There’s been a real fuss made of the Shared Space in downtown Dunstable lately. Much ridicule is being expressed and I thought it would be timely to check this out. That’s not to say I haven’t had a nice “proper” bicycle ride today – I did – clocked up 30+ miles around the quiet undulating lanes in Hertfordshire.
What is the Shared Space in Dunstable?
A fancy name for an existing road in the middle of Dunstable? A description of the latest hair brained idea from town planners who are totally bonkers? A pleasant way of decluttering our streets by taking away all those excessive white lines and “don’t do that” signs? Moving away from the car-dominated environment? Creating a more pleasant space in a congested town?
It could be all of those things but how user-friendly is it? Do people know what to do? Where to go? How to get there? What are the rules? Where have the curbs gone? Can people walk around where they like? These were all questions I was asking myself as I cycled there to take a look.
Dunstable is not the only place to have a Shared Space. Ashford in Kent is a model Shared Space and has been established for a year or so. One of the features is that road accidents have been reduced, somewhat paradoxically. Through removing street furniture, even curbs, it is said to be successful and in Sweden the Government is going even further by designing out fatal collisions completely by 2050. Amongst the measures are replacing junctions with roundabouts. Already the Swedes have the lowest fatal accident rate in Europe.
My first impressions were not good. A very stern sign on Court Drive advises of the shared space. This is right by a junction without the familiar white lines showing who has priority, or right of way. Opposite there is a metal fence by the College – clearly some damage has occurred but why? Helpful to know the Paramedics are stationed nearby by. In case things are really serious, as someone pointed out, there is a funeral parlour at the other end.
Cycling around the corner by the College and abandoned Court House, I found myself right in the middle of a wide road. My instincts questioned whether I was in the right place but logic told me I was. I have to say it was a little unnerving as I was undertaken by a bus and over taken by some kid in a little car, its lowered suspension made it look like a toy car. He barely looked old enough to shave, let alone drive a car.
Then there’s a straight stretch of Road with Asda on the left and the Grove Theatre on the right. That was okay. Getting to a little roundabout was an interesting experience. Was it a roundabout? It wasn’t very clear exactly what it was but everyone seemed to treat it as a roundabout, so that was okay. The road then turns left towards the Library where again it feels strange being in the middle of such a wide stretch of road and yet being in the right place. It only lasts a few yards before you turn right into Vernon Place and join the end of a queue and the traffic lights. That is a sign of coming back to the reality of Dunstable.
Some specific points
As ever with these things, they’re fine in theory but in practice, sometimes they don’t work out so well. I thought it was useful having some “planters” in the road as a reference point and how they implied a left and a right side of the road. They appear to be constructed from a roll of logs with a brightly coloured strip of plastic holding it all together. Growing inside is a small shrub.
These planters do seem to have an important role to play in helping the traffic find its correct path. And yet I can’t help but think how incredibly naff they look. Such an expensive and important regeneration scheme and spoilt by the finishing touches. Perhaps they are temporary measures, testing out where the optimum places are prior to being upgraded to something more substantial and stylish?
As you can see from the photograph on the left, the Shared Space can be quite wide in accommodating a bus lane (sufficiently wide enough for buses to overtake parked buses) and spaces for cars to drive in their own space. Pedestrian crossing is helped by a central refuge area and the direction is indicated by a change in surface texture (subtle enough?).
My view about the Shared Space
I can see this has the potential to work quite well but it depends on people knowing how it all works. There’s a good chance car drivers will feel frustrated and not in favour of Shared Space schemes but this could be because motorists are used to having urban designs built to accommodate them in a very clear way. And yet, why should that always be the case? Why should car drivers always be prioritised in urban environments?
The scheme in Dunstable is fairly new and may take a little while to settle down and allow some fine tuning to take place. Getting rid of those awful planters and replacing them with something a little more pleasing would be a good step. Perhaps an information display board and the ‘entrance’ may be appreciated.
I am not a town planner. I’m just a consumer of what town planners plan: I’m just an ordinary bloke who drives a car and rides a bicycle. This scheme is refreshing; it is not designed with cars in mind first and foremost. Having said that, it still felt a bit weird cycling in what seemed to be the middle of the road – perhaps I should have shared the bus lane or pavement, all in the spirit of the Shared Space?
However, I do wonder about the practicalities of going so far towards a totally de-cluttered street scene. Most concerning are the road junctions with no white lines and no clear indication of who has right of way – this needs some clarification in a way that doesn’t undermine the shared space concept.
Good concept, pleased its been done but not perfect – we all need to learn the rules!
Got a view on this? Agree or disagree? Leave a comment below.