Ben Hamilton-Baillie, guru of Shared Space, the controversial concept that states cars, trams, landau horses, pedestrians, cyclists and the visually impaired can co-exist in perfect harmony when in horribly close proximity to each other, is not a man to take criticism lying down.
Indeed, the only reason we have a picture of him lying down, on the job of crafting a controversial “shared space” scheme, which saw him lambasted as an “eco-mentalist” by Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, is because Ben reckons he’s had the last laugh.
The scheme concerned, at Ashford, Kent, has reduced traffic speeds, road casualties, upped the economy of a previously down at heel district, and picked up two awards for innovation and design in the process.
Clarkson castigated it for encouraging pedestrians to “simply walk out into the traffic and hope it stops” and raged: “Apparently, when there are no lights at all, we will be much more careful. Have you ever heard such piffle”?
“We’ve had one grazed knee in the first three years, previously it was one death a year there,” says Ben. “I feel fairly vindicated where Clarkson was concerned and the economic data is also positive.
“Statistics show you are more likely to be injured on a pedestrian crossing than crossing elsewhere ... because you are lulled into a false sense of security.
“Any change is uncomfortable. This is all about changing your mental map. Shared space stands traditional assumptions on their heads, and assumes a very different road user, one who is responsible, alert and responsive.”
The Bristol-based architect coined the term, shared space, 10 years ago, to identify a common thread in the European approach to reducing the adverse impact of traffic by scrapping pavements, guard rails, lights controlled crossings and clearly marked roads.
The consultant has introduced such “spaces” across Britain, mostly in towns and cities, but increasingly in resorts “where the need to regenerate seaside boulevards is key to the economy”.
He’s seen Blackpool at the height of the season and also in winter.
“I found it pretty sad that a town of such spectacular assets, the seafront, the magnificent buildings, should be in such a poor state. It was horrible, vile, and the council had to do more than just tidy pavements or remove clutter.
“I looked at what was happening in Europe, at boulevard seafronts, and came up with relatively high volume traffic integrating with a sense of place. It is devastatingly effective, almost a return to the way we were.”
One scheme, in Brighton, serving the Theatre Royal, with access for cabs, buses and delivery vehicles, has seen vehicle speeds reduce, and pedestrian safety increase.
“The area was in bad economic state, rents dropping, lots of empty properties, now the pedestrian footfall is four times higher.”
Motorists hated the redesign, pedestrians feared they would be mowed down once pavements were abolished.
The scheme has been so successful it has extended to other parts of the city centre.
“Blackpool must give it time,” says Ben, who was called in as a consultant on the seafront redesign.
Many of his suggestions have been adopted although, he recalls, “some jaws dropped at the time.”
But with U-turns announced on Bond Street’s one-way system, and a review of St John’s Square scheme to come in October, could the end be nigh for the new look Central Promenade? It faces its stiffest test as schools break – and the Illuminations season holds the greatest fears.
Ben argues it’s the “perceived risk” of sharing common ground with cars, cabs, cyclists, stag and hens, trams, landau carriages and pedestrians which makes shared space the safer option.
“It stops people being complacent. It stops drivers thinking they’re the only ones with any legitimate right to be there.
“It makes them sensitive to the needs of others, including visually impaired people and others with mobility issues. If you’re sighted and sober, as you should be as a driver, shared space makes you a better driver. I would think that if a guide dog can navigate a car park – with a mix of drivers and people walking and milling around – they can navigate the Promenade.
“It will take time to readjust and change some preconceived notions – any change in a street arrangement is uncomfortable.”
He hopes to revisit Blackpool this summer, to meet traffic chief Peter Cross, and urge Blackpool Council to “keep the faith”.
“Mr Cross is very keen I should come and review it, learn from it, and see whether immediate measures are necessary to reassure politicians.
“Clearly there are a lot of interested parties. I’m reserving judgement until I make that official visit.
“Blackpool has such huge wide open space on that Promenade which makes it difficult to get the scale right but I think the design is critical to the economy of Blackpool.
“I also think it is important for politicians hold their nerve.
“It’s worked elsewhere, it will work here.
“The first six months are always difficult, the period when you have to give politicians a little bit of hand holding and tell them not to panic, an adverse press is par for the course.
“What’s encouraging is that others are beating a path to Blackpool to see the scheme. The economy of Blackpool will readjust and build on these changes. It’s that or continue the near-inertia in trading patterns. Right now, Blackpool is leading the way.”