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Shared Space

The concept of building shared space within the public realm is a radical one here in the United States, where automobiles are not only given priority, but completely dominate most public spaces. With the financial insolvency inherent in our current approach becoming more and more apparent each day, there is a need to study alternatives. The shared space model -- while a dramatic departure from the status quo -- can help us build Strong Towns while making our urban neighborhoods safer in the process.

Strong Towns is proud to support a new transportation-focused blog here in Minnesota called Streets.MN. The site is a collaboration among a number of local transportation enthusiasts. Content is updated frequently and can be access on the Streets.MN site as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Today's Strong Towns post is being run concurrently on the Streets.MN site. I intend to be a regular contributor in support of the effort.

This year at Strong Towns we have focused on a comparison between the financial productivity of the traditional neighborhood pattern and the post-WW II development pattern of the Suburban Experiment. Our case study has been a three block area in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, where the city has provided a 26-year Tax Increment Financing (TIF) package to a fast food restaurant that, despite being brand new and built in full conformance with the local suburban codes, has a total value 41% less than an adjacent block of the same size that has retained -- in a much deteriorated state -- the traditional development pattern.

The traditional development pattern is more financially productive and more resilient. So how do we, at this point in the process, embrace the historic DNA of our urban centers and start to reverse the decline? The next posts in this series will seek to answer that question starting today with perhaps the most difficult change we need to make; the orientation of our highways as they pass through urban neighborhoods.

The single piece of public infrastructure doing the most damage to the value of the neighborhood we are studying is the state highway. Its design is sucking the value out of the entire place. Like most highways, the design through this urban neighborhood is indistinguishable from the design used on the open road outside of town. This helps the engineers at the DOT to theoretically meet their mandate -- move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible -- but does little to create a platform for creating, let alone retaining, real financial value.

The STROAD design -- a street/road hybrid -- is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.

When a highway enters an urban area, it needs to adopt an urban geometry. That means narrower lanes, slower speeds and more awareness of the need to share space. The concept of "sharing space" is so foreign to Americans that it is worth deeper explanation. We're not talking about having a place for everything -- aka, Complete Streets -- or even having everything in its place -- aka, Complete Roads -- but that the concept of "priority" needs to be abolished in favor of an approach where all space is shared amongst transportation options.

Priority is what keeps you waiting at a traffic signal. It is what makes pedestrians run across the street when the light is about to change, even when they are in the crosswalk. Priority is what keeps drivers from being prosecuted when they run into a cyclist. It is one of the physical mechanisms that foments the mental reaction of road rage.

The concept of priority is the opposite of shared space. With priority, traffic devices, controls and regulations are used to designate who has domination of the public realm at any particular time. Generally, automobile through traffic is given the priority. When a car is forced to stop at a signal, pedestrians and traffic moving in a perpendicular direction can be given priority while the through traffic waits. Bikes are sometimes given priority in designated lanes. Sometimes cyclists ride within the traffic stream and theoretically have the same priority as an automobile, although too frequently that right is not recognized by the driver.

The connection to road rage is simple; when the system gives you priority, the public realm belongs to you. This gives drivers a feeling of entitlement and of domination -- they waited their turn and now the road is theirs. Add the relative anonymity of being in an automobile to the equation, and it is not difficult to see why we have road rage problems in the United States. In a priority system such as ours, anyone that fails to properly signal their turn, drives a little too slow or cuts into traffic is taking away the right of the driver with priority to access and fully utilize the public realm.

And priority is dangerous too. When we give a driver priority, we tell them that it is okay to go. The system of priority is supposed to make the public realm safe for the driver who has been given control over it. While we talk about defensive driving, we are conditioned to expect normal, routine conditions. In a system of priority, we are not automatically looking out for the accident-causing exception to the rule.

Most Americans that read what is going to come next in this post will find it bizarre. That is not because it is crazy but because we are so conditioned to believe that a system that gives priority for using the public realm is both efficient and fair. It is neither.

In an urban area -- and don't confuse what I am going to write here with a suburban road situation -- in an urban area, remove the traffic signals, the excessive (and generally ignored) signage, the stops signs, the hard elevated curb that separates pedestrians space from automobile space and the crosswalks. Reconfigure the public realm to give it an intuitive sense of complexity. What happens? Chaos? We may be inclined to believe so, but no.

What happens is shared space. I'll give you an American example where this works so you can picture the mechanism. Say you are attending a concert or a sporting event where the overflow parking is in a field or some type of area where the stalls and driving lanes are not well defined. When the event is over, people (some of whom may be under the influence of adult beverages) are walking around this undefined space at the same time that cars (sometimes driven by those also under the influence of adult beverages) are trying to navigate the same space. Despite the chaos, nobody is run over and people don't die in this environment. Why? Because it is a shared space.

