Shared Space

The American Conservative has a new feature titled New Urbs:

Over the course of the next year, The American Conservative will be opening a discussion on how to rebuild America’s communities and sense of place by fostering humane, sustainable, and walkable built environments, made possible by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. For while the breakdown of community and the family is a consistent theme in conservative circles, the conversation very rarely gets beyond some mix of exhortation towards traditional values and demands for rollback or reform of the welfare state. That’s where a school of urban design called “New Urbanism” comes into play.

Just as an individual is embedded in a family, and a family is embedded in a community, so too a community is embedded in its neighborhood. The patterns we live in can bring us into the sort of constant, casual, incidental contact that builds bonds between neighbors, or they can silo each of our families away, leaving civil society to wither as the “place between” is filled with asphalt and strip malls. As Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind, and Andres Duany wrote in “Conservatives and the New Urbanism” in 2006, “Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.” New Urbanists aim to reinvigorate those traditional structures, like the classic Main Street with living space above the storefronts, and other homes right around the corner.

The most recent New Urb posting is from Johnathan Coppage. It’s titled To Make Streets Safe, Make Them Dangerous. It actually makes sense. Coppage concentrates on the interaction between cars and pedestrians but the theories are applicable to cycling.

How do you keep cars from killing people? Ever since the automobile first started clogging city roads and competing with pedestrians for street space, planners and politicians have sought engineering solutions for road safety. And engineer we have. From advanced electronic stability and traction controls programmed into cars to yawning shoulders and clear-cut forgiveness zones carved out by the roads, we have deployed every trick we can muster to separate drivers, passengers, and pedestrians from danger. Yet a century after the Model T first started rolling out of Detroit in monochrome masses, at least 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States every year.

The solution?

In the delightfully perverse phrase of “shared space” pioneer Hans Monderman (also Dutch), in order to make streets safe, you must first make them dangerous.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. As Lynda Bellalite modeled for Quebec’s roads, credible speed limits are set by the number and width of lanes, the width of visual clearance, and the type of surrounding buildings. To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out. Lining such a street with speed cameras is less traffic enforcement than traffic entrapment.

Instead, safety can best be secured by breaking down the century of segregation, and letting drivers notice that they are not alone. ”Shared space” will be a concept frequently covered here at New Urbs, as it is a uniquely powerful example of how humane insights can overturn decades of planning wisdom to achieve better outcomes by empowering people, not engineers.

Shared space was born out of the Dutch villages that Hans Monderman was charged with making safer in the face of children being struck by vehicles. Dissatisfied with the traditional traffic engineer’s toolbox of signs and lines, humps and bumps, barriers and warnings, Monderman sought to make the villages more… village-like. He tore out the signs and lines, flattened the humps and bumps, and restored the aesthetic of a village plaza to what had previously been an anonymous intersection. As Tom Vanderbilt describes it, “Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating.” Monderman forced drivers to actively engage their environment, and they took closer care of their behavior in it. Yet as Ben Hamilton-Baille delighted in demonstrating in his own shared space reforms in Poynton in the UK, traffic can move more efficiently even with all these sentient obstacles sharing the road, because no time is wasted waiting on stoplights to give cars permission to move.

I really like the idea of sharing space and that’s why I oppose bicycle lanes.

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