If you aren't a traffic engineer or an urban planner, the word woonerf probably looks like a typo, or maybe the Twitter handle of whoever runs marketing for Nerf (woo!). But you might want to get familiar with the term—Dutch for "living street"—because the urban design concepts it embraces are on the rise.
A woonerf is a street or square where cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and other local residents travel together without traditional safety infrastructure to guide them. Also sometimes called a "shared street," a woonerf is generally free of traffic lights, stop signs, curbs, painted lines, and the like. The basic idea is that once these controls are stripped away, everyone is forced to become more alert and ultimately more cooperative. Through less restraint comes greater focus.
The decades-old vision is not without its critics. Skeptics wonder if drivers feel too much ownership of the road to adapt their ways, or if shared streets can work fine for smaller towns but not in big urban centers, or if removing oversight is naïve at a time when people won't even stop texting to drive. Then there's the general critique pointed out by Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt in a 2008 article about shared streets: "people do act like idiots."
All fair points (especially the last). But woonerf supporters can point to the success of shared streets projects in Europe as well as their gradual adoption in other parts of the world—including major cities in the auto-centric United States. Construction of Chicago's first shared street, for instance, is expected to begin this spring.
We took a closer look at six places around the world that have woonerfed and emerged better for it.
Drachten, The Netherlands
Shared streets had a great modern champion in the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman before he died in 2008. In a profile of Monderman from that year, Tom Vanderbilt described the "striking" success of a shared-space program implemented in the Dutch town of Drachten. Monderman eliminated "not only the traffic lights but virtually every other traffic control," writes Vanderbilt, leaving behind an inviting town square. The results were less congestion, quicker buses, half as many accidents, more hand signals and communication, and smoother traffic flows.
Here's Vanderbilt on the challenge of Monderman's legacy:
For decades, traffic engineers have pursued, with the best of intentions, an impossible goal: the elimination of accidents. Monderman questioned how safe this kind of safety was. More fundamentally, he asked if mature automobile societies could, in essence, act like adults.
In 2004 a major intersection at the center of Norrköping, a college town near Stockholm, was totally transformed in the shared streets style. Detailing the project in the journal Built Environment a few years later, urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie wrote that the area replaced traffic lights and other traditional road indicators with a "distinctive paving pattern" that suited pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers in what had become more of a "coherent plaza."
About 13,000 vehicles (cars as well as buses) still used the space daily, and although this traffic moved slower there was less reported congestion, as well as greater use by pedestrians and a general rise in retail activity. Again, the space isn't perfect—the elderly and the blind voiced concerns—but early surveys found "satisfaction and confidence with the new arrangements is increasing."
Inspired by Monderman's work, Bohmte created a woonerf in 2007 in the center of town. Local officials believed a shared streets arrangement would do more than safety crossings and speed traps had done to decrease the several dozen accidents that occurred each year at the main intersection. The Washington Post reported that Bohmte replaced its sidewalks, curbs, street markers, traffic signals, and parking spots with a reddish-brick pavement—its plan to "force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead."
Early anecdotal reports were positive: villagers enjoyed the atmosphere more and the chief of police said people communicated more than they did before. "Traffic will no longer be dominant," the town mayor at the time told Reuters.
England has had a number of shared streets successes in smaller places, including the town of Poynton and Elwick Square in Ashford. But a modified woonerf has also succeeded on London's Kensington High Street, a major shopping corridor. The street changes weren't quite as dramatic as they've been in other places (Kensington kept some traffic lights, for instance) but new crossings and narrower lanes did have a positive impact on the area.
A 2006 report by Transport for London found that pedestrian flows had increased 7 percent and bike flows as much as 30 percent several years later. More importantly, road collisions had been cut in half: from about 66 a year before the change to 34 after it. While TfL questioned whether or not this change could be considered a "true simplified streetscape," there was little doubt it was an effective one:
This means that applying the simplified streetscape philosophy to the London situation could be successful as long as it is not taken to extremes and does not simply involve removing everything — streetscape simplification and shared space schemes have moved on from such a simplistic approach.
Auckland, New Zealand
Several streets in Auckland's central business district have been turned into shared spaces: on Elliott Street, for instance, markers of exclusive car use (such as curbs and double yellows) were replaced with stone pavement. Studies of these streets are in the early stages but have already found the much more pleasant for pedestrians on several measures. A 2014 safety review of Elliott Street found that both vehicle speeds (above) and volumes had significantly decreased.
The 2014 report did suggest taking additional traffic calming measures to ensure that car speeds remain low at night, when the presence of fewer pedestrians might encourage drivers to go faster. But on the whole it found no evidence for increased collisions:
In summary, this research has shown that for shared space environments, more road user interactions (potential conflicts), particularly between vehicles and pedestrians, does not translate into more injuries or fatal crashes.
In April 2014, Seattle opened Bell Street Park, a woonerf that turned four blocks into a 56,000-square-foot area that, in the words of the city, "will encourage pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles to share the space." The city took out curbs, leveled the pavement, added street furniture, and removed car lanes—"creating eddies where people can gather around food trucks, gardens, and play equipment," writes Josh Feit of Seattle Met.*
The love isn't universal; one critic says there's "way too much stuff" in the shared space, and drivers feel a new enforcement push meant to ensure they turn off Bell Street after one block is really just a ticket trap. But property values in the area have reportedly gone up, and Seattle has plans for at least two more shared streets in the works.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name Josh Feit.