The blog I had in mind today has already been written, and written much better than I would have done it. It is called “Can road loveliness be found in shared space?” and was written by Joe Dunckley(@steinsky). So please do make sure you read that.
When I moved to Bristol in June this year I was puzzled by the way that cyclists encroached on what I used to think of as pedestrian areas. Since then I’ve learned that many of these spaces are offically designated as “shared”. Cyclists and pedestrians are both welcome. Usually there is a sign to say so, sometimes not. There are lots of variants. Among them there are signs:
The sign at the very top of the this blog is a new one, painted earlier today on the road through Ashton Court Estate. In normal circumstances the road is closed to motor vehicles but barriers can be opened when estate vehicles need access. It is used a lot by dogs, runners, cyclists, walkers. older people, children and toddlers. With today’s lovely weather it was very busy. The warning sign “Cyclists Slow” was obviously relevant.
Having passed one or two small groups and a runner I saw a woman ahead of me with two dogs. One was on a lead, one was running cautiously ahead. I slowed, and from 20 yards or so rang my bell. I slowed to something like 5-10 mph. Easy running speed. The woman was walking in the same direction as me and had her back to me. She was in the middle of the road and didn’t react to the bell. So, moving to the right I passed her carefully with at least a yard between us. As I went by she jumped a short step, suddenly startled. I stopped. I apologised for surprising her. I asked if she had heard my bell (I explained that I didn’t like to surprise people). She smiled and took out her earphones, explaining that she had been miles away, listening to Radio 4. I smiled and cycled on, passing lots more people as I went. Among them was a group of four on bikes – three adults, and one toddler who enthusiastically replied to my bell with lots of ringing on her own. I also passed a man emerging from behind a van parked facing me on the road, getting ready to paint (I supposed) the second “Shared Path” sign.
It seemed to me that the levels of care and attention I needed to take on this wide, downward sweep of excellent paved road were quite high. There were no warnings of work in progress, there were plenty of dogs running loose, there were people immersed in their own thoughts and conversations, as well as someone “miles away” in the middle of the path listening to the radio. Pre-school and retired people were represented. It all made me feel very cheerful and content with the world.
But this was a long way from Exhibition Road in London or Elwick Square in Ashford. Ashton Court is a park – quite clearly intended for leisure, contemplation and relaxation. Exhibition Road and Elwick Square, though, have working traffic with deadlines and timetables and places to go. They attract a mixture of regular users and tourists, not necessarily in tune with each others’ priorities. Anyone frail, small, listening to Radio 4, or bewildered by an unfamliar cityscape is going to stay away.
In Bristol I avoid Castle Park where road-speed cyclists hurry through towards the Railway Staion and I read of difficulties on the Bristol and Bath Railway Path where sports cyclists and commuter cyclists have recently been buzzing past parents and children who are walking to and from a school.
Over 30 years of political emphasis on market freedom and “individual choice”, coupled with real economic anxiety have dulled our collective instincts and honed our drive for personal achievements. In such times as these, and with such immediate experiences of uncertain experiments around us, “shared space” looks like a real loser. Our roads and other public spaces are confused and threatening enough already. We need them to feel more predictable and more secure, not less. We need to have public space where no one has to play complex guessing games about what might happen at any moment.
A contributor to that radio broadcast sang the praises of ice rinks where there are no rules. Everyone weaves effortlessly round without collisions – this is how our shared spaces could be he claimed. He has obviously never been to Billingham Forum. The frail, the very young, the partially sighted, people with no interest in ice scating and people who are in a hurry to be somewhere else are all noticeably absent. Trained attendants are in permanent attendance though – gently correcting anyone who seems to be pushing their risk tolerance a bit further than good sense allows. The real ice rink (not the fantasy one) could hardly be a better focus for someone who wants to ponder the problems that experiments in “shared space” will need to consider.
As a regular cyclist of more than 30 years urban cycling I would rather cycle on ordinary well-maintained roads with the Highway Code more or less as it is. As a grandfather with young children who could cycle or walk to school unsupervised I would like them to have dedicated routes that suited their needs and that kept speeding bikes and cars well away. Sharing is for fun – not for the serious business of everyday life. Not in England right now, anyway. As I once hear Lord Soper say, long ago in a house of Lords debate on alcohol “When the Kingdom of God has been established on earth, perhaps …”
Post script. later in the day I had the great pleasure of sharing a narrow public highway:
Take care everyone!