Shared Space: The Case for a Little Healthy Chaos on City Streets

Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA: an American model for shared street space. Photo: M.Andersen.

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Dick van Veen is a Dutch architect and engineer at consultancy company Mobycon. This post originally appeared on the blog of The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Imagine yourself in a small town enjoying a coffee next to what looks like a public square. Except there are no curbs, no sidewalks, no traffic lights, no striping, not even a stop sign.

All the same, cyclists, parents with baby carriages, buses and cars — yes, cars — are going about their business guided by the same human courtesy that allows us to form lines and wait our turn at the grocery store checkout.

In the Netherlands, we call this approach to low-stress public space “shared space.”

Before you dismiss the concept as a utopian ideal, take a look at the video below from Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. It shows what can happen when the usual traffic devices are removed, as I described above. Dutch examples abound but this approach is also working in places with emerging cycling cultures like Exhibition Road in London, UK, or Opernplatz in Duisburg, Germany.

At Duisburg’s Opernplatz, cars travel the square at a slow pace, while pedestrians walk the full space, from Opera building to city park:

Photo: Dick van Veen

This former through route circling the inner city of the Frisian town of Sneek, The Netherlands, has been transformed to a series of attractive mixed use quays:

In the United States, Pittsburgh redesigned its historic Market Square in 2010 around European shared-space principles, and it’s working beautifully:

Order in chaos

Without clear sidewalks and streets, people are less certain. Here’s the basic principle so many Americans fail to understand: uncertainty can be a good thing.

Moving across these streets is not a matter of blind obedience to lights and signs. As a result, traffic slows down and people look more carefully. Eye contract is possible. Decisions are based on what is happening. The street’s design guides people in their behaviour and expectations and encourages them to think for themselves again.

The result is that traffic moves through urban space at an appropriately human pace that promotes accessibility for all users. A pace that is good for chatting with your neighbor and walking your dog, for flirting and daydreaming. At the same time, delivery, emergency and other vehicles can pass through without dominating the area and businesses flourish. Shared spaces complement private and public gathering spots: coffee shops, restaurants, parks, churches.

Shared space can be a great solution on streets that attract people – or would attract people, if they were better designed, such as downtown or neighborhood shopping streets. By making people directly responsible for the safety of their fellow citizens, shared space actually improves safety. Dutch research shows most locations retrofitted to shared space have lower travel speeds and fewer serious injuries.

This design in the medieval Dutch city of Naarden makes the most of a narrow street in an historical setting. Yellow paving stones keeps drivers in the centre of the road. Pedestrians take back the streets while cyclists and car drivers adjust their behavior. Photo: Dick van Veen.

Materials and design forms are fundamental in a shared space. For example, colored paving can guide the eye. A contrasting colored border can be used to narrow the street for drivers, which encourages slower driving. Drivers feel the texture of paving stones as they drive over, and the vibrations make them feel like they are going faster than they would feel driving on smooth asphalt.

Streets that feature trees and flowers, instead of traditional traffic control devices, makes users feel like they are in a neighborhood instead of a race car track. Landscaping items like statues or fountains not only create a sense of place, they also attract pedestrian activity and guide traffic around them. Old creeks and canals can be made visible again by removing the underground piping and bringing back narrow bridges.

Aspects like this make artificial traffic measures, like speed bumps or pinch points, unnecessary. At the same time, places can get back to their roots, by emphasizing the rivers and other natural features that encouraged people to settle on a particular spot in the first place.

The Dutch Approach

Delft, The Netherlands. Photo: Jonathan Maus. Used with permission.

So what does this mean for North America’s rapidly evolving bicycling culture? All the attention on protected bike lanes is certainly not wrong. Protected bike lanes are a great solution, especially on roads where there is a great difference between the speed and mass of cars and cyclists. Corridors that allow cyclists to travel safely from A to B are essential.

However, in certain places, shared space can be an even better solution than segregating modes, especially on streets where people want to linger because there are great shops and restaurants and museums. In these locations, safe cycle facilities would certainly help the traffic safety, but at the cost of having a great public space. Using the shared space concept, on the other hand, can actually provide an excellent cycling facility while also calming car traffic down to levels where the public can dominate. Mixing road users at a human pace means more people access and enliven the space.

It may surprise you that half the bike facilities in The Netherlands are not protected. We are often guided by the maxim, “mix when you can and separate when you must.” In addition to protected bike lanes, we rely on traffic calming to safely mix motorized and nonmotorized traffic. In the average built-up part of Dutch cities, it is estimated that roughly 85 percent of all streets have speed limits of 20 mph (30 kilometers), and even lower in woonerfs or home zones.

