Mixing Cars, Cyclists & Pedestrians on Exhibition Road – London’s Take on Shared Space


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Way back in 2009 I blogged about plans to turn Exhibition Road – one of London’s most popular tourist destinations – into a shared space street, and in late 2011 work was finally completed. A shared space street is exactly as the name suggests – automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians all sharing the space, with few on-road markings to separate them. Though this may sound like an odd idea, similar schemes in European cities have been successful in reducing collisions, with road users paying more attention to their surroundings and travelling at a slower speed.

But can this work in a city like London, where car is king? I visited Exhibition Road in November to check out the completed project, and again last weekend to see how it was settling in.

When first opened, these seemingly temporary signs were dotted along the street informing those in automobiles and on bicycles that this is a pedestrian priority street. Making a busy London street pedestrian priority is a big change, and clearly informing road users of that change is critical. Sadly, during this visit I saw no cars or bicycles give way to pedestrians.

When I returned last weekend I found the very same signs in a different spot. Going pedestrian priority may never become second nature for London’s road users, and these temporary signs have now been made permanent.

The signs aren’t just for road users. Even pedestrians are reminded how to cross the road. Remember to look both ways, folks.

Shared space streets have been criticised for making roads difficult to navigate for those who are visually impaired, and Exhibition Road is no exception to that. In an attempt to address this problem, textured surfaces have been added along what would have traditionally been the pavement boundary.

Whilst most of the street is on the same level, bus stops are raised to make access easier for the less able-bodied.

If this shared space scheme succeeds in reducing traffic speeds, it could become a great street to cycle on. Though there’s plenty of space to park your bicycle on the southern end of the street, it would have been better to distribute parking facilities more evenly along the length of Exhibition Road.

If you need a break from the seemingly endless selection of museums and galleries, plenty of benches have been installed along the road.

When opened in November, the lack of road markings caused some drivers to behave as if the road was one-way. This signage was introduced to remind road users that traffic was still bi-directional. However…

… when I returned to the site last weekend I found the symbols removed and replaced with a huge yellow sign quite literally spelling it out to road users. Not much use in this position, but it has been pretty windy in London recently!

In keeping with the lack of road markings on the road itself, parking spaces are separated by simple metal markers.

No central London development would be complete without the city’s successful cycle hire scheme, though Exhibition Road’s docking points weren’t ready for use when the project was completed in November.

By January, however, they were fully operational… and completely empty. It seems London’s tourists really can’t get enough of the cycle hire scheme.

Plenty of questions remain about the practicality of this scheme. Will London’s road users ever give way to pedestrians? Will automobiles actually drive more slowly along Exhibition Road as a result of this new design? Will the road become safer for cyclists and pedestrians? Right now these questions can’t be answered. Some things are certain, however. Visually, Exhibition Road is greatly improved. The street feels wider, safer, and more like a space designed for people. During both my visits vehicles were travelling at what felt like a reasonable speed. Attempts have been made to address the failings of previous schemes to cater for those who are visually-impaired and the less able-bodied, and although this problem can only be partially overcome with design, they do make a difference to Exhibition Road’s accessibility.

It’s been two years since I first wrote about this shared space scheme. Hopefully next time I’ll be talking about how safe, cyclable, and pedestrian-friendly Exhibition Road has become as a result. And how there are no ‘temporary’ signs in sight.

  • Sp

    Joe, this interesting indeed and will start a debate I am sure. My thoughts are a little to do with the awfulness of the ‘temporary’ signs and how confusing all the different surface textures may be. I have to say it would take a very brave person with no, or little sight to launch off to cross the road -15mph would seem very fast to me especially if car are treating it as a one way street! The issue is about relying on eye contact and of course this cannot always happen. Confidence is an issue and anecdotedly it seems that many disabled people change their routes to avoid shared surfaces. Guide dogs are trained to use kerbs as demarcators, very confusing for them too. I was struck by how few people there were at all! I am still not convinced I am afraid…

  • http://twitter.com/JuliuzBeezer Juliuz Beezer

    Very interesting. The test will of course come in summer when there are more people actually occupying the street space. Still, all the visual cues seem in place to let all users know that this is an out of the ordinary street space. Presumably it will be formally evaluated after a period of operation. It will be interesting to note the vehicle speeds reported.

  • Alex URBACT

    In Europe small and medium sized cities are also taking initiatives to
    promote biking and walking among their population.

    11 European cities (Weiz and KFU-Graz-Austria, Skanderborg-Denmark, Serres-Greece, Ljutomer-Slovenia, Radziokow-Poland,
    Novara and Riccione-Italy,-Norderstedt-Germany,Lugo-Spain, Sebes-Romania)
    decided to cooperate through URBACT (http://urbact.eu/) on this

    URBACT is a European programme focused on sustainable urban development.

    Within the Active Travel Network project-ATN (http://urbact.eu/fr/projects/low-carbon-urban-environments/active-travel-network/homepage/), these 11 cities exchange their expertise and
    build innovative strategies to increase walking and cycling practices.

    For more information:

    – ATN website : http://urbact.eu/fr/projects/low-carbon-urban-environments/active-travel-network/homepage/
    – URBACT Low carbon urban environements projects: http://urbact.eu/en/header-main/integrated-urban-development/exploring-our-thematic-clusters/low-carbon-urban-environments/

  • BC22

    “similar schemes in European cities have been successful in reducing collisions”

    Nowhere in Europe or elsewhere has a major through road been turned into successful shared space without a major reduction in vehicle traffic – ie making it so that it is no longer a through road.  Exhibition Road is a failure, because they did not reduce vehicle traffic.

  • Jonokenyon

    Hi Joe, great write up. I work at the V&A quite a bit. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a lot of sharing going on. Lots of self-congratulating going on in the architectural press. But for me the space is not well used. No fountains, trees, plants anything. Nothing to stop cars/taxis flying down, which they do. For £30m appx I think a lot more could have been done. Maybe it will improve, but I’ll not be holding my breath.