Friday, June 17, 2011

Transportation Fridays: No Curbs and No Signs, But Safer Streets

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP, '12

In New Brunswick, like all of the United States and much of the world, road travel is governed through road paint, signs and physical barriers that direct and organize traffic. These elements, enforced by national laws, have created an environment that we are all so used to that we rarely think about it. Navigating the streets has become second-nature, and we hardly think as we make a right turn on red or stop at a stop sign.

A shared street in Oosterwolde, The Netherlands                   
Source: “Shared Space: Reconciling People, Places and Traffic,” by Hamilton-Baille. Built Environment 2008.

An intersection in New Brunswick, NJ.

Take a look at these two photographs. The one on the top is a standard street in America. The one on the bottom is a road in The Netherlands designed with the “shared streets” principle, which strips roads of their regulations and hierarchy. Notice the elderly man walking in the middle of the road as cars pass by a few dozen feet away. Shared streets began in The Netherlands in the 1970s by the traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Instead of separating cars, bikes and pedestrians into their own travel lanes as was the norm, he eliminated curbs that divided them and removed most of the signs and lights. He believed that roads were over-regulated and were neither safe nor efficient because drivers ceased paying attention to the changing road environment. While this seems counter-intuitive – since cars are large and go fast, it seems safer to separate them from slow, small people – experience in The Netherlands and England show Monderman’s ideas work. While cars will always be larger and heavier than people, we can change their speed, for it isn’t a stationary car that kills, it’s a car moving quickly. And that’s why shared streets have been successful in decreasing accidents: they slow cars down, and do so more than a street crammed with signs and lights that tell drivers to drive slowly.

Shared streets do so by changing the both the level of risk and the actual danger level. By integrating travel lanes, shared street designs purposely increase risk, which, paradoxically, decreases the actual danger to a person. By taking away regulatory devices the road environment becomes less predictable, and our behavior changes when we are in an unpredictable situation. How exactly this happens will be the subject of next week’s post, as well as more examples of shared streets from around the world. It turns out that designing streets that take advantage of natural human instinct and psychology creates safer roads. This is what shared streets are designed to do.

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