Here’s a revolutionary idea: what if walking on the street was safer than walking on the sidewalk?
That’s the hypothesis of a new movement that started in Europe and may be making its way state side. It’s called “Shared Spaces,” and it proposes to make streets safer by eliminating barriers between pedestrian and auto traffic.
In the researcher’s own words “Shared space is a design approach that seeks to change the way streets operate by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles, primarily through lower speeds and encouraging drivers to behave more accommodatingly towards pedestrians.”
If nothing else, the idea is fairly counterintuitive. Sidewalks are designed to keep pedestrians safe by separating them from vehicles. But sidewalks also may encourage dangerous driving, and certainly encourage drivers to drive at high speeds as there is no apparent danger of hitting a pedestrian in the street. Shared Spaces operates on the supposition that the delineation of space and responsibilities is responsible for accidents involving pedestrians because the two groups are operating under different rules. When those two sets of rules collide, people get hurt.
Roads in England have experimented with Shared Spaces theory by deleting curbs and blurring the lines between walkways and car roads. The result, according to research from the British Department for Transport, is that cars slow down significantly, decreasing the likelihood of serious accidents with pedestrians.
Of course, you can’t just eliminate curbs and sidewalks and expect everything to be hunky dory. Plenty of other design measures, like removing traffic signs to deemphasize vehicle supremacy, are important to implement in conjunction with shared space principles.
Overall the idea is to slow drivers down to around 15mph, or about the same speed as in many school zones, and to encourage pedestrians and bicyclists to use the street as a walkway, yielding to vehicles as they slowly make their way through.
Advocates argue that this is an important step for quality of life and safety in cities and towns. But one can imagine the chaos that could ensue if pedestrians were all the sudden sharing the road with drivers on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. But the results might not be so bad. Drivers would likely find alternative routes, freeing up the space for the many pedestrians who use public transportation or commute by foot through the area.
Certainly, Shared Spaces is a practice that has not yet been perfected, especially when it comes to protecting the disabled and blind. These were the users who most consistently felt more comfortable with curbs to separate auto traffic from pedestrians.
But flaws and all, it’s heartening to see new theories on how to make cities and roads more livable gaining traction around the world. It’s easy to say, “this is not how we do things” and fail to challenge existing models. Who knows, there may yet be a better idea than Shared Spaces theory on the horizon, but thinking progressively about how we design the places in which we live is a necessity that is too often ignored. Investigating somewhat radical thinking with research and data is the best way to confirm whether the policies a city currently pursues are best for its people.
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