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"Shared Space" Traffic Calming: Counterintuitive, But It Works
Erica Barnett, 4 Jan 08
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Recently, my city (Seattle) decided to put the brakes on red-light scofflaws by installing 19 more cameras at intersections around the city, bringing the total number of red-light cameras in the city to 25. The cameras work by automatically photographing the cars of suspected light runners; if the police department believes, upon reviewing the photos, that a suspect ran the light, they mail the car's owner a ticket for $124. The owner has 18 days to pay or contest. As an infrequent driver who's more likely to be in the intersection than behind the wheel, I was happy to see that some of the city's most dangerous intersections will now be festooned with big signs warning drivers not to speed.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this article about the small (13,000 residents) town of Bohmte, Germany, which decided to deal with its own traffic and safety problems using the opposite approach--eliminating most signals and lane markers altogether. On one section of a major thoroughfare through the city, Bohmte officials have erased lane markers, torn up sidewalks, and bulldozed curbs in a radical effort to force people to use common sense and courtesy when driving rather than relying on lane markers. The only traffic rules that remain are a speed limit of 30 mph, and a requirement that everyone who uses the road yield to the right.

The concept, known as "shared space" traffic management, originated in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago. The premise of shared space is that people pay more attention when they're not distracted by "highway clutter," in the words of its founder, traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Shared space relies on environmental context--in this case, a landscape unlittered by signs--to influence human behavior. "Our behavior in a theatre or a church differs from a pub or in a football stadium as we understand the signs and signals through years of cultural immersion," Monderman told an interviewer in 2006. "Likewise if we see children playing in the street, we are more likely to slow down than if we saw a sign saying 'Danger, Children!'"

Put less diplomatically, shared space makes people confused. People who are confused slow down, calming traffic and reducing accidents. That's exactly how it has worked in Bohmte, where city officials plan to gradually expand the program to include other public spaces where pedestrians and cyclists share roads with drivers--roads, in other words, other than highways. The changes have had the added benefit of improving the experience of walking or cycling down the road, as a maze of unattractive signs and lane markers have given way to a single stretch of red-brick-colored pavement and as drivers have moderated their speeds.

Shared space may have been around for more than three decades, but it's just started to really catch on in recent years, with various versions of shared space programs in place or underway in nearly a dozen cities around the world.

The idea reminds me of another traffic management concept of Netherlands origin: the Woonerf, a street on which pedestrians and cyclists have priority over drivers. In the Netherlands, drivers are restricted to a "walking pace"; in Germany, the speed limit in similar zones is 7 mph.

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Probability that an approach like this will fly in any litigative society like US is low. If no sign is put next to a kids play ground and if there is an accident then municipality is likely to get sued.

It's the same reason why no none will ask TSA to not to harass passengers

No public official will risk that.

Posted by: Neeraj on 4 Jan 08

The shared space concept is already being implemented in some U.S. cities. In Montgomery, AL, the new Court Street Plaza replaces a complex, highly structured traffic scheme with a simplified and open shared-space plaza. Here's a short description and site plan, and see also pages 26-47 of this PowerPoint presentation.

A good resource to start exploring case studies and links is the Shared Space website.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 4 Jan 08

This reminds me of a recent art festival that took place during the Tour de France as it passed through Ashford, Kent in the UK. Ashford is in the process of reclaiming its historic downtown through a series of steps leading towards shared space. It's certainly not without controversy, but the festival placed a giant highlight on the issue. Check out to watch a film that was made on the festival and to browse through the local, national, and international press about the festival and the scheme.

Posted by: Justin Bathurst on 5 Jan 08

This has also been piloted in London, in the borough of Kensignton and Chelsea

In contrast to the usual UK high street, which is intensely over-regulated and health & safety concious, with pedestrians in particular being corralled in absurd fashion...

Posted by: Mikel Maron on 5 Jan 08

Erica, did you know that there are plans for a shared space up on Beacon Hill. Lyle Bicknell at the city is the person working on it with the north beacon hill folks. there are some others in the works too.

hey, and check out a website that some of us have been working on for people to share ideas about these kinds of places in the city:

Posted by: Brice Maryman on 5 Jan 08

It's always worked in India.

Posted by: Shayne Laughter on 5 Jan 08

Another great promotor of Shared Streets is the Australian, David Engwicht. He has a humerous approach to changing people's behavior on streets. Read some of his ideas on lesstraffic.

Sadly, I just read on the Shared Spaces website that Hans Monderman the inventor of the "woonerf" died last Monday, 7 January. Let's make sure that his ideas live on and get realised!

Posted by: Willemijn on 9 Jan 08



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