Hamilton-Baillie on ‘Shared Space’ in Ashford

The town of Ashford in the U.K. was one of the highest profile experiments in ‘shared space’ when it launched over a year ago. The changes, meant to reconnect the center (severed by a hostile ring road) and make the town feel more ‘town-like,’ were quite radical — removing signals, blurring formal notation of right of way — as well as drawn from more traditional traffic-calming approaches (special pavement treatments). The reaction ranged from skeptical to hostile (Jeremy Clarkson, whose opinion on anything but the braking ability of an E-Class Mercedes should be heeded with a yellow flag, predicted ‘millions’ would die).

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, one of the leads on the project (he appears in Traffic), has sent along a Q&A he did with a local paper on the status of the project after one year. Though such things need continual monitoring, the early prognosis is positive and a sign that fresh thinking in terms of the built environment and accommodating traffic can bring good results.

You can read what Ben had to say after the jump.

The first year of the Ashford shared space scheme has passed, you must be pleased that no accidents have been reported in the first twelve months?

Yes, the first year of the new scheme has been very encouraging. Much more time is needed, of course, before we can draw any firm conclusions, but so far the new arrangements seem to give Ashford some space which is significantly safer than the old one-way, three-lane racetrack of the former ring-road.

What did you think of all the media attention that it attracted at the time of the opening, particularly the criticism from Jeremy Clarkson?

The concept of shared space is still new to this country, and Ashford presents a bold and very different approach to traffic engineering and urban design. The media naturally reflected the inevitable surprise and scepticism that always accompanies something new and very different. I am used to similar doubts and uncertainties greeting every new street design, especially those that break as many boundaries as the Ashford scheme. Jeremy Clarkson perfectly encapsulated the old assumptions that gave us the pedestrian segregation of overbridges underpasses, signals, signs and barriers – it can be helpful to have such reactions expressed and articulated!

The scheme has won many awards over the last year. Why do you think this is the case?

The awards and recognition reflect two factors; firstly, the design team led by the landscape architects Whitelaw Turkington produced an excellent scheme, working in new ways with the local community and in a very complicated set of circumstances. Secondly, Kent County Council and Ashford Borough fully deserved the accolades for sticking to their principles and seeing the scheme through. Other towns and cities are already benefiting from the inspiration and reassurance provided by Ashford, and the rewards arise from appreciation for such pioneering work.

There were issues with people parking and blocking the roads. How does the relationship between the shared space concept and parking work?

Shared space works best without the yellow lines and signs that disfigure so many streets and town centres. Ashford relies on the use of a “Restricted Parking Zone”, a rather clumsy name for a simple principle for defining where you can park, rather then marking where you should not. Approval for such zones is still, for the moment, needed from the Department for Transport. Unfortunately it took months to finalise this approval, and this caused some initial problems for the scheme.
Vehicle speeds have dropped in the area. How can you still reinforce the idea in driver’s heads that they do need to slow down, particularly to drivers new to the town?

As a driver entering the new streets, you are immediately aware that this is somewhere different, somewhere special. It feels quite unlike a normal urban road. You start to pay extra attention, and to become more alert to other people and to your surroundings. The narrower apparent width of the carriageways, the absence of road markings and signals, the lighting, low kerbs and distinctive paving all help to encourage low speeds, whether you are familiar with the space or a newcomer. Every aspect of the scheme contributes to establishing a naturally low-speed, free-flowing environment.

Partially sighted groups still have issues about the distinction between the kerb and road and crossing safely. What would you say to reassure them?

It takes a great deal of time to adapt and get used to new layouts and arrangements, especially if you cannot rely on visual clues. But as the scheme settles in it is becoming clearer that the reductions in traffic speed and changes in driver behaviour far outweigh any perceived benefits from formal controls and crossings. Gaining confidence in the new arrangements is a slow, steady process for every scheme we are involved with. But gradually the awareness that drivers can observe, anticipate and appreciate the specific needs of every pedestrian, whatever their circumstances, begins to improve comfort and confidence

What are the next stages to be planned for Ashford? Would you say that you are learning things from the Ashford design yourself and how you approach schemes in the future?

Ashford is far from complete, and I am looking forward to seeing the new developments frame and enclose the south side of Elwick Street. One day the rest of the former ring road will be similarly transformed, but this may have to wait some years. There are lots of lessons learnt from Ashford, about materials, design, and so on. But the processes behind decision-making, the political structures and working arrangements provide the really vital lessons from Ashford, and are beginning to transform the way local authorities go about economic regeneration and urban renewal.

More and more towns do seem to be interested in the shared space idea but squeezed Government budgets must have an impact on the quality of schemes that can be delivered. How do you think this will affect its development in the UK?

Streets and public spaces require many years of patient work and public discussion before any changes happen on the ground. There will be fewer large schemes in the coming months, but perhaps this will offer a chance for reflection on progress achieved so far and some consolidation of the techniques and principals underpinning shared space. But the approach is equally relevant for small highway schemes in villages and small towns – anywhere where traffic and people interact. Ashford has helped the UK appreciate the potential for creating more civilised streets and spaces, and this will be a lasting legacy for the long term.

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