At this shopping street in Dedemsvaart, The Netherlands, pedestrians and cyclists move from shop to shop, while car traffic slowly creeps along the street. Parking near shops stays possible while the human – non car – scale in the street is dominant. Photo: Dick van Veen.

Shared space works because people are more aware of what is going on around them, and act accordingly. Low speed limits are also essential, but North American cities working to integrate bikes and negate conflict over who owns the street should remember that social rules can sometimes be even more effective than traffic rules. Better cycling infrastructure should always go hand in hand with placemaking. Absolutely keep building protected bike lanes, but expand the tools at your disposal and consider shared space as a solution, too.

Dick van Veen is a Dutch architect and engineer at consultancy company Mobycon with experience retrofitting streets, developing Shared Space projects and designing bike facilities and parking in Europe and North America.

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

33 thoughts on Shared Space: The Case for a Little Healthy Chaos on City Streets

  1. San Francisco moved towards this approach (a little) with the recent redesign of Jefferson Street in Fisherman’s Wharf. I’d like to see more of it, e.g., in the bustling area of Union Square, where transit and pedestrian traffic dwarfs auto traffic.

  2. Where I live it’s much worse, bike lanes are only separated by paint, end everywhere if they exist at all, and there are “share the road” signs on 40MPH roads where there are no bike lanes. I tried to tell the City you can’t share the road at 40 MPH and they are indifferent. It’s ridiculous.

  3. America is packed full of shared space. Especially the suburb. Theyre called surface parking lots. Ever been by a Walmart? Sure, its safe….but does it work? Cars take up the middle, and people hurry to the sides.

  4. Parking lots are indeed shared space. I think they’d benefit from the textured paving stones in the examples above which encourages people to drive slower, as do parking lots with narrower aisles than what your find in a big box parking lot.

  5. I’ve wondered about this comparison too. I think the differences are two-fold…1) the surface treatments in a parking lot are all car-oriented – asphalt and pavement markings. Shared spaces use treatments that are more like pedestrian plazas. 2) Drivers are hunting for parking spaces and are focused primarily on that task. So they are distracted from the main task of shared spaces which is to get through carefully and without causing a ruckus or crash.

  6. Almost any intersection in SF’s North Beach could do with this kind of treatment, and a great deal of the smaller streets and alleyways could be made more friendly as well.

    Unfortunately, DPW will complain about how difficult and expensive it is to maintain alternate paving and that will be the end of it.

  7. A good shared space is not really defined by the amount of sharing of different traffic modes, but by the amount of ‘people space’ which replaces ‘traffic space’. Quite abstract, I know, but it means that social interaction is strongly encouraged by good and active surroundings. A parking lot is thus terrible shared space, while a main street with shops, or a neighborhood with dwellings can be a good place.

  8. There is a frequent misconception about shared spaces and shared streets in Netherlands. They are never meant to be used on major routes for any sort of traffic, cycling or road-vehicular. Shared space is used in Netherlands in two specific situations:

    1- local streets on residential areas that see little traffic or any form, just giving access to local residents, on car, foot, bike.

    2- old core town areas that see little road traffic, but with very narrow streets that can’t accommodate segregated bike paths.

    Else, nobody builds as much physically segregated bike and pedestrian infrastructure as the Dutch. And this is what goes missing from the transplantation ideas I often read on blogs and even more serious proposals.

    So I cringe when I see proposals like “let’s turn Manhattan like that”. It doesn’t work that way. That would be make New York like and Indian chaotic city, a third world place.

  9. We should consider shared spaces in locations where car access is vital, but why are we so averse to carfree spaces? When we have the opportunity to create a nice, quiet shopping street, why are we so eager to let people drive noisy stinky disruptive cars through it? What useful thing are the cars accomplishing in the above examples? Why can’t they drive around the shared space instead of through it, or park on the outskirts?

    I don’t know how it works in Europe, but here in the US we’re absolutely starved for pedestrian-only streets. On the rare occasions that one is created, people flock to them in droves and rents skyrocket. It’s so pleasant to be able to sit outside at a cafe without hearing and smelling cars a few feet away, or to be able to stop in the middle of the street to talk to a friend without having to worry about whether you’re blocking cars from going by.

    Street designers seem to be asking themselves, “How can I make it less unpleasant for pedestrians to interact with cars on this street”?, when what they should be asking themselves is “Is there a need for us to have cars on this street at all?”

  10. Good idea. Maybe designate a section of Geary or Post as Muni-Only access so the Bus Lines can still service this area.

  11. People need to understand that you cannot pass through shared space quickly. The only way these places work is if everyone slows down. You cannot rush through for any reason whatever, no matter what your chosen mode.

    Unfortunately, in the very few shared spaces we have in Vancouver BC, too many users do not understand this very simple, but fundamental, rule.