In a shared space, drivers expect pedestrians and look out for them. Pedestrians expect cars to be there and do likewise. Instead of the aggressive stop and go of a priority system, you have flow. Everything flows naturally and the public realm is shared amongst all traffic options. Cars, bikes, pedestrians, people with baby strollers, people in wheelchairs, etc... They all are equally accommodated.

Counterintuitive as it may sound to the American used to the priority system, share space works because the perception of risk makes people more alert, more accommodating and more cautious.

A shared space approach may mean that cars will need to be driven at 10 or 15 mph, but before you think that the result is tremendous delay, understand that they are not stopping at lights or other places where priority would make someone wait. The continuous flow combined with the ability to intelligently access the entire neighborhood grid system (as opposed to the hierarchical system that funnels all traffic to collectors and then to arterials) not only increases the total capacity of the system but provide drivers with multiple, viable options for each trip.

Getting back to our three block case study, once we slow the cars and convert the STROAD to a street, we will provide for a more complex environment that will favor the traditional development pattern. People will be able to park on the street without worrying about getting their door sheared off. People will be able to walk without a car traveling 45+ mph mere feet away. Bikers from the surrounding neighborhoods can return. Some shade trees can be provided in the recaptured area to add even more value.

Now here's the punch line to this entire concept: to do everything I've described here and convert this STROAD to a productive, shared-space environment would cost a fraction of what our current priority-based system costs to build and maintain.

Back in 2004, this quote appeared in an article in Wired magazine appropriately called Roads Gone Wild:

The old ways of traffic engineering - build it bigger, wider, faster - aren't going to disappear overnight. But one look at West Palm Beach suggests an evolution is under way. When the city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town's main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured. "In West Palm, people were just fed up with the way things were, and sometimes, that's what it takes," says Lockwood, the town's former transportation manager. "What we really need is a complete paradigm shift in traffic engineering and city planning to break away from the conventional ideas that have got us in this mess."

An urban street that costs less to build and maintain, attracts more private sector investment, creates a greater, more resilient tax base than the standard approach, and is safer too. Those are the type of advantages that come from building a Strong Town.


Strong Towns - We're a lot like James Howard Kunstler except you can share us with your mom. Check out our podcast on iTunes and, while you're there, give us a rating. If you listen to our podcast, have already given us a rating and would like to do us another favor, go to our donations page and become a supporter of the podcast. If you've done that, then sync up, put in your ear buds, tune in and zone out to our latest podcast; an interview with Duncan Crary of the Kunstlercast.

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Reader Comments (12)

Every post is better than the last! My 100-year-old town, an inner-ring-suburb of Philadelphia, is bisected by a state road. The location of this particular road dates back to before the Revolutionary War, so it's no surprise that many old towns are located along it. It's now a four-lane state "highway" (PA Rt 611) but with a 25-mph speed limit imposed by our municipality and others nearby. Several years ago, it was suggested that the lanes be redrawn to create one lane of thru traffic in each direction with a center turn lane, since cars attempting left turns create long backups and encourage dangerous and sudden lane-changing maneuvers. The general response from the public was "Reduce the number of lanes? That would be crazy!" Cars have clearly been given priority here, as you describe. Perhaps this will change with time.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne B

Do you feel that building strong towns is going to be more reactive or proactive?

My general consensus for the United States is an urban planning and design policy forced to change by reacting to global economic and political reasons. However, I do think that we would all be better off with a proactive approach, and the conversation has to start somewhere. Thank you for providing a jumping off point.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael N.

The expense angle is something that can resonate well with people. Are there any cost comparisons out there? It might be tough to put together for an entire corridor, but maybe certain elements. Say how much does it cost to install, power, and maintain a typical traffic signal at an intersection? Even with modern low-power LEDs, when you add up all the power from all the traffic signals, ped signals, loop and camera detectors, and the controller, it's still a good 500 watts running 24/7/365. That's equivalent to running a small window air conditioner constantly all year, costing over $400 in electricity alone.

There's also the initial installation of poles and their concrete foundations, electric wiring, cutting in loops, creating underground chases, plus the cost of the signal heads and controllers themselves and additional pavement striping. I don't have any idea how much these things cost, but I'd imagine for a typical 4 way intersection it's well into five figures. Compare that to a shared space intersection whose cost by comparison to build and to maintain is $0.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

First, I agree with this (and pretty much everything on here, it just makes sense!) However one must be careful in the implementation of a shared use street. We must remember that a person in a 2 ton vehicle has an inherent intimidation factor and without proper regulation has a tendency to do, go, and park wherever the hell they want. I bring you a couple posts from the UK blog "As easy as riding a bike" in regards to shared space in the UK

And additional example of shared space implemented poorly: (or more likely an example of Naked streets, another Dutch idea which is good in theory but only in specific instances)

Making these spaces on streets that are considered "through" streets can be done but only carefully. It usually involves sever restrictions and enforcement, or the partial closure of the road as a connection for auto traffic entirely.

