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Shared Spaces

Few issues provoke quite as much fury among blind people as the blurring of lines between roads and the pavement. So will new advice on 'shared spaces' make a difference?

Blind people know the theory.
The term "shared spaces" is a blurring of the lines between the road and the pavement, the thinking being that if cyclists, drivers and pedestrians simply slow down and look at each other - all will be well.
It's a theory that has dictated more than a hundred planning projects in towns across the UK - but that theory breaks down if you're blind or partially sighted. As a new government strategy calls for a halt to new shared space schemes we check out a project in Lancashire - and talk to Lord Holmes whose 2015 report Accidents By Design called for their abolition.
Presented by Peter White
Produced by Kevin Core.

Available now

20 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 28-08-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Shared Spaces

TX:  28.08.2018  2040-2100

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            KEVIN CORE

 

White

Good evening.  Few topics in all the time I’ve been working on In Touch have raised as much heat as that of shared spaces.  In theory we’re talking about the concept of making our city centres less bound by rules and making them more informal; blurring the distinctions between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.  Put like that sounds attractive doesn’t it?  But what it’s meant for many blind and partially sighted people has been the removal of the distinction between the pavement and the road and the decontrolling of crossings.  And suddenly, for many blind people, walking around in their cities, which used to feel safe, has become far more hazardous.

 

I’ve been reporting on this development for the past 10 years.  This encounter with Joel Young, in the centre of Reading in 2015, was typical.

 

Young

Well the problem is it’s a shared surface junction so there’s no tactile clue as to when you’re leaving the footway to when you’re crossing over the carriageway.  And in January the council switched off the traffic lights, so now there’s no audible clue or even tactile clue in terms of the spinning cone to tell you when the traffic stopped and when it’s safe to cross.  And I’m registered blind, so I can’t see traffic to know when it’s stopped.

 

White

You do have a dog…

 

Young

I do.

 

White

… can the dog not cope with this situation?

 

Young

No, it’s always up to the guide dog owner to know when it’s safe to cross, the dog is trained to walk in a straight line, guide its owner around obstacles, stop at kerbs, steps, find road crossings.  So, it’s really tricky really, you know you could take a chance and be lucky sometimes but obviously it only takes one time to get it wrong and you get hit by a bus.  So, I’m just waiting to really tell when it’s safe to cross.  I would normally go over to the right, because I would expect to use the pelican crossing that’s here to stop the traffic but that, of course, is now not in use, so I just have to wait for someone to help me cross really.  I have some sight, so I can try and use that to ask people but of course people are busy themselves, not everyone will have time to stop and help.

 

Excuse me sir?  Excuse me, excuse me… I could have been across by now and back probably.  Excuse me?  It takes some time, yeah, it can some time.  Could you help me cross this road please?

 

Pedestrian

Yeah of course I can, yeah.

 

Young

Will you help me cross the road please, I need help to get across the road because the lights have been switched off.

 

Pedestrian

Yeah, I know.  I don’t agree with it.  Hopefully they’ll switch them back on again.

 

Young

Thank you very much and have a lovely day.

 

Pedestrian

Thank you.

 

Young

You see that’s something that if had the lights been switched on would have taken me, I don’t know, 20 seconds, I had to wait over a couple of minutes to find someone to help me to cross the road.  And you know you times that by, I don’t know, three or four times a day, seven days a week, that’s a lot of time wasted waiting at a crossing.

 

White

Would you avoid this area, I mean can you avoid this area to do what you need to do?

 

Young

Yes, I can go into Oxford and go shopping but it just means if I go to meet work colleagues after work, they say oh we’ll meet in Reading, it makes me say oh hold on a minute, I need help to get there and I shouldn’t have to do that.  It’s not fair really, it’s not fair.

 

White

Well, Reading Borough Council say that they did talk to blind groups at the time and there were changes to the project, which they say has operated successfully since 2016.  They tell us they haven’t yet formally examined the government’s advice on shared spaces but they will pay it careful attention in any future traffic schemes. 

 

Which brings us to the first real sign that central government is looking seriously at the concerns of visually impaired people about shared spaces.  Last month, the government announced its inclusive transport plans and that announcement included a request to local authorities that they should call a halt to shared spaces schemes currently in the planning stage. 

 

Transport minister, Nusrat Ghani, told In Touch what she had in mind:

 

Ghani

I know that shared spaces work very well for those individuals that are disabled and in a wheelchair but it doesn’t work all.  And what we don’t want to do, in any way, is to knock back the confidence of people with disabilities, including those with visual impairment, not to go out of their home and use public transport.

 

White

A lot of visually impaired people just think they are intrinsically dangerous and would like to see this idea dropped altogether, any chance you might do that?

 

Ghani

Well you know it might come to that, it might come to that but we need to just do a bit more research into it.  Shared spaces in themselves can be quite varied and I know that in my own constituency, when research was undertaken, that it focused mostly on those in wheelchairs and not those with visual impairments, so unfortunately poor decisions can be made.

 

White

Transport minister, Nusrat Ghani.

