Consulting Development Engineers

NAVIGATING SHARED SPACES

rosie james wearing reservist uniform with eddie mewies the managing director of m-ec

Since “Shared Space” schemes were first introduced, or at least in the format that is widely considered shared space now, they have courted controversy. In shared space the physical divides between footpaths and roads are reduced or removed meaning that pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles all have to share the space.

Whilst many people see them as positive public realm and pedestrian environment improvements, for others, such schemes present dangerous environments, particularly those with disabilities such as people who are blind and partially sighted.

Groups such as The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs) have campaigned for the recognition that shared space schemes have the consequence of ‘designing out’ people with disabilities due to the removal of traditional features such as detectable kerbs, tactile pavement and signal-controlled crossings which makes streets harder to navigate and inadvertently creates ‘no go’ areas.

In July 2018, The Department for Transport (DfT) published its Inclusive Mobility Strategy and one of the key announcements within this was the recommendation that “local authorities pause the development of shared space schemes which incorporate a level surface” whilst the current guidance was reviewed and updated. In October 2018, the DfT then clarified that the pause would only be applicable to areas with high levels of traffic.

What this action from the DfT allows is a re-focusing on the key responsibility to ensure that all schemes consider the inclusivity of the finished article. All too often as Road Safety Auditors or when undertaking Walking, Cycling and Horse-Riding Assessments and Reviews, we see schemes that have attempted to embrace aesthetics of shared space, or what the recent Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) review of shared space would call “pedestrian prioritised streets”, whilst ignoring the requirement for inclusivity and the functionality required for all users.

As Helen Aluko-olokun, Policy Business Partner at Guide Dogs stated in her recent conversation with Transport Network Magazine 1 at this year’s Traffex conference, designing for inclusivity need not result in boring environments. She commented:

“There are ways in which you can make designing inclusively just as attractive. And one of the things I want to get through today is, if you design for the most vulnerable person, everybody can use it. It’s a win-win situation.”

The pause announced by the DfT and the shared space debate has inspired M-EC’s technical design teams to investigate how our designs impact on mobility, particularly the daily challenges encountered by people who are blind and partially sighted.

In May, our Civil Engineering and Transport teams welcomed Mike and Penny Hefferan from Guide Dogs to our Leicestershire head office to deliver a day of training to help us gain a better appreciation of how the design of our streets impacts on the 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK.

In the morning a series of practical tasks undertaken whilst blindfolded were followed by a group discussion about the practical and emotional issues affecting daily living and mobility. It was interesting to hear about how people who are blind and partially sighted learn the routes they undertake by counting down kerbs and how important features such as these are in enabling them to visualise and to navigate their routes.

Later, our teams headed outside and were blindfolded again to experience the challenges of walking along a busy street without sight and were coached in ‘Lead Guide Training’ helping them to lead a blind person along the street.

This provided an invaluable insight into the level of consideration required when developing schemes and reinforced why shared spaces can be problematic for people who are blind and partially sighted.

Taylor Worringham, civil engineering technician with M-EC commented that: “Navigating the streets whilst blindfolded was a real challenge, even with a guide, and changes in the surface we take for granted, such as dropped kerbs or raised manhole covers feel massively exaggerated and can put you off balance. For me, tactile paving was the only way to detect a crossing and provided the only safety barrier between myself and the road.”

Our training, along with the personal story of Penny Hefferan who has been blind since birth, demonstrated the importance of reference points along a journey. Without kerbs, crossings and tactile surfaces, shared spaces can feel like a void.  

Penny’s visit really brought home to the team how this lack of definition causes problems for route planning and navigation. Guide dogs are trained to walk in a straight line following a kerb and to stop when approaching a road. A continually flat surface removes these and other key markers which dogs and their owners will have learned as part of their route planning. Similarly, for those using a long cane, the lack of any definition in a surface makes it extremely challenging and, as Penny said, “It can feel like your safety barrier has gone.”

As a consequence, undertaking journeys becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, and in this way, it is argued that people who are blind and partially sighted are being designed out of shared spaces, with Exhibition Road in London, now to be remodelled, being a prime example of this.

However, Penny and Mike stressed that whilst the concept of shared surfaces needs to be revisited, which Guide Dogs have campaigned for in their Streets Ahead Campaign, they were not necessarily against all aspects of shared space schemes. They argued that through consultation, compromise and education for all road users to understand shared spaces, they can be spaces that work for all people, rather than areas which present barriers to freedom of movement and limit the independence of a significant number of people. Certainly, traffic calming measures and the removal of some street clutter can improve the environment for everyone so long as it follows principles of truly inclusive design.

Penny and Mike emphasised that those living with a disability are resilient people and will learn and adapt to a solution to help them navigate. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for designing streets and road networks; what works for one group, may not for another but it is about the compromise and removal of barriers that will allow them to adapt.

Whatever the future of shared spaces, It is clear that lessons must be learned from current models. 

As the walking environment is fundamental to the mobility of people who are blind and partially sighted, their needs must be given greater consideration to ensure accessibility and inclusivity.  What we’ve experienced in our work with the Guide Dogs has sharpened our resolve as designers and engineers to consider the entitlement of all users and to work in consultation with relevant groups and charities at the design stage to ensure schemes are fit for purpose.

References: 1 - Talking Accessibility: ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This’. Transport Network 8 April 2019 (Link).

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Consulting Development Engineers