Shared space – a view against

This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 83.

Some members will be aware of the idea of ‘Shared Space’. As Wikipedia puts it:

Shared Space in Haren. It is very rare to see cyclists on the pavement in the Netherlands except in shared space areas. Here’s a second cyclist within a few seconds cycling on the pavement. Even though it’s Sunday and there are relatively few cars around, you have a much greater chance of being cut up by a driver here than elsewhere.
Image as described adjacent

‘Shared space is a traffic engineering concept involving the removal of the traditional separation between motor vehicles and pedestrians and other road users, and the removal of traditional road priority management devices such as kerbs, lines, signs and signals. The reasoning behind the idea is that it will result in improved road safety by forcing users to negotiate their way through shared areas at appropriate speeds and with due consideration for the other users of the space.

‘This approach, which was pioneered and promoted by Hans Monderman, is based on the observation that individuals’ behaviour in traffic is more positively affected by the built environment of the public space than it is by conventional traffic control devices and regulations.’

Shared Space is a concept which many campaigners for sustainable transport in the UK would like to try. The idea has been raised in meetings and seems to be becoming fashionable.

David Hembrow, who moved from Cambridge to Assen, in the Netherlands, a year or so ago, has written an article on his blog website (‘A view from the cycle path’), arguing against the Shared Space approach. David has kindly given us permission to reproduce the posting in full.

Shared Space

Architectural features of shared space look nice, but can cause hazards for cyclists. In this case there is a ridge between the drain and the dark (slippery) surface and another ridge between the dark surface and the tiles. Both can cause crashes, especially in icy conditions. Inevitably a car is in the photo as even though this is taken on a quiet Sunday (shops are all shut on Sundays), there are a lot of cars passing through here.
Image as described adjacent

Over the last few years there has been much buzz in the press outside this country about Shared Space. This is the idea that if you get rid of separation between different modes of transport that everyone will be forced to interact on a more human level and a reduction of accidents will result.

It shows a remarkable faith in human nature to expect this to happen, and I’m sure we’d all like it to be true. But is it true, or is this just a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes ?

The idea started over here in the Netherlands with Hans Monderman, who achieved some fame with these ideas before his untimely death earlier this year. I am sure that his intentions were entirely good, but having lived with the results of this type of planning for a while now, I think it is time to cut through the hype that even Hans acknowledged surrounded his work.

There are quite a few Shared Space influenced areas near where we now live. These photos were taken in Haren, a suburb of Groningen about 25 km north of Assen.

The centre of Haren is very busy and cyclists really need to look out there. By Dutch standards, I find it not a very pleasant place to cycle. It’s the only place that I’ve had to do an emergency stop in this country to avoid a crash and if the Shared Space part of the town was any more than a few hundred metres long, I think I’d take another route to completely avoid it.

Take a look at the photos that I took on the way through. There are cyclists being pursued by a taxi, another who has been overtaken as he pulled out to get around a parked car, a pedestrian at the side of the road who is having trouble getting a chance to cross, and, well, cars, cars and more cars. Some of them blocking the pavement. At least the speed limit is just 30 km/h, and Dutch drivers seem more aware of their responsibilities towards vulnerable road users than some of those elsewhere.

It’s a quiet Sunday (no shops open on Sundays), but still the cyclist is about to be overtaken too close by the dark coloured car.
Image as described adjacent

I am far from the only person to see Shared Space in this way.

If you watch this video at about Haren you will see a comment by youtube user dgoedkoop which translates as ‘It looks like what the shop-keepers wanted, not the road users. Cyclists certainly are not happy that the cycle paths have been removed. It looks like the great problem with Shared Space, as seen in the video from Drachten, is that “just a few” crashes between cars and cyclists have been caused.’

That is far from the only criticism. The link above about ‘hype’ includes a quote starting ‘Ik woon zelf in Haren…’

This translates as ‘I live in Haren where Mr Monderman has convinced the local government that his philosophy is best. Now, many residents of Haren find the situation has become less safe. It is true that more accidents have not resulted, but the subjective safety has got worse. People feel less safe in the new situation. I think that many more near-accidents occur.

The car should have given way to the cyclists from the right. The principle of giving way to the right is one of the things that is supposed to slow traffic down. However, this driver was going at some speed and did not give way. Another example of how it is cyclists and pedestrians who lose out in Shared Space areas.
Image as described adjacent

‘According to Monderman, pedestrians and drivers have to be friendlier and to look out for one another, and then zebra crossings and suchlike are not needed. It doesn’t work in practice. At the insistence of many organisations (parents organisations, Fietsersbond – the cyclists union, similar to CTC in the UK), several zebra crossings have been laid.’

In general, cyclists do not like it. Fietsersbond has objected a few times, including in an article in the November 2007 issue of their newsletter Vogelvrije Fietser.

This acknowledges that Monderman had become a hero outside the country, but also includes many negative comments from cyclists in the Netherlands.

There are comments from cyclists who are interviewed in which they say that they have to look out much more and that they don’t like it. That it has lead to an atmosphere of ‘might is right’ in which some cyclists come off worse, and that it makes people less happy to cycle.

Beautiful church, but it’s obscured by a constant stream of motor vehicles. Shared Space gives drivers more rights than they might otherwise have in a town centre, and results in places which are dominated by motor traffic.
Image as described adjacent

It should be noted that while there are more Shared Space areas here than elsewhere, they are still comparatively rare in this country. There are around 100 areas designed in this way, mostly just single junctions in the centres of villages and small towns. Segregated cycle paths continue to join these places together, and in most cases the majority of the infrastructure is still designed on traditional, successful, Dutch lines with a high degree of segregation of cyclists. If you’ve heard of Dutch infrastructure increasing the number of cyclists, that is where to look as that is what 99% of the infrastructure looks like.

To me, Shared Space is at its most successful in small villages of just a couple of hundred homes which already had little traffic and where there is really not much of a problem to start with. In bigger places, it can be quite unpleasant.

One of the reasons why the Dutch have had such success with controlling traffic is that they try things out. Shared space is but one of a series of brave experiments. I am sure that the better aspects of it will continue to appear in new infrastructure, but the less successful aspects will be left behind. I note that a recent road layout change in Assen right next to a ‘shared space’ style junction from a few years ago did not expand on the shared space but represents a return to more traditional Dutch design with segregated cycle paths.

I am glad about this. It would be foolish to abandon the high level of subjective safety that has led to such a high degree of cycling. It would take years to build enough cycle unfriendly infrastructure to really impact on the level of cycling, but once the decline started it would carry on for decades.

For me, cycling in places like this is the closest I come in this country to the conditions in cycle unfriendly towns of the UK where cycling is a fringe activity. I find I am happy to be out of it and back on the normal Dutch provision as shown here further along in Haren.

In my view, Shared Space is the one real mistake that has been made in the Netherlands. It’s not liked by cyclists, and it really doesn’t work well for cyclists.

David Hembrow

Have you had experience with Shared Space areas. What do you think? Let us know.

David Hembrow runs Hembrow Cycling Holidays, which are excellent guides to how cycling is catered for in the Netherlands. Many of us can recommend David’s tours from first hand. For more information, see his website at