Shared Spaces: Can Redefining Street Design Provide an Equitable Space for Cars, Bikes and Pedestrians?

By Steven Zimmerman

Over the history of human settlement, streets have been a dynamic if not slightly chaotic part of cities. They are the public space that connects all of the private spaces of everyday life, and allow for most of our mobility needs. Pedestrians and vehicles, either animal-drawn, human-powered, or motorized, have shared the crowded streets of cities, towns, and villages over the centuries. Even as late as the early 1900’s all manner of horse-drawn freight wagons, streetcars, and even early automobiles mixed freely in the street with pedestrians and cyclists. This functioned in part due to the relatively low speeds of travel modes at the time, which allowed for the free flow of users without the risk of high speed collisions. See this early 20th century video of San Francisco as an example.

Ironically, it may have been bicyclists advocating for Good Roads Movement at the turn of the 20th century that began the transformation of streets into the auto-centric spaces we see today. Before the movement, many roads in cities were either paved with rough cobblestone or brick, which made fast movement on wheels, whether bicycle or auto, uncomfortable and impractical. Worse yet, roads outside of cities were often unpaved entirely. As modern pavement standards began to be adopted, they provided the smooth roadway necessary for the increasingly popular automobile. Technological advances to automobile design allowed for higher speeds and made congestion especially untenable for motorists who began lobbying for wider roads, signaling, and dedicated roadway to speed up traffic. Laws were passed to keep pedestrians out of the street for “improved safety” and better traffic flow. Eventually trucks replaced animal power and buses replaced streetcars, creating an even stronger motorized/pedestrian divide. Today the modern American streetscape is one characterized by divisions; cars, trucks, and buses travel in the main lanes of the street, while pedestrians are delegated to the remaining space on the sidewalks. Bicyclists have the worst fate; with the clear cut definition of automobile and pedestrian space, and the usual absence of a bike lane, cyclists have no clear position in the street hierarchy.

Shared Space: Sonnenfelsplatz in Austria

Looking back on the history of streets, some planners and engineers have begun to question the value of modern street design’s emphasis on car travel over everything else. Complete Streets has been one response to this problem, with advocates of the movement promoting equitable transportation facilities for all modes, including pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. While Complete Streets are a great solution to solving many of the modern street’s problems, Shared Space may prove to be another alternative with a slightly radical approach. Despite all of the safety features of today’s street network separating cars from pedestrians, accidents still occur. Some planners attribute these accidents to the false sense of security that modern roads provide. Motorists and pedestrians are told to remain within their lanes and sidewalks and to obey traffic signals, but these clear definitions of road space with independent controls allow for road users to let their guard down and ignore what is actually going on around them. Drivers focus on green lights and red lights, often ignoring other cars and pedestrians that may inadvertently cross their path. When people don’t pay attention to their surroundings and something goes wrong, particularly at high speeds, the results can be fatal.

Shared Space combats the flaws in road design using techniques that may at first seem counter-intuitive; improving safety by allowing cars and pedestrians to coexist in a shared, undivided street. European Shared Spaces are implemented by removing traffic signals and signs, retexturing the entire roadway into a consistent yet noticeably different pavement, and the removal of curbs and sidewalks encouraging pedestrians to use the roadway. The reality of Shared Space, and what makes it a potentially powerful design solution for improving safety, is that by removing the aspects of streets that once allowed motorists to confidently speed without care now creates confusion, hesitation, and ultimately slower speeds. In contrast, pedestrians are given greater liberty by allowing them more freedom in navigating the street. In a Shared Space priority is blurred and divisions are gone, requiring motorists and pedestrians to navigate the space together, keeping mindful of what each person is doing. Yet, with the absence of traffic lights or stop signs, traffic flows freely, just at a slower pace. For a visual example of a Shared Space at a four-way intersection, watch this video here.

To be clear, the vision for introducing shared spaces into cities and towns would not mean removing all lanes and signals from every roadway. Rather, Shared Spaces provide the opportunity to apply a novel solution to specific areas, particularly intersections, with high pedestrian activity and high-speed traffic and strong safety concerns. New Jersey, with its numerous pedestrian-oriented downtowns would be an excellent testing ground for this safety solution. New Jersey has already become a leader in Complete Streets policies, thanks in part to the work by the New Jersey Department of Transportation in promoting Complete Street policies throughout the state. Perhaps Shared Spaces could become the next important initiative in improving pedestrian and bicycle accessibility in New Jersey.

For more information of Shared Spaces, visit the Project for Public Spaces or watch this video on what Shared Space has done to revitalize an English town.

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