We can do this in the US, the city of Cambridge (my employer) for has done it quite successfully on a couple streets and is rolling it out carefully in other locations. However, these are smaller streets that my have residence on them but primarily provide pedestrian/bike connections along a commercial way.

I think if we focus on truly complete streets for through streets (with low speed limits and pavers that are uncomfortable to drive over fast) with the focus on shared use in neighborhoods and select commercial areas we can start to make the impact and implementation successful.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn_in_NH

I want to like the concept of shared spaces on public streets - but I don't. The shared space conecpt has become synonomous with equitable space and that is simply not the case. Shared spaces can be very dangerous for people with disabilities, children and the elderly. People with blindness cannot make eye contact with drivers or other pedestrians, thereby, the communication that takes place through simple eye contact over rights of way is lost. The introducation of quiet, hybrid electric cars only exacerbates the problem. Equally, as a hard of hearing person, I cannot hear what is around me - including 1 ton vehicles and have to rely on my eyes which can only see in one direction at any given time. I like to walk around places with my children and would not feel safe at all. Shared spaces would become the priviledge spaces of the healthy and mobile. This is not its intention. I understand that shared spaces would slow vehicles down, but what about cyclists or scooters? They can be dangerous to pedestrians as well. Rules help people with disabilities navigate our public spaces. They can be some of the most vulnerable people in society. Let's consider their needs in this concept as well.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie Cruz

Apologies if this has already been posted, but a 2010 study that appeared in JAPA, summarized at the link below, helps support Chuck’s “stroads” critique:


January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDale

I cannot support this post more. I recently wrote a piece on how turning a road into a highway has destroyed the potential for economic, social, and environmental sustainability, http://bit.ly/z6rcQB, and a piece on taking back our public space from cars, http://bit.ly/waOKSw. There must be a disconnect in the planning community. I thought it was an accepted view in the profession that highways have torn apart communities time and time again. Why aren't we learning our lesson? Yet here in my hometown this mistake has been made again. How do we win this battle?

Erin Chantry

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin Chantry

Something to consider, a stat brought up in one of John_in_NH's links states that shared space isn't shared if the traffic volume is more than about 100 vehicles per hour. So no matter what you do to the streetscape, pedestrians and cyclists and other activities will stay to the sides (on the real or imagined sidewalk area) if there's more traffic than that.

That doesn't mean that motorized traffic still shouldn't be highly tamed with narrow lanes, street parking, generous sidewalks, street trees, and the like. I can also understand the rationale behind removing signs and signals and allowing something of a free-for-all that forces everyone to pay attention and be more courteous. It seems though that such a situation doesn't lead to true shared space without other significant interventions, and that maybe such a goal isn't attainable with the large amount of space that our streets and roads occupy.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Americans might not find the concept so bizarre. We experience "shared space" everyday of our life where cars and pedestrians co-exist. They're called parking lots.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalter

Parking lots are actually more dangerous than most people realize. I was just in a fender-bender which totaled my car in one over the weekend, and in the aftermath pretty much everyone I know had a story about a fender-bender or a parking lot accident to share.

Parking lots are a circulation/storage mechanism more than a true shared space.

The study findings that shared space is only effective with low traffic counts (that is, effective shared spaces are partially segregated spaces favoring vulnerable transportation uses) is in accord with a street scheme that favors complete streets along throughways (e.g. Exhibition Road) and shared spaces in internal neighborhood circulation. An 80/20 or 90/10 shared/complete street structure would work well.

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Parking lots can be dangerous because they are designed to give priority to the car. This gives the driver a false sense of security, sometimes causing them to more careless. If shared space is designed well, the driver will sense that the environment is just for them, and pay more attention. People often overlook how important design is in achieving the end result.

Erin Chantry

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin Chantry

Shared streets need to have low enough automobile traffic that pedestrians feel they have priority. And they need to look and feel like pedestrian spaces. A outdoor market or shopping mall can be moderately wide (30 or 40 feet) and still feel pedestrian-scaled, because of all the crowds of people. But residential streets need to be really narrow, 12 or 18 feet, maybe 20 feet at most, so pedestrians feel safe walking down the middle and cars go slow without resorting to speed bumps.

Most American residential streets, built in the 19th and 20th century, have 60 feet or more between buildings, and 40 feet or more of asphalt plus 10 to 12 feet of sidewalks. Shared space simply won't work in those conditions, unless some of the pavement is torn up. In this situation, a real "complete street", with sidewalks, street parking and narrow travel lanes, can be the best short-term option.

New World Economics has done many, photo-heavy posts on narrow streets and shared space. The pictures of traditional cities really help show what works, in cites, towns and villages around the world:

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph E
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