Transportation

Shared streets: Novelty or panacea?

A Poynton intersection. From the video Poynton Regenerated on Amalgamated.

A Poynton intersection. From the video Poynton Regenerated on Amalgamated.

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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