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.”