 

Well, joining me now is someone who’s dedicated a great deal of time and energy to the whole issue of shared spaces, former Paralympic athlete Chris Holmes, now Lord Holmes. 

 

Lord Holmes, you’ve commissioned reports, you’ve spoken in the House, you’ve spearheaded campaigns, how significant is what’s been seen as really a moratorium on councils who have shared spaces schemes in the pipeline, what do you see is the significance of this?

 

Holmes

I don’t think it would be overstating it to say that finally this is the end of the road for so-called shared space.

 

White

That’s a big statement.  I mean because it’s not simply the ones which are in the pipeline, it’s the ones that are already there.  When you say the end of the road what exactly do you mean?

 

Holmes

In the report I did in 2015 I called for a moratorium on all so-called shared spaces and what we saw from the department’s statement is that they have supported that moratorium on all shared spaces which are under design.  I think what you’ll see as a result of that is this concept falling apart brick by brick, as indeed many of the schemes have already done so, literally.

 

White

But as I understand it, it is still only a request, I suppose it could be seen as a guideline, so how actually is it going to work and do we know whether local authorities have yet responded?

 

Holmes

It’s a request indeed, as you correctly say, but it’s also accompanied by the minister writing to the chief executives of all local authorities and putting in very clear terms what she believes, as a minister in the department believes, should happen when it comes to these schemes.  There’s still a lot that needs to be done to ensure the very simple but basic principle that everybody should be able to access their local area in an independent way and which can happen if all the public realm is based on inclusive design.

 

White

Well, let’s pick up on that point you make because of course it can’t have an effect on the shared space schemes which are already in place, so before we carry on we wanted to perhaps update my report from a city centre.  Preston has had a shared spaces scheme for the past four years.  Rick Moore is one of those visually impaired people who says that the introduction of uncontrolled crossings, the removal of the distinction between pavements and roads has all meant that he’s much less confident about using his city centre.

 

Reporter Tom Walker, who in the days when he worked at the country council in Lancashire spoke out about the problem of shared spaces, he’s gone back with Rick for another look.

 

Moore

We’re stood outside the Fishergate Centre where the colour of the pavement is a beige but at the edge of the pavement there’s a black kerbstone which drops down maybe two inches to a road which is the same dark colour and they will try and step over that into the road but what they’re actually doing is then catching themselves on the edge of the dark paving and risking turning their ankle and falling into the road.

 

Walker

I have to confess, as well, that I got it completely wrong.  I’m using my cane here and that’s the beige bit and then as you go into the darker area it doesn’t feel or sound any different to me.

 

Rick, the scheme was completed some four years ago, how has it affected you?

 

Moore

I would say that it’s made me think longer and harder about routes I’m going to navigate around Preston when I visit.  There are certain areas that kind of become off limits.  On the whole it’s not stopped me coming to Preston entirely but I would say it’s reduced the number of trips I make here.

 

Walker

Stuart Clayton, who’s the chief executive of Galloway’s Society for the Blind, which is a local charity, you obviously work very, very closely with a lot of visually impaired people, what are they saying to you about Fishergate?

 

Clayton

Well, we’ve been communicating with Lancashire County Council and we’ve been trying to explain how difficult it is for blind and partially sighted people to navigate these spaces.  We have quite a number of people that say they won’t come into Preston anymore.  So, actually some of the feedback that we get has dropped off but that’s predominantly because people just won’t enter the space.  We know one young couple, very mobile, very independent and they just won’t come into Preston at all now.

 

Walker

Rick, from your point of view, what are the specific problems here on Fishergate and other shared space schemes that you’ve actually experienced?

 

Moore

I was actually in a taxi the other morning and a gentleman stepped out onto an unmarked crossing, the taxi driver said – Look at this idiot, what does he think he’s doing.  And I pointed out to the taxi driver that he was crossing on an unmarked crossing and the taxi driver wasn’t even aware that that crossing was a crossing.  So, this is very much the state of play for us.  We have crossings that the council see as crossings, we find it difficult to spot them and when we do try to use them we don’t get the response that we used to on a typical pedestrian or pelican crossing.

 

I’m standing opposite County Hall on Fishergate Hill where there’s an uncontrolled crossing which is right on the very edge of the shared space scheme and at a point where cars are coming off the slowed down narrower part of the shared space and speeding up going through the crossing.  The guidance that we’ve been given is that we have to make eye contact with drivers.  Now being visually impaired I would struggle to make eye contact with somebody more than six feet away, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do it to somebody in a moving vehicle through a thick pane of glass, it’s just not feasible.

 

Walker

I’m tempted to say let’s try and cross the road but I’m worried about the safety now.

 

Clayton

Well I’ve just been stood here – I’ve just been stood here and there’s been eight cars that have gone past while there’s been people stood here waiting to cross and those people did have vision, they could see, but nobody stopped.

 

Walker

Lancashire County Council and other local authorities would however say they consulted widely and that they incorporated lots of those suggestions into the final scheme, isn’t it the case that maybe the wider good should prevail here and that we, as visually impaired people, just have to accept that business is up and it does look more attractive?

