A naked future for Britain’s streets?

by Kirstyn Smith

An interesting new way of outlining London’s streets could soon be a reality, thanks to Boris Johnson’s plans to render the streets of London ‘naked’. 

However, this is not a case of the controversial mayor contemplating a mass public nudity bylaw.  Rather, he proposes to remove traffic lights, street signs and road markings in an innovative concept known as ‘shared space’.

Shared space is a theory pioneered by Hans Monderman – a Dutch traffic engineer and inventor.  The scheme is intended to get rid of the traditional seperation between road users and pedestrians by removing kerbs, lines, signs and signals.  It is thought that by eliminating the physical barriers put in place to reduce motorists’ speed, this allows drivers and pedestrians to essentially ‘share’ the streets, urging both parties to become more cautious and aware of the other.  As a result, it is hoped that road safety will be improved, as users will be forced to negotiate their way through shared ares at appropriate speeds and with due consideration for the other users of the space.drachten

Discussing the potential project, Johnson enthused: “I’m a great fan of naked streets.  I envisage a future where pavements would blend seamlessly with roads.”

The plan has already been implemented in a number of countries, including Germany, Sweden and Australia.  If Johnson’s plans came to fruition, London would be one of few UK cities to embrace the ‘shared space’ idea. 

However, could this proposition be a realistic propsect, not just for London, but for other significant British cities? 

The residents of Edinburgh will likely wonder whether ‘naked streets’ could be applied to their city centre. Enthusaists maintain that the tram system – once it is eventually in place – could help towards creating an urban environment ideally suited to the shared space concept.  In a number of circumstances, such a project could be advantageous, for example, there could be a place for the reduction in the number of road markings in residential areas.  Similarly, there could be potential in trialling a ‘naked streets’ approach to the city’s main high streets in order to reduce road furniture – worth pursuing to monitor the response to such an approach, all considering, of course, the reaction if the scheme were to go ahead in London.  

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Boris Johnson about  It could be the case that those who support the idea of shared space – particularly in Edinburgh, where the idea is yet to even be proposed –  are getting ahead of themselves.  A spokesperson for Edinburgh City Council was more realistic about the need for ‘naked streets’:

“For the foreseeable future, there remains a role for signs, lines and road humps.  Signs and lines are key to managing parking, prioritisiroadsignng public transport and cycling; road humps have an outstandingly good record in reducing speeds and therefore accidents.  Thought there may be limited scope for removing traffic lights, they are key to managing traffic at our busiest junctions and to providing places where people can cross busy roads with more confidence.”  

Yet, as much as signs, lines and roadhumps play a part in the reduction of accidents, the actualisation of shared space in Holland has proven to have positive results in this respect.  The town of Drachten – one of the scheme’s pioneer towns – has no visible road markings, stop signs or directions.  Parking meters are also absent from road sides.  When traffic lights were removed from the town’s main junction, the number of accidents dropped from thirty to two over a period of six years.  This junction sees 22 000 cars each days and traffic jams are a rarity.

It has to be acknowledged that the towns in which shared space has been implemented tend towards less heavily urbanised areas.  Furthermore, the large number of cyclists on Dutch streets would benefit the ‘naked streets’ as their presence acts to slow and calm traffic – an advantage for the shared space approach.  The legal framework is also different and should be considered; in Holland it is the driver who is presumed at fault in any crash between a vehicle and a pedestrian or cyclist, so it has to be assumed that safer driving thrives in Hollondontraffic2land regardless of the shared space scheme.

Statistics are something that Johnson should also take into account.  There are 8 000 buses in London, 32 000 black cabs and 34 000 licensed mini cabs.  According to the London Road Safety Unit Fact Sheet, while the number of traffic accidents has decreased by more than 10 000 over the past decade, the number of people injured on the road each year remains very high at over 24 000.  By putting the ‘shared space’ plan into action, it could be that this number could fall further.

Fundamentally, this is what the plan wishes to generate – regardless of the city or region or mayor.  By allowing road users to take control of the streets for themselves, they are trusted to grow accustomed to communicating more with each other, ultimately creating an environment in which not only both parties feel safe to travel, but – through a reduction in accident – whose safeness can be proven.