I was reading Columbusite’s blog and I noticed he ran across an article that discusses a minimalist traffic engineering concept called “shared space.” I’ve been meaning to post about shared space for a while.
The idea is mostly credited to a dutch traffic engineer named Hans Monderman, who passed away in January, 2008. In short, shared space counter-intuitively makes the roadway safer by removing the things that make most people feel safe; devices like traffic signals, stop signs, other warning signs, and even sidewalks. These traffic control devices can distract from what truly makes people safer, driving slowly and paying attention to road conditions. Here is a good article about Mr. Monderman and shared space:
Roads Gone Wild
By Tom McNichol
Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign – literally – that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”
Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer – equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.
Monderman and I are tooling around the rural two-lane roads of northern Holland, where he works as a road designer. He wants to show me a favorite intersection he designed. It’s a busy junction that doesn’t contain a single traffic signal, road sign, or directional marker, an approach that turns eight decades of traditional traffic thinking on its head.
…Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.
…and another great read on StreetsBlog about shared space, this time with an advocate in Boston.
The State of Livable Streets in Boston
by Ben Fried
It’s a Friday afternoon in Boston, and I’m being forced to stand 10 feet off the curb on Causeway Street across from North Station – just stand there in the street – because I’ve off ended Christopher Hart by using the wrong word to describe an idea. The word I used was “wild.” In retrospect, it wasn’t right. I think it slipped out because the idea reminds me of the Wild West. But I don’t regret using the word, because it forced Hart to teach me a lesson.
A few minutes before, I’d been sitting with Hart inside the Institute for Human Centered Design, a nonprofit advocacy group on Portland Street, just down from Causeway, where Hart is the director of urban and transit projects. We were discussing Shared Space, a street design concept becoming popular in parts of Europe (the German town of Bohmte started turning its entire main street into a Shared Space last fall), and I ask Hart if he thinks such a “wild” idea could ever work in Boston.
“It’s not a wild idea,” he counters quickly. “It existed for thousands of years. It was only with the advent of sewers and fast-moving vehicles – horses and trolleys and cars – where you start seeing curbs and really defining where uses go.”
The curb is a big enemy in the Shared Space philosophy, because the curb is a separator, dictating what belongs to the pedestrian and what belongs to the vehicle. There are other enemies as well: signs, lines on the road, even traffic lights. Pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who died earlier this year at age 62, Shared Space gets the street naked, removes all physical and psychological barriers, and forces cars and pedestrians to share. The concept makes the street safe by making it dangerous to proceed without paying attention. We have some elements of Shared Space here; in Downtown Crossing, Winter and Summer streets have no curb and, in the mornings, commercial vehicles mix with pedestrians. But the full Shared Space experience is hard to feel until all the clothes come off , which is why – as we start to cross Causeway – Hart stops a third of the way to the median.
“We’re going to stand here,” he says. “The cars will go around.”
My first reaction is to look at Hart and admire his commitment, his passion for changing the world. This warm feeling lasts until the light turns green and I see two taxis – it had to be taxis – coming toward us.
IF HART’S GOAL IS TO MAKE THE SITUATION FEEL DANGERous, it’s working. And not just on me, because the taxis actually go around us, slowly, staring at us, wondering what the hell we’re doing on their street.
“So what have we done here?” Hart asks. “We’ve extended that curb 10 feet out. We’re forcing drivers to pay attention, and we’re forcing them to slow down even just a little bit because their field of vision has changed.”
The light turns the other way, and now the drivers coming out of Portland Street who want to make a right have to contend with us. The situation repeats. They see us. They move slowly around us. A few even go behind us. But no one blares a horn. No one gives us the finger. No one does anything except share.
This is exactly what the father of Shared Space had in mind. Wendy Landman, the executive director of the nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston, says, “One of the pieces that Monderman talked about is that you have to give responsibility back to the drivers and pedestrians to behave rationally.” (An oft-quoted Monderman mantra is “If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots.”)
I don’t think shared space is meant for every street, but I think it could have a place in the hierarchy of the transportation system. I’ve seen it work in Europe. It seems to be best in congested places where the pedestrians either outnumber the cars or can at least hold their own. These places are often shopping streets, near tourist landmarks, or near transit hubs. The key is drivers of cars expecting to see pedestrians. Shared space isn’t going to work on Morse Road. There’s not enough people out to keep the cars moving slowly and cautiously. But would it work on campus? Well, I think it already does on streets like Neil Avenue near Independence Hall.
Here are a few pictures I have taken of streets that have elements of shared space:
This is Rome’s main shopping street. Cars are allowed to drive down it, but it’s so crowded with people and slow that I don’t see why anybody would choose to do so. Nevertheless, they do and the people slowly part out of the way. Is it stressful to have to watch for cars and move out of the way every so often? Yeah, a little. Is it safe? Most definitely.
This is a pedestrian zone in Munich. With the exception of an occasional scooter or delivery truck, you won’t find much motorized traffic during the day due to restrictions.
Through traffic is restricted on East 4th Street in Cleveland with bollards, but there are some cars using the street to access parking. Parts of the street also have curbs level with the roadway and the streetscaping elements encourage people to walk right down the middle.
Other places shared space is common in the US are:
- In alleys – There are no signs, no curbs, and low traffic volumes. Pedestrians walk freely and pay attention to their surroundings.
- Parking lots – Ironically those acres of asphalt outside of big box stores that are so hostile to the pedestrian environment are actually a great example of cars and pedestrians mutually co-existing with minimal traffic controls. Strip-malls like to put those speed bumps and mini-stop signs out, but I think they’re largely unnecessary.
Where won’t shared space work? Basically anywhere where the capacity of vehicle traffic is a concern. Although the use of roundabouts can minimize negative impacts to traffic flow in some situations, I believe shared space would generally reduce the throughput of roadways. Things like traffic signals, sidewalks, and lane lines are meant to organize traffic in a space-efficient way and encourage faster movement of traffic. Remove those and you’ll move fewer cars. That may not be a problem where there is spare capacity, like in small German, Dutch, and even American towns, but it could be on major arterial streets in large cities. It is important to remember that there is usually a balance in traffic engineering between speed of travel and safety. Sometimes a small trade-off in crash frequency or severity is acceptable to increase mobility around the region.
Can anyone think of other local examples of shared space? Do you have pictures? Do you have suggestions for where it might work? Maybe a new Town Street between High St and 3rd St?