COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Where the Sidewalk Doesn't End: What Shared Space has to Share

Gary Toth
Aug 16, 2009
Jan 26, 2018
Shared Space in the Netherlands

The second in a series of groundbreaking reflections from the travels of a 34-year veteran Traffic Engineer from the New Jersey Department of Transportation.  Gary Toth, who had previously never been to Europe, spent a week touring the Netherlands with fellow PPSers Fred Kent and Kathy Madden.  Their mission was to learn more about the Dutch approach to Sustainable Safety, bikeped accommodations and community-based transportation to support our Building Community through Transportation campaign.

Below is what they learned about the emerging concept of Shared Space, from seeing it first-hand and spending time with Willem Foorthuis and Wiebe Wieling of the Shared Space Institute.

What is a Shared Space? Shared Space is more a way of thinking than it is a design concept.   It is most readily recognized as a street space where all traffic control devices such as signals and stop signs, all markings such as crosswalks, and all signing have been removed.  Curbing is removed to blur the lines between sidewalks and motorized travel way.  The philosophy is that absence of all of those features forces all users of the space -- from pedestrians to drivers -- to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation.

This is all premised on the idea that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to the different modes, and in doing so create a false sense of security to each user leading them to behave as if they have no responsibility to look out for other users in “their” space.  This obviously works best for operators of motor vehicles, who are sitting within the protection of a ton and a half of steel.

How did it originate? Shared Space was pioneered by the late Dutch traffic engineer and PPS friend Hans Monderman.   Monderman spent the early part of his career as a “traditional” traffic engineer.   As his experience grew, he became concerned that many of the engineering “improvements” that government was making in the interest of safety actually made some road segments more dangerous.  He observed that this was particularly true in urbanized areas, from villages to cities.   These were the areas that brought high volumes of pedestrians and bicyclists into conflict with cars and trucks.  In urban areas, the allocation of space is heavily regulated by signing, traffic lights, crosswalks, sidewalks, etc, all of which create the sense for each user that the space is their own and they can behave as they choose therein.   Responsibility for one’s own behavior was eroded; users simply had to stay within the limits prescribed by speed limits, white stripes and red or green lights. Monderman is quoted as saying: "We're losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior ...The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people's sense of personal responsibility dwindles."

Monderman developed a simple, if counterintuitive solution.  If he removed the traditional cacophony of signing, striping, and traffic lights, people would stop looking at signs and start looking at each other.   Particularly with respect to drivers, this returned them to the mindset of a fellow citizen, inducing them to regain the manners that they possess when crossing paths with a fellow pedestrian while passing through a corridor at home or at work.   One nods to the other, “go ahead;” they smile at each other and move on their respective ways.   On our roads, motorists have been groomed to feel as if they have absolute priority and there is no need to respect the passage of pedestrians or bikers, at least until the traffic light turns red.

This concept is often misunderstood in American traffic engineering circles.   Monderman has occasionally been vilified in the US as “the Dutch nut who wants to remove all signs, curbs and traffic signals on roads.”   Early on, he was thought to be a dangerous fool by his fellow engineers in the Netherlands.   Thanks to his remarkable persistence and professionalism, he was able to overcome ingrained views on road safety engineering on arterials and streets in urban areas.

A Balanced transportation system Monderman believed firmly that in order for Shared Spaces to work, they needed to be part of a system that consists of well-organized, well-regulated highway systems.   He was known to say, “The slow network needs the fast network to work.”   We heard the same from Willem Foorthuis of the Shared Space Institute while touring the Haren Shared Space (photos below).   When I asked Willem whether government has been receiving pushback from motorists, he answered, “No. Folks traveling longer distances from village to village have ample options to exit the road before reaching the Shared Space, and use the parallel high speed through road.  It is what they would have likely done anyway, Shared Space or not.”

Monderman also made no claim that his Shared Space principles would apply universally.   Like any good traffic engineer, he advocated an “engineering” study of a particular site to determine what would work best.

The role of land use in creating a successful Shared Space All of the Shared Spaces that Monderman – or the Shared Space Institute (the organization that he helped to create) – have helped organize have been in “urbanized” areas.    Like many American traffic engineers, Monderman and the Shared Space Institute believe that the adjacent land use – the relationship of the buildings to the street, the presence of shops and other activities, etc -- significantly influences motorists behavior.   “If you want people to behave like they are in a village, then build a village,” he was often heard saying.

The two photos at right from Ejby in Denmark demonstrate the effect of land use on the effectiveness of shared space.

