Safety on the streets: are shared spaces dangerous?


After numerous accidents and injuries on British roads, citizens and government bodies are calling for the halt of arguably dangerous shared space schemes. By Alex Leonards.

 Earlier this month, prime minister Theresa May was petitioned to adopt recommendations outlined in a report on shared spaces by the Women and Equalities Select Committee. The report flags up a growing concern about these road designs, which have been described as dangerous and discriminatory by some citizens, organisations and government bodies.

According to the report, shared spaces are a form of street design intended to decrease the dominance of motor traffic. The National Federation of the Blind of the UK say that road traffic has increased significantly over the past 40 years, but that the development of crossings and other street features have enabled blind and vulnerable people to “continue circulating safely”. However, the federation say that with the shared space principle many crossings and other accessibility features are now being removed, leaving pedestrians to “share the roadway with cyclists and moving traffic”. It is also argued that these schemes have no real distinction between pavement and road areas, and that they discriminate against the vulnerable, disabled and children.

Along with a number of reported accidents, deaths and injuries, the Select Committee report has prompted the question: are shared spaces dangerous? The report has determined that there is evidence government inaction on the issue has caused harm to the ability of many disabled people to live their lives. One case outlined in the paper even saw an elderly man unable to leave his house without aid.

In Cirencester, East Gloustershire, which has a new shared space scheme, there have been a whole range of accidents reported in the area. These include a significant number of residents injuring themselves after falling and tripping over “invisible” kerbs. There have also been a number of car accidents in the area that some citizens believe have been caused by the scheme. As well this, although the town’s disabled citizens have voiced their concerns about the road designs, they feel that they have been ignored by the council.

To resolve these types of issues the Select Committee report has recommended the government “require local authorities to call a halt to the use of shared space schemes, pending clear national guidance that explicitly addresses the needs of disabled people.” It said that this should in particular “instruct local authorities that controlled crossings and regular height kerbs are to be retained and that they should undertake an urgent review of existing schemes, working with disabled people in their area to identify the changes that are necessary and practicable.”

Sandy Taylor, chair of East Dunbartonshire Visually Impaired People’s Forum, who joined campaigners at number 10 for the petition, says that the report is so strong that it simply cannot be ignored. “Blind people cannot use these areas safely and we want the Prime Minister to take immediate action to act fully on the findings of this report before any more towns are subjected to this failed planning policy,” she says. “The NFBUK, Guide Dogs and RNIB have all called for these schemes to be halted and we want action now to ensure all towns are safe and accessible for all’.”

It is not just the Women and Equalities Select Committee that thinks shared spaces need specific consideration. The House of Lords Committee on the Equality Act and Disability said that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this form of street design. It has recommended that the government update its guidance for local authorities to address “how shared spaces schemes can best cater for the needs of disabled people.”

But are these shared spaces on the rise? According to report, there aren’t any official statistics on the prevalence of shared spaces. This is partly due to the fact the term is used to describe such a wide range of possible designs. However, there is a broad consensus that their use is increasing.

What about developing these spaces with everyone in mind? According to the The National Federation of the Blind of the UK, an ideal shared space accessible to everyone can often be “provided by a perimeter footway along the building frontages, protected by a standard height kerb and linked across the access streets buy Puffin or Pelican crossings.” This means that blind pedestrians can then circulate safely around the perimeter of the shared space alongside the building frontages, whilst non-disabled and sighted people can walk across the central shared space area at any point. Perhaps the way to resolve the arguably dangerous element of shared spaces, is not to simply get rid of them, but to instead adapt them so that they are safer and cater to all who use the roads.