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Shared Spaces

Shared spaces are town streets where kerbs, crossings and safe walking routes have been partially or completely removed, requiring pedestrians to share the roadway with moving vehicles, and to negotiate their right-of-way with drivers by sight. Blind and certain other vulnerable people cannot do this and are therefore effectively excluded from these streets, which they may have safely walked for many years.

What is the purpose of shared spaces?

The principal purpose is to modernise the appearance of the street and to reduce traffic congestion. Zebra, pelican and puffin crossings, where pedestrians can stop traffic in order to cross the road are invariably removed. Motorists then control the movement of pedestrians by choosing whether or not to stop to allow them to cross. Not stopping reduces congestion, speeds traffic on its way, and highway engineers have claimed increases in traffic flow which are achieved at the expense of obstructing the free movement of pedestrians around their town. The 2015 Holmes Shared Space Survey recorded over 60% of respondents as disliking shared spaces with over 30% saying that they avoided them whenever possible.

Why can’t blind people use shared spaces?

Blind people are frightened to step out in front of approaching vehicles which they can’t see and which may have no obligation to stop, so they invariably treat shared spaces as no-go areas to be avoided at all costs.

Pedestrians use their eyes to guide their feet or their wheels but blind people can’t do this. Instead they navigate with the aid of a long cane or a guide dog and rely upon kerbs, pedestrian crossings and other memorised ground level features to provide and non-visual guidance to their destination.

In shared spaces where all surface features have been carefully removed, blind people quickly lose orientation and can get lost even in a busy street.

The removal of kerbs and pedestrian crossings contravenes the Public Sector Equality Duty which instructs planning authorities that all streets and public areas must be accessible to everyone. NFBUK is therefore campaigning to ensure that kerbs and statutory pedestrian crossings are available in all town streets, and legal action is now also proceeding against the first few of many local authorities who have discriminated against disabled people by making some of their town streets inaccessible or hazardous for blind people to use.

Shared spaces are hazardous in many towns because:

  • Vulnerable people need safe footways linked by puffin crossings which provide a network along which they can walk around their town without needing to negotiate their right-of –way with vehicle drivers.
  • Although some visually impaired people may have enough sight to see
    here they are going, the Public Sector Equality Duty requires that blind people with very little or no sight are also able to continue to walk their town streets alone.
  • Guide dogs are trained to stop at kerbs and to find pedestrian crossings when told to do so, but the removal of these essential features causes confusion which may allow the dogs to lead their blind owners into danger, and in such places guide dog owners are sometimes advised to find a sighted person to lead both them and their dog.
  • Guide dogs are trained to a lower standard than highway engineers, so the latter need to create consistent designs which are within the limited understanding of these invaluable guides.
  • Guide dogs are trained to lead their owners across variable surfaces but to recognise height changes of 60mm or more as kerbs at which they must stop.
  • The main function of standard kerbs 125mm (5 inches) or more in height is to stop vehicles from driving onto the footway, and lowering or removing kerbs encourages motorists to park, or to swerve on and off the footway to pass other vehicles in congested streets. Vehicles on footways represent a safety threat to vulnerable people.
  • Lowering kerbs from this standard height appears to provide no benefits to anyone, only serious disadvantages for some disabled and vulnerable pedestrians. However, the complete removal of kerbs has wider and more serious implications, with the only apparent benefit being that it allows users of wheelchairs and mobility scooters to cross the road without using a dropped kerb, but it does also encourage motorists to drive their vehicles onto the footway.
  • In some towns low kerbs have been installed with low colour contrast in order to provide a pleasing aesthetic appearance, but many of these have also provided a tripping hazard for old people who have not noticed them, resulting in a visit to hospital with broken bones.
  • Standard height kerbs are convenient for passengers stepping off buses or out of taxes, but when kerbs are removed raised platforms have to be built for this purpose with step or ramp accesses, so bus stops cannot then be moved.
  • Because kerbs cannot be removed by lowering footways, the road surface is instead rebuilt at a higher level, and this considerable task can constitute 50% – 80% of the overall cost of a public realm improvement, even though it may provide no technical or financial benefit to the community.
  • When road surfaces are raised to footway level the kerbs and gutters are eliminated so surface storm water capacity is reduced, takes longer to disperse and during very heavy rainfall water can occasionally enter into adjacent premises. Traditional height kerbs will allow thousands of gallons of excess water to stand on the roadway and gutters until it safely drains away.

The NFBUK team at work

The Department for Transport has circulated NFBUK’s guidance document, “Access for Blind People in Towns”, to over 3000 professionals and local authority officers around the country.

Our Shared Space team, under the leadership of David Bates and Sarah Gayton, campaign directly to local authorities for the retention of kerbs and crossings to allow both able bodied and vision impaired people to continue to walk safely around their town streets as they have done for many years.

Sarah’s research into existing shared streets has provided considerable evidence of significant failures, with accidents, deaths and the blocking of pedestrian circulation, requiring the reversal of more street layouts to restore the free movement of ordinary pedestrians and disabled and vulnerable people. This is causing serious doubt in the validity of the shared space theory, and the firm assurances provided by the professionals who install these expensive schemes.

The activities of our team are now assisting the cancellation of more and more proposed shared space schemes across the country, and the Minister and the Department for Transport are reviewing this problem, and have indicated that an announcement will be made within the next few months.