Can shared spaces be accessible?

Disabled people are quick to say what is not possible. I'm always suspicious, because most of the time it works. The question is what needs to be done to make it work.

The shared space is such an example, it is a transport concept from the Netherlands that is no longer entirely new. The aim is to share the traffic space with each other. Fixed rules of the road will be replaced by informal rules and the ad hoc collusion of road users via eye contact, curbs and other restrictions will be abolished.

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No friends of shared space

The criticism from blind people is based primarily on the fact that they cannot make eye contact with other road users and have no points of orientation. Wheelchair users fear they are in a blind spot where they cannot be seen by car drivers. In almost all situations, a wheelchair user sits lower than a car driver.

The concern may be justified, but it suggests that things are currently much better. In my opinion that is not the case. Here in Bonn there are numerous places that blind people and wheelchair users cannot safely cross. For example, some genius came up with the idea of laying a train route right through the middle of the city - or building the city around the train route. In many places there is no possibility for the blind to cross this route. Another prankster came up with the brilliant idea of laying a subway partially above ground, crossing pedestrian crossings in some places. At one point there is not even a barrier that goes down when the train goes through, so that blind people can fall into a life-threatening trap. In some places on the B9, the traffic routing is so confusing that I wouldn't go over it even with a proper briefing. Many acoustic traffic lights are designed in such a way that you can never exactly locate whether your own traffic light is green or the traffic light on the parallel street. And Bonn is known to be a village, in larger cities things are likely to be even worse.

At first glance, Marburg seems like the lost paradise for the blind. Acoustic traffic lights on all corners, lots of blind-friendly people and hardly any dangerous corners, at least until the traffic lights on the completely harmless expressway at the main station are switched off at 10 p.m. This street is also completely unimportant, it only has to be crossed to get from the train station to the city center and who wants that.

In a way, this system does more harm than good to the blind. In the worst case, if you wanted to leave Marburg, you would never have had to deal with a traffic system in which these traffic lights only appear sporadically. They would have great problems getting along in other cities. This is probably the reason why many middle-aged or older blind people stay in Marburg, even if they cannot find a job there. To avoid misunderstandings, I would be happy if these traffic lights were available everywhere, they would also benefit older people with visual problems. But I don't see any development in any particular direction in this regard. They are set up in one place and taken down in another.

Create accessibility

The shared space could be a solution to some mobility problems. In many cases it would even be an improvement. Wheelchair users, for example, can never know whether some construction site is blocking their route and they cannot simply switch to the street. In most points, the sidewalk edges are too high, they might still come down without an accident, but it would be difficult to get back up.

Anyone who has ever been to a developing country knows how chaotic things can get there. In India, for example, there are traffic rules that no one obeys. We drive on the left like the English, everything else is flow. Nevertheless, informal rules have emerged, the law of the strongest applies. Mopeds diss pedestrians, cars diss mopeds, trucks and buses diss cars. If you want to overtake, honk twice. The whole thing is neither exemplary nor conflict-free, but it works surprisingly well. The weak know that the strong don't care, so they take care of themselves. It's not that different from Germany either, where there are no traffic lights or zebra crossings, the weak are always the ones who have to make way for the cars.

Of course, the shared space cannot do entirely without principles. So one of our principles must be: The strong must show consideration for the weak.The second principle is: The weak must take care of themselves. An exception only applies to small children, who are known not to be able to do this. Everyone else should be able to do that if they want to participate in the traffic space, otherwise it doesn't make any difference whether it's shared space or something else.

The problem with the landmarks for the blind can be solved. Since houses are unlikely to be bulldozed, house walls are the best reference point. Tactile strips can be created at sufficient intervals to allow crossing of the road.

Crossing a roadway is probably the most difficult challenge for blind people. The principle I mentioned above should apply here, the stronger is responsible for the weaker. If a blind person wants to cross the street, a car, a bicycle and also the truck have to stop, eye contact or not. For his part, the blind person must take responsibility for himself, which means that he must not cross the street until he can be sure that the car has stopped or that there is no danger. I just want to remind you that cities don't belong to motorists, even if looking at a map suggests otherwise. Nowhere is it written that cars must have priority over pedestrians.

Another key principle is general deceleration: car drivers in particular, but also cyclists, must be slowed down significantly. There is no reason for motorists to drive much more than walking speed in the inner city. The deceleration would solve a large part of the traffic problems with the shared space.


I'm not claiming to have solved every possible problem with shared space, I'm just offering a few suggestions. I find the concept exciting and it would be a pity if the associations for the blind canceled it because they are not flexible enough.

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