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"Shared Space" Traffic Management

This article was written by Erica Barnett in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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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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"Shared Space" Traffic Calming: Counterintuitive, But It Works is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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