It’s not always good to share

Sauciehall crop

Glasgow City Council’s plans for the area around Sauchiehall Street includes a shared space that would endanger blind and disabled pedestrians

Ken Reid discusses why shared spaces could set back the rights of partially sighted people by decades

TFN Guest's photo

7th September 2017 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

It’s good to share – but not necessarily when your fellow sharers include 12-ton moving buses and what you’re sharing is their space.

Shared spaces is an ambitious and achingly fashionable new concept in town planning. It means raised pavements and kerbs would be flattened and people and vehicles would all use the same space. Its proponents say it encourages more care and attention in drivers. As someone who is blind, I think it has the potential to inadvertently set the rights of blind and other disabled people back decades.

Ken Reid

Ken Reid

Quite simply, we will face real danger if we no longer have a distinct pedestrian zone separating us from traffic. People who use white canes, as well as guide-dog users, rely on kerbs to give them vital tactile cues for their safety.

Where shared spaces already exist, blind and partially sighted people say that they feel far less confident traversing them than a normal urban environment. One person said: “The idea behind such spaces depends on every user being 100 per cent able and 100 per cent alert at all times, which just doesn't happen in real life. I consider this whole idea to be completely (and criminally) insane”. Not a fan, then… but far from a lone voice.

A 2015 House of Lords enquiry into shared spaces largely agreed. It found that “people’s experiences of shared space schemes are overwhelmingly negative”, that “over a third of people actively avoid shared space schemes”, and that drivers consistently report being unsure of who has right of way, resulting in “confusion, chaos and constant near misses”. Hardly encouraging, is it?

The House of Lords also warned that “overzealous councils are risking public safety with fashionable simplified street design”, and noted that “as more and more local authorities are forced into expensive remedial work, often restoring crossings they have themselves removed, the need for urgent action becomes even more apparent”.

The report has called for “an immediate moratorium on shared space schemes while impact assessments are conducted and for guidance to be updated so that local authorities better understand their responsibilities under the Equalities Act”.

The report’s calls have been echoed by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee.

Despite these concerns, Glasgow City Council’s plans for the area around Sauchiehall Street includes a shared space, while Highland Council proposes to make the approach to Inverness castle one. Other councils in Scotland may also introduce shared spaces under the City Deal initiative using government funds.

City Deal is making millions of pounds available to local authorities in a bid to reinvent urban centres. But councils are under pressure to spend the money within tight timescales and plans may be accelerated through without time to consider the full implications for all users. Access panels, the bodies set up to consider such issues, lack effective powers to block things like shared spaces.

So, what could be a historic move to transform our towns and cities might actually lock-in design features that end up creating no go zones for residents and visitors with disabilities, a major step backwards.

RNIB Scotland is calling on local authorities to meet with blind and partially sighted people, and others with a disability, to hear their concerns about shared spaces and to find a more acceptable way forward.

I agree. Blind and partially sighted people are more likely to be walking through town centres, as public transport frequently forms a hub in this environment. Arrangements that end up excluding some of their most vulnerable citizens rob us of our independence and are most definitely not what a 21st century Scotland needs.

Ken Reid is a member of and former chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland