Shared Spaces: Where the Streets Have No Rules

Shared Spaces: Where the Streets Have No Rules

Can removing traffic lights, signs, curbs, crosswalk striping and lane marking from roads make them safer and more efficient for all users?  That’s the theory behind the concept known as Shared Spaces, which was created by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. 

In the United States, roadways and intersections are built primarily for vehicular capacity and throughput.  Shared spaces, primarily utilized in Europe, allow motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians to interact equally – typically resulting in lower vehicular speeds and fewer accidents.  Monderman’s philosophy, in general, states that the more striping, signs, crosswalks and traffic control devices we put on the roadways, the more we are telling people what to do and removing personal decision-making and responsibility.  Monderman is quoted as saying, “A wide road with a lot of signs is saying, ‘Go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want. There’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings.  And that’s a very dangerous method.”

A Shared Space concept works best when all road users – motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians – are engaged in their surroundings and with one another through eye contact and observations.  People are encouraged to pay attention to each other and cooperate and move through a public space with a greater sense of community.  When people are interacting in such a way, speed limits are shown to decrease and accidents are fewer and less severe.  See below for an example of a Shared Space design in action.

The Shared Space concept is counterintuitive to everything we think about traffic engineering in the United States.  We place warning signs in advance of streets, intersections or conditions.  We provide signs telling people how to drive and we provide striping telling them where to drive, bike and walk.  Traffic signals tell vehicles and pedestrians when to go. However, some of these Shared Space ideas and concepts are being implemented around the country at various downtown plazas or busy city centers where motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians are interacting in closer proximity.  As city centers trend toward becoming more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, the Shared Space concept a great option to explore.  It’s also a natural fit near parks and recreations areas active with pedestrians and cyclists, as well as venues that host large crowds such as sporting stadiums and arenas. 

Of course, there are challenges to the Shared Space concept.  It’s important to note that Shared Spaces are not applicable to all types of roadways.  Removing all signs and striping from highways is not the right context.  Municipalities also must determine how to police such areas in terms of who has the right of way, etc.  For example, how do you determine who is as fault if there is an accident?  Also, simply removing all traffic signals without taking the surrounding land use into account is guaranteed to be problematic. The concept is shown to work best in village-type areas with shops and restaurants which already produce a fair amount of non-vehicular traffic.  Finally, several cities are adopting modified Share Space concepts in which some road striping is kept, while curbs and traffic signals are removed to create a smooth, continuous path for all travelers.

The next time you’re driving, take notice of all the signs and marking along your route.  Are all those signs, markings and control devices necessary or are there some clues from the roadway and environment that a driver can determine on their own? 

About Stevie Berryman

Website: www.fg-inc.net
Email address: sberryman@fg-inc.net

Stevie Berryman, PE is a Transportation Project Manager for Foresite Group’s Transportation Division in Peachtree Corners, GA. Stevie graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Master’s degree in Construction Management. In his spare time, Stevie is a coach for a youth travel baseball program.