Shared space a traffic plan worth trying in Hong Kong

Carine Lai says to make a street safer, it should really feel more dangerous

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 4:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 4:47am

Imagine a street without guard railings, kerbs or traffic signals. Pedestrians, vehicles and even bicyclists weave around another at a leisurely pace. Everyone seems to know where they are going and no one collides. A man with a trolley loaded high with many boxes makes his way through an intersection, while drivers wait for him to cross.

Impossible? Or perhaps some Third World backwater? No, this is shared space, a traffic management concept developed by the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman in the 1990s.

Adopted in towns and cities throughout Europe, shared space rests on the surprising philosophy that in order to make a street safer, you should make it feel more dangerous. Monderman's insight was that accidents happen when drivers go on autopilot at high speeds, following regulations at the expense of paying attention to their surroundings. Then, it is too late when a pedestrian suddenly darts into the road.

Traditionally, traffic engineers dealt with these situations by increasing the separation between pedestrians and vehicles - more railings, more footbridges, fewer street-level crossings.

However, the more pedestrians were corralled and inconvenienced, the more likely they were to engage in dangerous jaywalking.

Shared space reverses this approach. The only rule is "watch out". Street design elements such as decorative paving, benches and trees tell drivers that they can expect to see pedestrians, which prompts them to slow down.

In many places where shared space has been implemented, traffic accident rates declined.

Shared space could be applied to many of Hong Kong's narrow, choked urban streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly. This can be done relatively inexpensively, since most of the necessary works involve removing existing traffic signage and railings.

Coloured road paint and speed tables at either end can be used to indicate the shared space zone, so that drivers know when they are entering and leaving it.

It could even be a solution for Mong Kok's failed pedestrian precinct, which last month was reopened to traffic on week nights due to nuisance complaints from residents.

Sceptics may wonder whether such a radical concept could ever work in Hong Kong, which is not some sleepy European town but a city of seven million.

Yet it is not such a new idea. Large Asian cities such as Tokyo and Taipei have had neighbourhood streets with mixed traffic long before European cities put them in place.

In Hong Kong, aggressive driving is exacerbated by the current approach to traffic management. Zebra crossings without traffic lights are very rare. You either see controlled traffic lights or nothing at all. This tells drivers that unless they see a red light, the car is king.

If shared space were implemented here, drivers would need to be educated so that they do not accelerate when they think no one is there.

In fact, Hong Kong already has plenty of de facto, if not official, shared spaces. For example, cars crawl alongside pedestrians in narrow lanes in Sheung Wan and street markets in Sham Shui Po. These streets are quite safe: virtually none appear on the Transport Department's list of accident black spots, the vast majority of which are located at the junctions of major arterial roads with fast-moving traffic.

Shared spaces can first be implemented on narrow streets with heavy pedestrian usage and light traffic. Then, as drivers get used to them, they can be expanded to quieter residential areas.

Shared space can work in Hong Kong. All it would take is a little imagination on the part of our transport officials.

Carine Lai is project manager of Civic Exchange