Shared space and the dangers of thinkivism (John Adams, yet again)

risk coverIn my two previous posts I outlined some of the work the UCL geographer John Adams. I count him as someone who has influenced the way the way I think about things. After reading his book Risk I was conscious of seeing the everyday world in a slightly different way – one of the highest compliments a writer of any sort can be paid.

Having already spent two posts chatting about his work, I feel obliged, for the sake of completeness, to mention that he is also associated with the promotion of the idea of shared space. I have outlined the thinking behind this in my active travel dictionary, but basically, ‘shared space’ is a variety of urban road design which attempts to harness the mechanism of risk compensation in a positive manner.

My personal conclusions about this idea is that we should most certainly think about how good psychology and real behaviour might help us in the design of the urban environment, and not just stop with ‘common sense’ and ‘stands to reason’ and ‘everyone knows’. Therefore shared space is an interesting idea which might have some potential, in certain situations. However, after getting quite excited when I first came across the idea, I now think those situations are very limited indeed. A key practical problem is that it’s all very well for academics (like John Adams) to talk about this sort of idea, and all very well for more humble thinkivists (like myself) to get excited by it, but in practice planners and highway engineers will misunderstand, oversimplify and misapply. Already have oversimplifed and misapplied. One might speculate that, at some level, planners embrace the shared space concept because it seems like a way to have one’s cake and eat it – to avoid restricting motor traffic (and not upset anyone) while at the same time rendering it less toxic (and do what they know in their hearts is right). Plus, of course, it makes them feel clever (ahem). It can’t really be done though. One of the key limitations in considering shared space is the pre-existing flux of car-traffic – attempt to use a shared space treatment where this is above a low level and what you basically have is not a natural way for everyone to get along, but a crude attempt at using pedestrians and cyclists as human traffic-calming.

The wider idea of risk compensation itself requires a certain alertness as regards its practical implications. It’s easy for the whole thing to become crudified into a sort of quietism – what’s the point of trying to make anything safer, people will just find a way round it, and we’ll end up with a load of objectionable legislation and bossiness, nanny state, blah blah blah. If you haven’t already seen it, Joe Dunckley has a recent blogpost where he lambasts Simon Jenkins for doing exactly that (see also the comments left by both myself and Robert Davis). “Quietism” is putting it politely though. Leave aside transport for a moment and consider an activity such as the construction industry: notorious for its bad safety record and mistreatment of employees. It would be very much in the interests of the people with the power to give work to have as little care for the safety of their workers as they could get away with and here’s the perfect justification, there’s nothing we can do anyway! Except that of course there are ‘things that can be done’ – just be aware that behaviour changes in response to changes in the environment (and also be aware of power imbalances).

My own personal line is that it is hubristic to imagine that one can ‘make the world a better place’ (the world will turn out to be ungrateful for your offer) but an entirely practical ambition to ‘make the world a bit less bad than it otherwise would have been’ (the world will accept your helping hand without thinking about it).

Anyway, enough of that, I’m getting silly now.