Lots of Cars and Trucks, No Traffic Signs or Lights: Chaos or Calm?

A new film makes the case for Poynton's shared space experiment.

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"Regenerating Poynton"

No traffic lights. No traffic signs. No painted lines in the roadway. No curbs. And 26,000 vehicles passing every day through a traditional village center with busy pedestrian traffic.

It’s called "shared space." Is it insanity, or the most rational way to create a pleasant place where drivers, cyclists, and people on foot all treat each other with respect?

The village of Poynton in the U.K. has undertaken one of the most ambitious experiments to date in this type of street design, whose most prominent advocate was the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Variations on the shared-space model have been implemented in other European cities since the early 1990s, but never before at such a busy junction. Poynton's city leaders sought the change because the historic hub of their quaint little town had become a grim and unwelcoming place.

"Over the years, the increase in traffic and the steps taken to try to deal with that have changed this place from being the heart of the village into being merely a traffic-signal-controlled wasteland," said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the street designer whose firm executed the change, before the work began.

The project didn’t come cheap, costing about $6 million. Engineers completely reconfigured the intersection at the center of town, replacing a traffic light with two "roundels" that cars must negotiate without the guidance of traffic signs. Pavements of varying colors and textures are the only signal as to which type of road user belongs where.

It was a controversial move for the community of some 14,000 people, which lies about 11 miles from Manchester in the northwestern part of England. Now, a year after construction wrapped up, a video called "Poynton Regenerated" makes the case that the shared space scheme maintains a smooth flow of traffic while simultaneously making the village center a more attractive and safer place for pedestrians, leading to increased economic activity downtown.

The film, which documents conditions before and after the change, is made by Martin Cassini, himself an avowed foe of traffic lights and signs and advocate of the shared space concept. So consider the source, and be aware that the shared space concept has come under criticism in the Netherlands, where it originated, for being unfriendly to cyclists. Local online forums in the Poynton area have seen their share of negative commentary as well, much of it from people who predicted an increase in collisions and injuries before the plan was fully implemented.

But in at least one other U.K. community where a shared-space scheme has been in place for several years, dire predictions of rampant crashes have proved unfounded. The town of Ashford has seen its roads become measurably safer since the implementation of its traffic transformation, according to the Financial Times:

In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four, and Kent police have reported only one serious collision, when a pedestrian sustained a broken ankle.

In the "Regenerating Poynton" video, several people who admit to having been skeptical of the plan say that after it was put in place, they came to see it as a dramatic improvement. A local city councilor says that the main street no longer seems like a dying place, as it had for years before the change. Some 88 percent of businesses in the area are reporting an increase in foot traffic, and real estate agents say they're seeing new interest in buying property in the area.

The social interactions that result from shared space — eye contact, waves of thanks, and the like — are one of the main selling points for advocates.

"Shared space is a term that simply describes a shift in thinking away from the regulated highway towards using the natural skills that humans are blessed with to negotiate movement and allow the normal civilities of life to continue," says road designer Hamilton-Baillie. "I think what Poynton has demonstrated is that it is possible to create a continuous-flow, low-speed environment, still cope with pedestrian crossing movements, and, most importantly, recreate a space, a place outside the church in Fountain Place, that is part of the town — and no longer merely an appendage to the highway."

"It has a very calming effect," says one resident in the film. "And I think we’re all being kinder to one another, motorists and pedestrians alike."

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.