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De Mastodonten – Shared space: a parasitic concept

Column by the Mastodonten.

Our dearest of readers probably know we’re up to something – the admonishing finger is raised, a large breath taken, chest pumped forward, poised to elucidate and educate on a most recent fad. The last couple of years, we have seen more traffic areas that are designed as a shared space. Public space of roads and infrastructure is modified to mix fast and slow traffic to improve road safety: cars, bikes and pedestrians now occupy a more continuous area; barriers between them are reduced, road features are removed, regulations are relaxed. The road features such as surface markings, curbs and traffic signs were used to indicate what the desired behaviour should be for each traffic participant.

The concept assumes that our behaviour in traffic has become too pre-programmed and as a result traffic participants take less personal responsibility. The concept then aims to place traffic participants in a situation in which traffic security is not dependable and knowable, so that these participants will engage with each other, communicate, or have eyecontact about moving to determine who has right of way (who goes first). Its proponents believe that people can negotiate this amongst themselves better if the state does not intervene. Note that an astute observer will see that this is a hidden ideological argument: free-market politicians typically use this style when debating their causes. Originally this concept aimed at traffic safety, a relative non-partisan issue.

But as established Mastodons, wise and retired, we are not tricked in to a political debate today but will leave that to another place, another time, and other people. We are post-politic. We shall also not discuss it’s actual traffic unsafety, which can be read about in other places.

Shared Space

Despite its positive Wikipedia entry, a closer look reveals that the shared spaces itself created such an incredible insecure environment that road features had to be brought back in. Here we see pedestrian crossings, which the cyclists have started to use as well since apparently they do not feel safe enough to bike in the shared space area. In order to evaluate if a policy (or public space design) is a good one, a responsible planner-cum-architect will look at the most vulnerable (or marginalized) in society, and see how it affects these people. Elderly and disabled persons are at the bottom rung of that ladder; if their behaviour indicates that they feel unsafe, more so than in reliable and knowable street-conditions, creating shared space is effectively saying “You’re not allowed to play with us”. Whether shared space really creates a change in behaviour (positive or negative) can be researched by scientists who want to find out how things are actually working – better them than pseudo-scientists who desire a positive outcome for their preferred trend. (More research needed!)

Shared space in London, Museumsquare

Instead, today we want to take the shared space concept serious: Let’s ignore the blind, vision-impaired and disabled: If we suppose that shared space will work, that the young, the healthy and the confident people walking and cycling will feel more aware of their position in traffic at the bottom of the hierarchy, if we suppose that because of this position the young and daring will make more responsible traffic-judgements and take better care of their safety, if we suppose that because of their heightened alertness due to the stress of insecurity there will be less accidents, What will ultimately happen?

The heightened alertness, an increase in personal responsibility in traffic is something that comes about in a shared space as a result of being in a different situation than normal. Take the normal: the design of public space is indicative of requested behaviour. This requested behaviour is measurably safer than unrequested behaviour (see: a hundred traffic researches). Centrally in the shared space concept is the unknown behaviour of the other that is expected to lead to more communications. Let us take the claims of shared space at it’s face value, and suppose that it works, that people do modify their behaviour, and will increase communications with the other traffic participants. Why would people do that?

Shared space in Den Haag

They would change that behaviour precisely because they are in an area of insecurity. Well, ’they’ being the cyclists and pedestrians. Cardrivers do not need to modify their behaviour, as they can take right of way – they sit protected in a metal box, after all – and so they can and inevitably shall claim the urban jungle as their own (evidence supported by the youtube video).

Now if we turn to what a city would look like: Can we create more shared spaces, eventually eliminating all the government intervention in our lives: Let the buffalo roam! What happens now? Initially we might have created a heightened sense of security. But people always adapt their behaviour to their circumstances: if the ‘normal’ situation, of indicative design and requested behaviour falls away, the heightened sense of security would fall away as well. The shared space would become the new normal. Do we truly believe that the increase in personal responsibility would last? To those who think that, we ask: What about the vibrant civic society in Africa, Asia and South America, where many places feature state-of-the-art shared space. These are the continents of progress, mind you, the future of the world: all these dangerous situations will surely encourage people in Cairo, Egypt; India; Chengdu, China and other places to act more responsible and create a safer traffic environment.

But the concept itself cannot thrive without setting norms of what is expected of traffic participants. Without a normal of allowing bikes and cyclists to go and share the space, shared space reverts to a law of the jungle. Shared space itself is parasitic on western spatial achievements: traffic rules and regulations, designs that have proven themselves to reduced accidents, and to further reduce accidents from lethal to non-lethal. Shared space is a parasitic concept.

To conclude: any planner-cum-architect, working anywhere, who still insists on advancing the shared space concept after digesting our line of thinking doesn’t understand the implications of what he or she is proposing and should be sacked from their job. Far better it is, to read Jane Jacobs and undertake measures that actually have a positive effect on traffic safety and an enjoyable public space, like making streets low-traffic or non-car. Like so.

oktober 10, 2014

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