Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Shared Streets: Novelty or Panacea?

I’ve previous written about the complete streets concept, which aims to give pedestrians and bicyclists facilities equal to those given to drivers.  I’ve also written about woonerfs, low speed residential streets in which the distinction between sidewalks and roadways is removed, forcing cars to drive slowly to accommodate folks not in vehicles.

In “Walkable City”, author Jeff Speck points toward a combination of the two, a European concept called “shared streets”.   On streets for which conventional traffic engineering would normally call for stop signs or signals, all traffic controls devices are instead removed.  Curbs and crosswalks are also removed.  And the streets are designed to encourage cars to move continuously but cautiously.  The expectation is that traffic movement will be improved.

Ten years ago, I would have called the concept a fairy tale.  And also made a comment about having a bridge to sell.

But ten years have taught me that urbanism, and drivers, can work in ways that don’t conform to our deeply-rooted expectations.  There is surprising evidence that shared streets can work.

Exhibit A is Poynton, Cheshire, England.  A surface intersection of two highways in the center of the village was creating large traffic jams and, by discouraging pedestrian crossings, was effectively dividing the village in half.

A shared street solution was proposed, in what is called a double-roundel configuration.  Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities  describes further.  The article includes a video which, at fifteen minutes, seems twice as long as necessary, but is a good introduction to the problem and the apparent solution.  (Language note: The British use “pavement” to describe what those in the U.S. would call “sidewalks”.  Knowing this makes the video a little less confusing.)

Despite much initial skepticism, the Poynton traffic modifications seem to be working.   A local newspaper offers a cautious thumbs-up.  An internet search yields voices still willing to decry the solution, but those voices will always be present.

Even more surprising are the residents on the video who tie an uptick in local civility to the road configuration.  I believe that social interaction can be affected by physical form, but am surprised that casual observers could make the same connection as quickly as they did.

As Goodyear notes, the video producer is an advocate of shared streets and the concept has been less effective in other locations, but every new idea has a period during which its implementation issues are sorted out.

I’m not willing to concede that shared streets can be a panacea, but the concept seems to offer more potential than I would have expected.  And I offer kudos to Poynton and the other funding entities for spending the British equivalent of 6 million dollars on such a novel idea.

Bringing the issue closer to home, is there a traffic situation in the North Bay to which a shared street concept might apply?  My nomination is the street loop around Sonoma Plaza.  The stop sign controlled intersections have always seemed inefficient, especially at the corner of Broadway and Napa Street.

Shared streets offer much about which to think.  And more proof that Jeff Speck has written a book that is doing much to change the conversation about how cities, and villages, work.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Shared streets seem to have limitations, too. Take a look at Exhibition Road in London, where a shared street was attempted on an arterial street, and the problems that have developed there.

    That said, it appears shared street solutions are best for places with low- to medium- traffic, like village centers and secondary through streets, where there's too much traffic for a woonerf- or home zone-style play environment to take root, but not enough to warrant a complete street.

    1. Steve, thanks for the comment and for the Exhibition Road suggestion. From my initial internet check of Exhibition Road, I found objective descriptions of the modifications, but not much pro and con comment. I'll continue looking.

      My thought is that shared streets are where roundabouts where twenty years ago, a newly identified tool in the traffic management toolbox, but one for which the best applications and design details were still to be determined.

      I'm surprised that Poynton is working as well as reported and suspect that the video editor cherry-picked the interviewed. I'd love to visit Poynton, observe the shared street, and form my own opinion.