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Sharing Some Thoughts on Shared Space and the Equality Act

13 October 2015/Categories: PTRC News

Shared Space has continued to spark controversy over the past year, and concerns are leading to questions being asked about its consistency with particular aspects of the Equality Act.  The concept of Shared Space involves removing the on-street demarcations between pedestrian space and vehicular space and designing for lower traffic speeds, in the expectation that this will naturally lead to greater freedom for the pedestrian and greater caution on the part of motorists due to increased uncertainty regarding each other’s movements.  The prospect that streets better combine their ‘place’ and ‘movement’ functions, serving to refresh and regenerate urban townscapes, has proved persuasive for many UK local authorities over the past 4 years since the Department For Transport (DFT) published its guidance on the subject.  However, whilst its advocates  point toward successes in reducing traffic speeds, increasing pedestrian safety and enhancing street vitality in places such as Poynton, its critics highlight the difficulties associated with designing in a greater number of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts, particularly in relation to how this impacts upon vulnerable pedestrians such as visually impaired people.

The earliest implementations of Shared Space were in residential areas in the Netherlands in the 1970s, under the guidance of Hans Monderman (who is said to have tested the safety of schemes by walking backwards into the traffic!).  The reported success of these schemes served as inspiration for their take-up in the UK, first via ‘Home Zones’ and in more recent years in the guise of Shared Space.  It has, therefore, been interesting and worrying to read recent reports from Groningen and Amsterdam which express serious concerns about the impacts of Shared Space on vulnerable pedestrians.

During the summer, former Paralympian Lord Holmes of Richmond published the findings of research he commissioned in an effort to cast more light on people’s experiences of using shared space – findings which led him to urge the DFT to re-enforce to local authorities the possible implications of Shared Space for their obligations under the Equality Act.  This research found that 63% of the 523 respondents with experience of using a Shared Space rated that experience as having been ‘poor’, that over a third of respondents actively avoid Shared Spaces and that a significant number of accidents in Shared Spaces go unreported. 

Passed in 2010, the Equality Act brought together several pieces of anti-discrimination legislation so as to provide legal protection against discrimination on grounds of a series of ‘protected characteristics’ including age and disability.  In particular, it requires reasonable adjustments to be made to public services and transport (amongst other things) to avoid putting disabled people at a substantial disadvantage.  The Act also contains the Public Sector Equality Duty, which requires public authorities to have “due regard to eliminating discrimination, advancing equality and fostering good relations”.  One thing that Lord Holmes’s report seems to call into question is the extent to which such ‘reasonable adjustments’ are being made in the design of Shared Space schemes, and whether or not local authorities are fulfilling their Public Sector Equality Duty when they implement such schemes.  This Thursday (15th October), he will host a Parliamentary debate on the subject, so we shall learn more then, and a House of Lords Select Committee on the functioning of the Equality Act in relation to disability has recently been established which should also generate further insight.

Probably since the first streets were created, streets have been shared spaces; pedestrians sharing the space with vehicles of one form or another, with signposts and lighting columns, with street furniture and with refuse bins.  Periodically re-examining how this space is shared can only be a good thing, and the way in which this has focused attention on decluttering the street, for example, seems to be universally applauded.  One of the problems with the Shared Space debate is the way in which it has become synonymous with a particular approach to sharing the space that involves a Shared Surface, whereby kerbs - a vital means for visually impaired people to orientate themselves and navigate - are removed from the street.  A second problem may also be to do with the way in which the schemes are designed and implemented.  Where an open and collaborative partnership between the public authorities and vulnerable pedestrians has been forged, such as in Aukland, New Zeland and in Leeds, it seems that it has been possible to design a more inclusive kind of Shared Space, but one fears that these are exceptional cases.

Bryan Matthews

Bryan Matthews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, a member of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, and a Chartered Member of the CILT.  He is also blind himself.

To learn more about the Equalities Act as it applies to transport, highways and urban realm activities, register for The Equalities Act for Placemakers and Transport Planners course taking place on 19 October in London.  Click for further information.



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