Jenny Kavanagh strides across a large open square in Ashford, Kent, amid a stream of evening rush-hour traffic. Instead of blazing horns, a driver slows and waves her across.
Without street signs, pavements, road markings or traffic lights, Ashford’s Elwick Square is confusing. Pedestrians cross from all angles, and some cars stop at the sides, while others make U-turns even though there is no roundabout.
It sounds dangerous, but it is no town planning mistake. In fact, it might just be the future of urban road planning.
Ashford has pioneered a so-called “shared space” scheme on its busy ring road, removing almost all street furniture and giving no priority to vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians.
The £15.6m scheme has had plenty of detractors, notably Jeremy Clarkson, the outspoken Top Gear presenter, who lambasted the scheme’s creators in the national press: “Someone is going to die, you idiots.”
So far, though, no one has died, and very few have been injured. In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four, and Kent police have reported only one serious collision, when a pedestrian sustained a broken ankle.
As she reaches the other side of Elwick Square before ducking into Debenhams, Ms Kavanagh, a teaching assistant who crosses the street here every day, says she is impressed. “On the whole motorists are very obliging. They do give way and let you cross, and I am quite confident crossing here.”
The scheme was inspired by similar initiatives in parts of northern Europe, such as Holland. Limited shared space schemes are operating on small stretches of shopping streets in other UK cities, but Ashford is believed to be the first town to have tried the concept on a 1km-long stretch of multi-lane ring road that still carries up to 10,000 vehicles a day.
Now representatives from other local authorities have toured the scheme with a view to introducing it.
Ashford – which is the fastest-growing town between London and the Continent, set to double in size by 2031 – installed the scheme because the 1970s three-lane road was a barrier to the expansion of the town centre.
Judith Armitt, managing director of Ashford’s Future, the regeneration company that pushed the scheme, said the ring road was “a real racetrack”.
Building on the work of Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer, the council stripped out signs, lowered curbs, widened paths, removed traffic lights, installed street lights covering the whole area, and cut the speed limit to 20mph.
“Nobody has a sense of priority,” says Ms Armitt. “There are no official crossing points and drivers might be a bit unsure because there are no signs or barriers, but that’s the whole point. Then the motorist might slow down. It’s almost like going back to roads before the 1960s.”
Official figures show average speeds have been about 21mph and the scheme has not increased congestion, Ms Armitt says.
However, groups representing the blind and partially sighted believe the scheme, which relies on eye contact between driver and pedestrian, poses increased safety risks. One traffic light crossing was installed as a concession, but it has no audible beep to tell the pedestrian when to cross.
Councillor Michael Claughton, chairman of Ashford Access, said: “We have had complaints, but overall it works well. There’s a certain respect come back between motorist and pedestrian.”
Not everyone is convinced, however. Partially sighted Brandon Beaumont crosses Elwick Square hesitantly: “I do feel slightly unsafe,” he says, “but I haven’t had any nasty experiences yet.”
Rebecca Skinner, a cleaner who crosses the road every day, says: “It looks nice, but I don’t feel safe at all. What makes drivers stop is making eye contact, but they might not be looking at you.”
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