  12. When people say “let’s do this in Manhattan” I assume they’re talking about already-narrow streets like Water and Front (already restricted to pedestrians only on certain blocks) or alleys, not about turning FDR Drive into a Shared Space.

    You’re right, though, that too often people miss the point about the necessity of physical segregation above certain thresholds. Slapping a sharrow on a boulevard and posting “Share The Road” signs is unacceptable.

    ShINO (Shared In Name Only) Burbank Blvd in North Hollywood, CA
    What the above *should* look like (Rosemead Blvd in Temple City, CA)

    Shared-Space alleys in SF

  13. The basics of european approach is in hierarchial circles:

    1st Circle: A car-free pedestrian area.
    – Livery is time- and access-limited.
    – No parking for anybody.
    – Only rescue/police service and garbage service enter freely.
    – A public parking garage is somewhere on the outskirts of ped. area.
    – If ped.area is really large then some miniature public transport is advised (mini mini bus);
    – some cities allow cycling while yielding to peds.

    2nd Circle: still a carfree ped.area as above but with running transit (bus, tram, taxi) and definitively with cycling.
    – Exceptions to the rule may include drivethrough for residents of that small area or hotel guests.
    – Still NO parking in the street. Speed limit of 15-30kmh (10-20mph).

    3rd Circle: 30kmh (20mph) areas that encircle the pedestrian areas and all (pre14) schools.
    – All forms of transport allowed.
    – you are expected to be alert of free running children;
    – pedestrians segregated from other traffic
    – On street parking allowed and charged according to the distance toward the city core. Residents get yearly discounts, but 2nd parking permit per household is more expensive
    – speed is regulated with narrownes of car lanes, speed bumps, “kidney” crosswalk extensions, meandering lanes etc
    – the street network designed for fast AtoB cycling and complicating the route for cars.

    4th Circle:
    – the general city speed limit is 50kmh. Pedestrian and cycling infra is segregated;
    – some major roads’ speed limit is up to 70 or 80, but this is already in the scale of highways with strict segregation of users and emphasis on safety. These are just the very wide arteries. The rest of the urban tissue is covered with 30kmh zone.

  14. Please stop refering to Exhibition Rd as a good example of any sort. The space is sliced in 4 parts: two pedestrian walkways, parking spots and the road while all rendered with overall patern. There is no incentive for drivers to slow down, so they just bully their way with min 30mph.
    The lesson is:
    1. limit the access to cars
    2. Physically discourage the speed (bumps, meandering, narrowing the car lane etc. )
    3. The “unexpected anarchic selfregulating surface” is overrated without limiting access.

  15. We experimented with that in the eighties and it destroyed business on the streets it was tried on. An example is Grand Rapids Monroe Center. It was closed to vehicle traffic and business died. Then they put in a very narrow travel lane, landscaping and parking, now it has almost no vacancy. This has been repeated with nearly the same results in Lansing, Michigan and other cities. The street itself acts like a shared space because jay walking is not against the rules but encouraged and traffic never drives faster than 10 mph.

  16. As it says in the article “Despite this criticism, accident numbers have actually gone down in the area since it was revamped in 2011.”

  17. The “Share the Road” signs need to go away. They actually worsen the situation because drivers have the expectation that “sharing” means bikes stay out of their way.

  18. A road carrying that high of a volume of vehicular traffic is not a ‘shared space’. Cars still dominate, but at a slower speed than before. Things might improve in the future since a bypass road is in the works. However, it has unfortunately resulted in an incorrect perception of the ‘shared space’ concept that you have exhibited here: if it works there, it can work anywhere! It’s not working here because cars are still dominating. Getting rid of lanes and making wider sidewalks doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: too many cars/trucks trying to get through an area at once.

  19. I agree with Rhi. Even in The Netherlands, the ‘shared space’ concept is not wildly popular and quite a few have had delineation creep after the fact. If the Dutch are not sold on it, there’s no way to expect much good to come out of implementations in the Anglophone world where we’re afraid to address the real issue: too. many. cars.

  20. From my Dutch perspective, these situations in SF actually look like very well designed traffic calmed streets. Suited for lower speeds and encouraging people to make use of the streets again. But its still far from a woonerf. In that, you generally have to let go of the fixed idea of a ‘road for cars’ and design something than they can ride over, without getting in terms like road – sidewalk. That can be a pretty nice challenge 😀

  21. Ik ben het met je eens 🙂

    SF has yet to actually implement a real woonerf. Though a few stretches come close to ditching concepts like “sidewalk,” such as in the attached image (Hotaling Pl at Washington St in the “neitherhood” between the Financial District, Jackson Square and North Beach). In the Street View you can even see pedestrians in the distance walking freely in the middle of the space, instinctively realizing it’s a shared-space for everyone:

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