts more than any other country.
"It defines a public space where movement is subject to social protocol and informal regulation, not traffic rules." Monderman pioneered the idea in the Netherlands claiming if traffic rules are taken away, people behave more carefully.
Road signs, traffic signals, roundabouts, crossing points and curbs are done away with and replaced by flat, smooth roads without markings, on which cars and people interact regularly. They may feel confused, but that's exactly the point.
    "Introducing ambiguity is central to shared space," explains Hamilton-Baillie. "If people feel unsafe that's good because they will then be cautious as they interact with traffic". Hamilton-Baillie argues that drivers become more aware of their surroundings and respond to human interaction, just like people do in everyday life. "It civilizes and humanizes a city center," he argues.
    Take the example of Exhibition Road, in the museums district of South Kensington in London, U.K.. As a cultural mecca hosting three of the biggest cultural venues in the country as well as educational institutions such as Imperial College London, this road attracts over 11 million visitors each year.
    Walking along it once involved by-passing hundreds of school children and families, countless students and tourists queuing at entrances or dawdling lost and confused, all upon a narrow pavement that couldn't contain them all.
    In December 2011, this road became a shared space and is now stripped of everything you would expect to find here. It instead houses benches and bus stops in the middle of the street and greater space to flow through for the hundreds of visitors it sees each day.
    "We have changed this unwelcoming road into a world class streetscape -- a stunning public space that can be enjoyed by all," says the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea proudly on their website. This local authority made the decision to transition the widely-used space.
    "The quality of the space is the central focus," explains Hamilton-Baillie. But Exhibition Road in London is not your usual street. The majority of urban landscapes do not attract millions of people. Shared streets are primarily intended for more traditional and even mundane locations where people interact every day, such as a local town center.
    The town of Drachten in the Netherlands was one of the first to experiment the concept in 2002 by removing nearly all traffic signals with the aim of reducing accidents and improving both the towns quality and popularity. Despite increases in traffic volumes, accident numbers fell from 8.3 per year between 1994 and 2002 to an average of just one per year in 2005.
    Spaces were soon introduced in the towns of Makkinga in the Netherlands and Bohmte in Germany which removed all traffic lights and signals, and then in 2011 more further afield on six streets in Auckland, New Zealand.
    Eighty percent of shared space users in the Fort street area of Auckland reported feeling safer and 72 percent of drivers felt their journeys were either the same or shorter, so users appear to be happy.
    "The real aspect of shared space is economics," explains Hamilton-Baillie. "Town and city centers are changing and becoming redundant, you don't need them anymore and so we need people to go because they wish to and feel welcomed."
    This was the case for the small town of Poynton in the county of Cheshire in Northern England. The town had seen the quality of its town center plummet with increased traffic flow and congestion, closure of retail outlets and a decline in shoppers. Its conversion into a shared space made the town more welcoming, increased footfall in eighty percent of retailers and elevated the 'dwell time' of people as they shopped.
    The goal of capturing their spending power was met. Traffic speeds also fell to an average of 16-17 mph, according to Hamilton-Baillie, leading to free-flowing traffic and a reduction in accidents and fatalities from 1.1 per year to zero, since its introduction.
    "Poynton is not unique and it's like many other areas across the UK so it's an example of what's possible," says Hamilton-Baillie. The concept is being adopted across the Western World with the Congress for New Urbanism in the U.S., whose aim is to reverse the decline in urban quality and economics, recently including shared spaces at the center of debates on future design. Schemes are being considered or already exist in many states including Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon.
    Hamilton-Baillie argues it's not a new concept however, and is a default arrangement ever since streets began. "If you go to the center of Delhi, or Dakar, you'll see plenty of shared spaces that are not subject to regulatory framework.
    But are these default arrangements really suited to all towns and members of the population? Professor Rob Imrie from Goldsmiths University in the U.K., thinks otherwise: "To me the principle is wrong," he says. "People and cars do not mix, a car is an object and I don't want one driving two feet past me."
    Imrie argues that an aesthetic environment can still exist with separate space for pedestrians and believes shared spaces are more suited to environments with less traffic passing through. "In the Netherlands they have been successful because they are in areas with less traffic," says Imrie. But his main concerns lie with disability groups, such as the visually impaired.
    "The visually impaired have the majority of the problems as there's no easy means of navigation," says Imrie. The spaces require new environmental learning for the visually impaired which Imrie believes causes a psychological issue.
    "People work on intuition and belief systems and if they're uncomfortable the visually impaired won't go there anymore." But he doesn't want the concept to be removed, just rethought: "We should maintain some order whilst also creating this calming effect for users."
    The use of tactile surfaces at edges and marginally raised curbs is one way of overcoming the issue whilst maintaining the desired environment. The local authority at Exhibition Road have also introduced tactile maps at the start of the street to help blind people plan and navigate.
    Hamilton-Baillie feels the visually impaired can remain as safe as in any usual environment. "Shared spaces encompass the way we would act in real life," he concludes. "It's difficult to regulate your behavior for someone partially sighted, or even a child, but our social responses are very strong and people accommodate it."
    The concept is growing and it's likely we'll be seeing more of these streets uniting us with our fellow navigators. The key, as with any innovation, could be to acclimatize. "Shared space can work on any urban scale, the key is to gain confidence with experience."