Two years ago, Gary Toth and several other staffers from the Project for Public Spaces traveled to the Netherlands to look at intersections. A handful of towns there have embraced a radical idea, originally the brainchild of the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman: Remove all the traffic lights, signs, curbs and lane markings from roads, and people will share them more effectively.
Drivers, bikers and pedestrians will make eye contact with one another. They’ll cooperate. They’ll move through public space with a greater sense of its communal utility. In Europe, the result has proven to be safer and more efficient – and more social – for everyone involved.
This concept, known as Shared Spaces, contradicts pretty much all conventional thinking about traffic engineering, and partly for that reason, it has never caught on in the United States. Slowly, though, a growing cast of advocates like Toth, a 34-year veteran of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, want to seed it here.
“If you put stripes on the roadway, speed limit signs, stop signs, crosswalks, and tell everybody what to do, then you’ve removed the responsibility from the human beings who are moving around that space, they have no responsibility for their actions any more,” Toth said, channeling Monderman’s philosophy. “The light turns green, I go. The sign says I go 25, I go 25. The crosswalk says I walk here. [Shared Spaces is] saying you’ve got to put responsibility back on people, not on the government.”
Removing infrastructure is certainly cheaper than building it. But first we'd have to get over the deep cognitive dissonance of suggesting that SUVs, strollers, and senior citizens would actually be better off if we dismantled the barriers – literal and painted – we’ve long implemented to separate them.
Most of us internalized the rules of stoplights from the back seat of a car before they were ever even explained to us. “Then you get to be 50 years old,” Toth said, “and some nut is talking about taking those down.”
Monderman was in fact frequently called a nut by community members and traffic engineers. And his ideas have sometimes been mistranslated across the Atlantic to suggest that he advocated removing all signage from every intersection everywhere. In reality, he believed the idea was only a good fit in the right contexts. Highways, obviously, are not the right context.
But intersections that already resemble plazas or village squares may be. A number of quasi-Shared Space streets already exist around the country, although no one calls them that. They’re not “pure” Shared Spaces, but even the best examples in Europe make concessions to the occasional crosswalk. The question in the U.S. is: Can we adopt such a counterintuitive idea on a scale that would begin to change our collective thinking about how people interact in public and to whom those public spaces belong to?
The American experience with roundabouts isn’t promising. Overwhelming data suggests that roundabouts, relative to conventional intersections, can ease traffic flow and save lives and money. But the public largely opposes them anyway because they’re unfamiliar.
Shared Spaces, on the other hand, are really unfamiliar – and there’s no data yet on them in America.
Still, Toth predicts the idea will bubble up from the community level, in part because there’s a growing understanding that not all streets should be designed the same way. Straighter, wider, faster roads are sometimes also better and safer ones. But what’s true for the highway isn’t true for Harvard Square.
“There’s an increasing army of people,” Toth warned, “who are starting to think we need a whole new series of ways of thinking about streets – but not all streets.”