How to Reimagine Our Streets Around the Concept of Shared Space

CNU22 featured speakers from all over the world, from Bogotá to Toronto to Brighton. One plenary speaker from Bristol moved the audience with an idea called Shared Space that was beautifully simple and innovative, yet entirely new to most of the crowd.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a British urban designer, “recovering” architect and self-taught in the area of transportation planning. His presentation focused on explaining Shared Space as an urban design technique that can alleviate the frequently problematic interface between pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles and the public realm.

As the name would suggest, Shared Space advances the idea that streets themselves can be a seamless part of public space that is shared by all users. The method came from the Netherlands, where Hamilton-Baillie studied under transportation engineer Hans Monderman and Joost Váhl, who developed the Dutch woonerfs where pedestrians and cyclists have priority on roadways.

The concept also integrates a thoughtful assessment of human psychology as it relates to driving. “It’s essential to understand the changing view of the nature of risk,” Hamilton-Baillie explained. “Hazards keep us aware of our environment and allow us to adapt our behavior.”

This seems counter-intuitive, but it was effectively explained through an example of two cities in the Tel Aviv region of Israel.

Bnei-Brak, located east of Tel Aviv, is composed of largely low-income, ultra-conservative Jews. Ramat-Gan, also located east of Tel Aviv, is home to a more moderate, middle-income Jewish population. Hamilton-Baillie explained that the people of Bnei-Brak are known throughout the region as being unruly pedestrians. Adults and children cross streets with disregard for traffic. Locals know that they must be vigilant when driving there.

Conversely, the residents of Ramat-Gan respect pedestrian rules, crosswalks, and jaywalk less frequently. Drivers are more at ease in Ramat-Gan.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, there is a higher instance of pedestrian fatality in Ramat-Gan. Drivers in Bnei-Brak tend to cautiously drive at lower speeds, aware that there is a greater risk of a pedestrian appearing in the road. One can see in this example that increased risk makes for more attentive drivers.

Shared Space utilizes risk in the form of mixing cyclists, pedestrians and motorists on streets, and relies on the idea that removing lines and signaling allows for social protocols to take over more strongly than signs. This, Hamilton-Baillie said, is called “friction”, or natural cues that guide a driver’s speed. There is already an increasing awareness in North America that things like narrow streets, street trees and buildings built to the right-of-way naturally induce drivers to reduce speed without a speed-limit.

One might think that this friction would create delays, but evidence from project implementation has found the opposite, as did Hans Monderman’s projects in the Netherlands. And post-project evaluations, like in Poynton, UK, have confirmed the efficacy of Shared Space designs.

Poynton is a city southeast of Manchester. It is a throughway for traffic between the two larger cities of Macclesfield and Stockport. In this instance, vehicles were found to be passing on the main thoroughfare at a rate of 26,000 per day, many of which were trucks. The initial approach to relieve congestion was the construction of additional lanes of traffic.

Shared Space, however, was applied as part of a regeneration scheme in Poynton. The first task for Hamilton-Baillie’s consultancy was to “remove every trace of traffic engineering.”

Three lanes of cars were reduced to one, signaling was removed, additional on-street parking was introduced, and sidewalks were widened. There was increased edge friction through vertical elements within the driver’s line of vision.

Even after the removal of two lanes and signals, traffic flow stayed the same and pedestrian traffic increased five-fold. Before the project, 16 of 32 shops in town were boarded up; but within one to two years after project completion, all shop spaces in the business district were occupied.

Streets were able to concurrently be part of Poynton public space and serve through traffic – the change in aesthetics was remarkable.

It is certain that freight and car movement is critical to the healthy functioning of any economy. This fact is not contested. But since civilizations started building cities, they have been venues for people to roam – sometimes at odds with our economic necessity to move people and goods through them quickly.

Fast big things and slow small things do not mix well.

Shared Space demonstrates that these seemingly incompatible users actually function better when mixed within the city fabric – cars move more fluidly when drivers are forced to react to their surroundings instead of their actions being dictated to them. People are safer, too.

The outcome is that streets become a different kind of public space, where mobility means interacting with one’s surroundings.

When asked if he thought famously impatient North American drivers could adapt to the concept, he paused for a moment and said, “Everywhere Shared Space has been applied, I was told that the drivers in the locale couldn’t adapt. In every case they did.”

  • John Schneider

    Terrific piece, Jocelyn. My guess is that we could do this right now on some blocks in the Banks, in Over-the-Rhine, and on Short Vine. UC is essentially doing this on some of its campus drives, though without the commerical benefit.

  • The new streetscape on Short Vine is taking a small step in this direction. The street and sidewalks will be at the same level, giving the street a very different feel and making it easy to close off for street festivals.

    • I am very interested to see how the final product turns out on Short Vine.

  • charles ross

    I love this stuff – a book I read about similar things, Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt has a lot of coverage of this type of thing, especially with the Dutch guys, around traffic calming.. A simple case in point is roundabouts. Americans distrust roundabouts, but they promote smooth traffic and are much more efficient than stop intersections. Mythbusters took this proposal on, a rather expensive test, and I think the roundabout beat the 4-way stop handily. That’s just on efficiency – I bet they win on safety as well – fewer T-bone collisions.

  • EDG

    26,000 veh/day is pretty substantial. It’s one thing to pedestrianize Short Vine, UC or Court St with pavers, but it will be a huge additional leap for engineers to actually do something on a comparably busy street like Delta Ave through Columbia Tusc.

    • charles ross

      Not to mention Delta/Linwood Mt Lookout square. I think it’s redefined the “lookout” in Mt Lookout.

    • Mark Samaan

      EDG, I can see what you’re saying, but I think the author was careful to point out that this WAS developed by engineers. Also, it looks like the example of Poynton was used to illustrate that it’s effective where traffic flow is as high as 26,000/day. It’s easy to forget traffic lights cause their own delays, whereas Shared Space creates more fluid motion, just at slower speeds. Apparently, engineers find fewer “queues” with Shared Space on busy roads.

  • Mark Christol

    I have a sister who completely panics when she hits a circle or roundabout. It’s a game of chance to see what direction you wind up going after she enters one.

  • Brian Boland

    I love the idea of reducing lanes instead of increasing them, and the idea that buildings close to the road act as natural inhibitors of speed. But I’m not sure of how this ‘shared space’ idea will work. IMO, you need to commit to people over cars. Maybe I just need to learn more about it and how it works in the Netherlands. (Of course, the Dutch also brought us Mees van der Rohe and the soul-less glass skyscraper) 🙁

  • Sandro Wolfe

    Hans Moderman was a pioneer. Bold approach but working, don’t you think?

    if we were all more cautious in our daily commute, we really do not need thousands of signs telling this to us…

  • Sandro Wolfe

    Hans Moderman is a pioneer. Why do we need street signs to be more careful, drive slower ? if a natural street/space environment is shared equally among drivers, cyclists, pedestrians – we all have to slow down and watch out :
    don’t you think ??