I came across this interesting video that demonstrates the concept of ‘Shared Streets’ which is the inspiration for this post. Prior to the widespread use of the automobile, streets were shared by all users. We didn’t have the segregation we see today in which priority is given to the movement of the automobile. Today, streets are generally designed to move the highest volume of cars possible, at the expense of all other street users. Granted, vehicles are generally larger and can move faster than any other transport used in human history. However, this doesn’t mean they should be given priority in our street design. We need to reestablish a balance between all users to improve our streetscapes and to encourage more people to leave the car behind and walk and bike, particularly in urban areas.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Looking North on Main Street at Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. This space is not being shared very well.

Generally, the concept of shared streets reduces or eliminates the demarcations between various users of the streets and traffic controls with the intent to improve safety and flow for all involved. Importantly it eliminates giving priority to the vehicle, which is what happens with our current street design standards. Setting up a hierarchy between street users sets the stage for conflict as the user given ‘priority’ assumes they have more of a right to the space than others. Traffic controls allow the driver of a car to abdicate their responsibility for safety. For example, a green light gives a driver the authority to ‘go.’ The driver of a car may not realize someone has not quite made it through the intersection since they have only been watching the light and they start  to move. If they don’t see the person in the crosswalk and apply their brakes in time, an accident occurs. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2012 there were 33,561 fatalities caused by motor vehicles. Of these 4,743 were pedestrians and 726 were cyclists. An additional 76,00 pedestrians and 49,000 cyclists were injured. Obviously giving vehicles priority in our street system design has been, and continues to be. dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

In a shared street, all street users are equal which results in more cooperation between users of the street. Generally demarcation lines between pedestrian, bike and vehicle space are blurred and most traffic control, including traffic lights, are eliminated. This gives the impression of a less safe environment which naturally makes all users take more responsibility for their safety. “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” (Hans Monderman, “European Towns Remove Traffic Signs to Make Streets Safer. Deutsche Welle. 27 August 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2014)

I’ve heard of the concept of shared space before but must admit I was a bit dubious of its implementation. It remains controversial but in most places it has been implemented accidents have been significantly reduced, and vehicular travel times have also generally been reduced, even though speeds are lower. This occurs because although peak speeds are reduced, the amount of time spent waiting at an intersection is also reduced, or eliminated, which results in a higher average speed. How many times have you waited at a traffic light or stop sign, whether in a car, on foot, or on a bike with no opposing traffic, yet you sit and wait for the light to turn. By eliminating the traffic controls, all types of movement can occur with less delay.

The video below shows the potential of shared space in a real life trial. It shows the before and after of an intersection in the English town of Poynton, which in some ways reminds me of Sebastopol. It appears to be a crossroad town, like Sebastopol, with a main street (or ‘high’ street as they say) dominated by motor vehicles. The intersection has an average of 26,000 vehicles passing through each day which is similar to the number of cars traveling through the center of Sebastopol (according to California Department of Transportation 2011 counts). So I found it interesting to wonder if a similar approach could help restore the balance between cars and people in downtown Sebastopol. Right now, downtown is completely dominated by the car at the expense of other users, which I believe hinders the vitality of downtown.

Even though Caltrans is supposedly embracing complete street guidelines, if seems that a shared street concept would be difficult to get approved. (The main streets in downtown Sebastopol are state routes under Caltrans’ jurisdiction.) But there are lessons to learn about priority and sharing of streets in the creation of more pedestrian-friendly spaces. And there are certainly other precedents for sharing of streets. Having been to Rome recently, one of the things I noticed is that many of the streets in the center of Rome are shared, and the pedestrian obviously has as much, or more, right to the space as the car. Sidewalks, if they exist at all, are minimal and yet it seems to work.

Shared use Roman street - pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Shared use Roman street – pedestrians, restaurant seating and cars

Now Rome is a totally different scale, and has had time to develop over millennia. Importantly, the center of Rome evolved prior to cars so streets were naturally human scaled. Sebastopol once had a train running down the center of Main Street which is one of the reasons it’s so wide. However, it seems like there must be a way to reclaim some of the street for pedestrians and bicyclists, and establish a more even balance among all users of the public way. I will continue looking for other examples of small towns creating a more shared and balanced approach to transportation. Please contact me if you have any suggestions.