Elements of Access: Shared Spaces

Regulated Space
Regulated Space by Ben Hamilton-Baillie and Paul Boston
Shared Space
Shared Space by Ben Hamilton-Baillie and Paul Boston



By Wes Marshall



Engineers and planners typically design transportation systems to isolate different modes of travel as much as possible; vehicles should stay on the roadway, bicycles in the bicycle lanes, and pedestrians on the sidewalk. Over the last couple decades, some visionary transportation engineers and planners – such as Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman and British urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie – sought to do the exact opposite and encourage increasing interactions between different modes by removing horizontal and vertical demarcations, removing all signage, and abolishing the basic rules of the road.

By removing what seems to give us ‘order’ in the transportation system, the theory of shared spaces is that we force road users to react to social cues. In other words, when a road user enters what for all intents and purposes is an unregulated situation, he or she must orient themselves to the situation by observing and building upon the order established by fellow road users as opposed to that instituted by externally-created rules. The thinking is that this creates more awareness, and that perhaps we can achieve even greater ‘order’ in the transportation system.

To picture this concept, imagine a public ice-skating rink and try explaining to somebody who has never seen one how it works. If you tell them that dozens of people on sharpened metal blades are moving throughout a confined area at varying speeds, and doing so on a surface made of ice, they’d picture total and utter chaos. Such chaos, however, rarely fails to materialize. Rather, the lack of rules and demarcations forces skaters to become aware of their surroundings and fellow users while social cues helps skaters modify their paths and avoid collision with other users of the system. Social scientists term this spontaneous order.

In the context of a street or intersection, it is exceedingly difficult for traffic engineers to give up such control and cede whose turn it is to cross the street to the road users themselves while hoping for order to spontaneously emerge. It seems like we would be setting ourselves up for madness, but similar to the ice skating rink example, it also seems to work in the transportation system. Shared space designs, primarily undertaken in European and Asian cities, have somewhat surprisingly been shown to increase both efficiency and road safety over more conventional designs. Whether this design concept takes off in the rest of the world remains to be seen.


Klein, D. B. (2006). Rinkonomics: A window on spontaneous order. Economic Affairs, 26(4), 64-67.

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