1. A Shared Space was created on both sides of a regional rail line that has bisected the town in an attempt to counteract the bisecting effect.  This photo is from the least successful of the two spaces, which doesn’t have the land use to support the Shared Space concept.  As a result, when we were at the site, cars continued to speed through this space with little regard for pedestrians:

2. The next picture is from the western side of the tracks in Ejby.  Here it can be seen that a village setting has been created and the site worked more effectively:

The politics of Shared Space Shared Space also has a political dimension to it. We in America think we have a monopoly on politics and resistance to new ideas, but public skepticism about Shared Spaces runs high in Europe as well.   When we were in Haren, where one of the most successful Shared Spaces to date has been created, Mayor M. Boumans lamented that he had to compromise his vision for a pure shared space in order to get the townspeople to buy in.   Seniors, skeptical that about being able to cross anywhere they choose, persisted in asking for a striped crosswalk.  Shopowners, worried about cars parking too close to their shops, lobbied for a physical measure to limit how close cars could get to the shops.  Mayor Boumans decided that he would need to settle for a very good Shared Space that he could build during his term, rather than continue to fight for a perfect Shared Space that might only exist in his imagination if he didn’t yield.  In the photos below, one can see how bike racks were strategically located to organize where cars could park:

Willem Foorthuis, Director of Research and Development for the Shared Space Institute, told us that creation of Shared Space is a political process, not an engineering process.   As stated in the Institute’s book entitled From Project to Process, A Task for Everybody: “Often in Spatial Design projects, the role of politics is limited to approving plans, but in a Shared Space process, the politicians are expected to have a coherent view of man and society from the outset and have to make a definite choice about what level of participation is desired.”

In essence, creation of a Shared Space requires not only removing physical barriers, demarcations and signs from the space itself, but from the planning process as well.   It requires champions who understand how to collaborate across many disciplines to achieve buy in, and the persistence to push on in spite of the naysayers.    In many ways, the process is similar to the PPS Placemaking Process.  In the words of PPS Founder and President Fred Kent, “At first, they will say it can’t be done, and then, you do it!”

Will Shared Space work in the US? It is perfectly clear that from the engineering perspective, there is no reason why successful Shared Spaces cannot be created in America. From 2004 – 2008, seven European partners from five countries have created pilot projects.   Most have successfully enhanced the district where they were located.  Adjacent land use is a bigger key to success than engineering.    When created in village settings, where speeds are naturally low anyway, the pilot Shared Spaces were working spectacularly well.   When inserted into non-village settings, the sought after panacea for speeding failed.

In Drachten, the Netherlands, a Shared Space has resulted in such a sense of security that I was able to sit in a chair in the middle of the intersection, with little fear and, I might add little harassment from motorists!

Gary Toth safely sits in the middle of a Shared Space

There are places in the US where Shared Space concepts have already been implemented with some measure of success. See below:

Cambridge, Massachusetts near Harvard Square
West Palm Beach, Florida
Davis Street, Portland, Oregon

While each of these depart somewhat from the true principles of Shared Space, they demonstrate that in the right places, we can create Shared Spaces in the US. How do Shared Spaces differ from Woonerfs? Woonerfs are places where pedestrians are given priority over cars.   In Shared Spaces all modes are considered equal.

Sharing the Road

Shared Space offers a basis for addressing safety issues, for overcoming community severance, for tackling congestion and for enhancing economic vitality in streets and public spaces. This can be accomplished if a street that passes through a place is thought of not only as a part of that place, but is designed and managed to allow traffic to be fully integrated with other human activity, not separated from it.

However, Shared Space implies more than simple design techniques. It also requires an innovative approach to the process of planning, designing and decision-making. New structures for municipal organization and public involvement are the result.

One benefit of Shared Space is that it empowers individuals to take responsibility for their own behavior.    The current preponderance of road rules and markings strip motorists of the ability to be considerate.  The mayor of Bohmte, Germany, a town implementing such a scheme, is quoted as saying, "We don't want the cars alone to have precedence; we want to try and make the area pleasant for everybody."

The Shared Space philosophy is not anticar.   It acknowledges that there is a role for the larger-meshed fast network, which is needed to support the fine-meshed slow network. The key point is that on the slow network motor traffic is welcomed as a guest, but has to adapt to certain social norms of behavior. The layout of the road must make this clear.

Studies completed by Monderman reveal substantial reductions in crashes, particularly serious crashes and fatalities in Shared Spaces.   This occurs because the perception of risk to oneself and to others causes drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to be more alert and take fewer liberties.   This leads to more eye contact, and more measured decision-making which ultimately leads to less accidents.

Next Steps for Learning and Advancing Shared Space In our time with the Shared Space Institute, we agreed upon several principles and areas of further action:

  • Design Standards are not enough as even if you follow all of them, it doesn’t guarantee that the space will work as a place.
  • We need to focus more on learning how places are created and learning from the projects that have been implemented in terms of their success or failure in creating a place and why or why not.
  • There is a need for real scientific research that shows the value of Streets as Places/Shared Spaces in order to give credibility to the ideas which may be perceived as intuitive. But this research needs to be “action research” and we need to develop methods for evaluating spaces that add to just establishing standards.  We need to do economic research for land use and also for the CROW Road Standards. Data that is needed relates to:noise, fuel used, dust, economic impact and safety.
  • Shared Space Insitute is currently doing research on blind people’s use of shared space (with members of an institution for the blind and its members) and have data on this already.
  • Shared space is not a transportation concept, it is a political concept and placemaking is the process to accomplish it politically. They say that with Shared space, the road is just a part of the space.
  • With Shared Spaces and Placemaking, there must be short term experiments!

Our friends at London's CABE Space are also working to introduce shared space there.

Gary Toth
Gary Toth
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