Improving Road Safety Through Shared Space

By Mike Thompson

Improving the safety of all users on the road is of paramount importance to public officials, city planners, and traffic engineers alike.  Last month, the NJ Walk and Bike Blog wrote about improving the safety of bicyclists through bicycle network connectivity and bicyclist (and driver) behavior in the context of side street parking. While Complete Streets and bicycle lanes are emerging as a popular treatment to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, another technique, Shared Space, is gaining popularity in both Europe and the United States. Although both Shared Space and Complete Street strategies share the same goal of protecting bicyclists and pedestrians while accommodating all users of the road, the tactics to achieve those ends vary.

A Complete Street usually contains a variety of physical attributes, such as: quality sidewalks, bike lanes (or wide shoulders), special bus lanes, elaborate crosswalks, median islands for pedestrians, pedestrian signals, curb extensions, and the like. While this technique is useful in that it accommodates all users of the road and improves their safety, another street treatment- Shared Space- is an emerging alternative to traditional separation of transportation modes, especially in places with high pedestrian volumes.

Shared Space Intersection

Shared Space aims to eliminate most road demarcations including traffic control devices, markings such as crosswalks, curbs, and bike lanes. This counter intuitive idea for pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles to occupy a common space in order to improve safety is gaining traction in new designs for the fastest growing American cities.

In a Shared Space, the removal of road demarcations and traffic control devices fosters interactions between drivers and pedestrians, which helps to guide movement through the street in a more natural way. Slower speeds, increased driver awareness, and person- to- person interactions improve safety.

Shared Space is based on the notion that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to different modes, and in turn create a false sense of security leading travelers to behave as if they do not have responsibility to look out for other users in “their” space. This approach works best for improving traffic flow moving at higher speeds, but neglects the bigger picture of a cohesive urban environment. Pictured below is a Shared Space in the downtown of Adelaide, Australia.

The idea of Shared Space originated in the Netherlands with traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman spent most of his career as a “traditional” traffic engineer. While this cutting edge engineering seemed to improve safety in theory, in reality, the Netherlands suffered thousands of traffic related deaths throughout this time. The increase in crashes provided the impetus for Dutch politicians to investigate a new way of organizing traffic.

Market Square, Pittsburgh, PA

At this time, Monderman started to experiment with traffic patterns and vehicle speeds by removing traffic signs and traditional mode demarcations instead of adding more to the already saturated transportation system. In his mind, crashes were a product of deteriorating personal responsibility saying, “We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of (traffic) prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” This added dimension of social commentary from Monderman allowed him to justify, and eventually implement, his idea of Shared Space (pictured below).

The opportunities for Shared Space are numerous and diverse. Shared Space is most likely to succeed in areas that already have high volumes of pedestrians, such as neighborhoods, central business districts, and mixed use developments. The higher volumes of pedestrians facilitate Shared Space implementation and allow for justification of redesigning the roadway. One of the best American examples of Shared Space, Market Square in Pittsburgh, is pictured below.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation is hard at work improving our streetscapes and safety of road users. This document—Pedestrian Compatible Planning and Design Guidelines– helps to provide some of the context for integrating pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles in the same space. The implementation strategies for NJDOT and their extensive transportation network includes resources for Complete Streets as just one of their tools to improve pedestrian safety. Shared space is emerging as another option for busy, pedestrian-friendly downtowns and residential areas. The future of your neighborhood’s transportation network is sure to see Complete Streets and Shared Space—just keep up your walking and biking!

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