Shared Space Aims to Create Safer, More Polite Roads

Imagine a thriving street with cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. Now strip away the traffic signals, crosswalks, curbs, bike lanes, and signage that tell people what they should be doing. It sounds like a dangerous mess, right?

Counterintuitively, just the opposite is true. Shared Space, as such streets are called, is an urban planning alternative that puts everyone in the same space and makes them communicate with each other. Unlike traditional thoroughfares, where motorists, pedestrians and cyclists have separate paths and somewhat mindlessly follow what signs tell them to do, Shared Space forces everyone to become hyper-aware of those around them.

“It works because, ultimately, no one wants to hurt anyone,” says David Leyzerovsky, project associate at the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), explaining that Shared Space creates a more polite area where everyone is in cohesion with each other. “Most accidents happen because of speed and because of not paying attention. This traffic environment forces everyone to pay attention and it forces you to go at a much slower rate than you normally would.”

In Shared Space, bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists all make eye contact and communicate non-verbally with each other. Doing so, says Leyzerovsky makes a safer environment because people become more tuned in to everything around them.

The Shared Space concept was pioneered by the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who noted that we’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. "The greater the number of prescriptions," he was known to say, "the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” Monderman saw Shared Space as one way to increase our social responsibility.

Still fairly new in the States, Shared Space is more common in Europe where cities are older and less auto-centric. There is not a single model within the Shared Space movement for how and where it will be effective. Shared Space exists in the suburbs, busy downtowns, and the spaces in-between.

“It’s all about the context,” says Leyzerovsky, “and evaluating needs and the alternatives.”

The following are examples of successful Shared Space:

Laweiplein Squareabout, Drachten, The Netherlands

This “squareabout” in Drachten does double-duty as a main road and busy pedestrian and cycling hub. Transforming it into Shared Space has “reconciled the seeming conflict between its highway role and its function as a public space.” Read an evaluation of the project [pdf]

Longfellow Street, Santa Monica, CA

Photo: Streetsblog LA

Using Shared Space practices to calm traffic, transportation officials in Santa Monica transformed a busy, mixed-use street. As Streetsblog LA reports:

“Longfellow St. had always been too narrow to include both street parking for adjacent apartments and sidewalks, making it an ideal candidate for promoting mixed street use. Its formally unappealing design and poor lighting was also felt by some to be a contributing factor to crime in the area. Now vehicle traffic is calmed with cues from new plants and textured surfaces. Solar powered pedestrian scale lighting with LED bulbs were installed along the street. Other ideas are being considered for further traffic calming enhancements later, that would eliminate the need for traffic control signage all together.”

New Road, Brighton, UK

Photo: Gehl Architects

New Road in Brighton is a redesign of a street to “reinforce pedestrian priority” and encourage defensive driving and low speeds. The street looks vastly different than it did previous to the redesign and users of it have reportedly become much more aware of their environment. Read a fact sheet about the project.

More Shared Space in the US

Two new Shared Space projects are in the works in the US. Construction has started on Chicago’s first Shared Space in Uptown's Argyle Street between Broadway and Sheridan Road, and a Shared Space concept is being considered in Pittsburgh for the section of Liberty Avenue that forms the entrance to the downtown.

In addition to slowing down automobile traffic and making everyone more aware of each other, Shared Space also keeps traffic moving—slowly, but steadily—so it’s not the traffic jam inducing scheme one might imagine.

“Because there’s no classic interchange where you’re stopping,” says Leyzerovsky, “it actually moves traffic a lot better. While you’re moving slowly, there’s constant movement.”

Does Shared Space Benefit Everyone?

Concerns have been raised about how people who are visually impaired, or in wheelchairs will navigate Shared Space. As successful Shared Space relies on eye contact, the visually impaired are seemingly at a disadvantage. The bricks and cobblestones, which are often used in Shared Space areas, also add to the challenge, as they can be hard to maneuver in a wheelchair and it's not clear where the sidewalk ends and the road begins.

To address these concerns, planners have started creating different textures on the ground to alert people when they’re coming to a Shared Space, and help them navigate where the best places to cross are.

Shared Space also receives pushback from some city planners, traffic engineers, and neighbors. Some of the pushback is skepticism that it will work to increase safety at all, and some is concern that traffic will get backed up. There is also concern that the Shared Space movement is trying to do away with traditional roads. Leyzerovsky says this is far from true. As Monderman would say, “The slow network needs the fast network to work.”

“Shared Space is great, but it’s not for everything,” says Leyzerovsky. “Not every street should become a Shared Space. There should always be high-speed arterials for movement of goods...Shared Space is just another tool we can implement in certain locations.”

Case study of a Shared Space in Poynton, England

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Top photo: Shared Space in Madrid, by EUTERIST e.V. (CC-BY) Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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