 

Clayton

Absolutely not.  This is a public realm, it should be accessible for the public to include visual impaired people and all people with disabilities.  I do not underestimate how difficult it is to get a surrounding area, a public area, that’s accessible for all but they should be making more of an attempt to it.

 

Walker

Rick, the government has now requested that local authorities pause the introduction and implementation of shared space schemes.

 

Moore

I welcome that, I think until they’ve come up with a more inclusive design then a pause is exactly where it should be sat.

 

Clayton

Absolutely welcome it.  The problem is it’s a request not a statement, so we’re still struggling with the term shared space now, what we’re seeing is some of the schemes reverting back to another title, they’re not calling it a shared space.  We need to make sure that the government are clear about making sure that the public realm is accessible for visually impaired people, as well as the general populous.

 

Walker

Would you like to see local authorities, such as this one here in Lancashire, just actually get rid of the shared space schemes?

 

Clayton

The short answer is yes for us obviously.  We’re not against the development of a public realm and making the aesthetics look better for the people of Preston and the surrounding areas but what we are against is them not being inclusive for visually impaired people.  And there is a fundamental flaw with the shared space schemes themselves in that you have to, in order to cross a road at an uncontrolled crossing, you have to rely on making eye contact with the driver.

 

Moore

Because people have stayed away from shared space we’re almost at a situation where there needs to be greater guidance and we need to see local authorities going above and beyond to encourage people back.  It’s almost a once bitten twice shy kind of thing.

 

Walker

Do you think there are some blind and partially sighted people who would just simply never return to the centre of a town like this one?

 

Moore

I have no doubt about that, yeah, absolutely.

 

White

Rick Moore ending Tom Walker’s report.

 

And Lancashire County Council have told us that they’ve no plans for any new shared space projects.  As for Fishergate itself they say, the scheme has resulted in road safety improvements for all road users and that collisions involving pedestrians have reduced significantly.

 

Lord Holmes, listening to that, your initial report on this highlighted the fact that a lot of blind people were saying it was inhibiting their travel in city centres, as Rick said there, but of course it was a new concept and people don’t like change.  Do you think there’s any sign that people perhaps are becoming used to the idea that there is a different way to do things than fixed pavements and roads and rigid separation of road users?

 

Holmes

I certainly think it’s always worth looking at innovation and what can be done to make the public realm as attractive, as appealing as it can be but none of that is worth a candle if it’s not predicated on inclusive design.  And I think what we’ve seen is rather than people becoming used to these so-called shared spaces, what we’ve seen is increasing number of people who avoid them.  In 2015 my report showed that 35% of people actively avoided shared space.  There’s evidence that that number has increased.  That’s over a third of your local community effectively planned out of these areas.  That cannot, in any sense, be justified.

 

White

And do we know actually how many shared space schemes there are now?

 

Holmes

In the hundreds and with almost that number on the drawing board.  But what we need to ensure now is that these so-called shared spaces don’t try and emerge under a different name, a different wrapper, a different brand because that was the whole use of shared space in the first place, it was seen as an incredibly positive marketing device.  When myself and other campaigners were able to point out deficiencies it became somewhat less appealing to use.  So, what we need to ensure is that they don’t reappear under a separate label.

 

White

For you, the moratorium is encouraging but there are still these hundreds of existing schemes, some of which have involved major engineering work.  Do you want to see these systems actually scrapped, reversed, and is that really practical?

 

Holmes

What needs to happen is that all of the schemes that are currently laid out, and this was another recommendation from my report in 2015 which I called accidents by design, another recommendation was that all existing schemes should undergo a clear accessibility audit and whatever retro fitting that was required to enable those schemes to be fully accessible should be undertaken.  And indeed, you’ve seen that in a number of schemes up and down the country with controlled crossings being reinstated.  And controlled crossings are such a key principle to enable all people to effectively comfortable, crucially safely, access their local areas.  So, what you’ve seen is a lot of reinstatement.  That’s a further use of public money but it has to be done now these inaccessible architectural follies, planning conceits have been laid out up and down the country.

 

White.

Lord Holmes.

 

And that’s just about it for today except to remind you that next week we’ll be talking to the RNIB about its plans after a fraught couple of years which have involved successive deficits and the resignation of their chief executive after concerns about the safeguarding of pupils at a school for which they were responsible.  We’ll be talking to their interim chief executive, Eliot Lyne, and their chair Ellie Southwood.

 

Southwood

I really understand how this situation would, I think, make it quite difficult for people to have confidence in RNIB.  This is the organisation that made sure that I could read with my fellow pupils when I was at school.  This is the organisation that’s ensured I’m able to get out and about independently.  And it’s the organisation that’s ensured that people have what they’re entitled to in terms of support.  That is a future worth fighting for.  It has been a really tough time financially for us, along with lots of other charities, and we have had to make some fundamental changes.  There is much more change that needs to happen and to be honest some pretty radical changes that we need to put in place quickly.

 

White

We’d like to hear your questions to ask, alongside ours, about any aspect of RNIB governance or services that you want to know more about.  You can call our actionline on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk or click on contact us on our website.  From me, Peter White, producer Kevin Core and the team, goodbye.

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