The benefits of shared space street design

"To my mind, it's much better to remove things." 


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If you walk along Española Way in Miami Beach, you’ll notice that there are no defined sidewalks, or street signs, or even streets as we know them. That’s because this block of street was designed using a shared space approach. 

It’s a design concept thought up by Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, who believed that to make streets safer, you need to take something away. By doing so, drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists are all forced to slow down in efforts to determine their next move. It’s a strategy that has been met with much success since Monderman defined the planning method in the 1980s after being brought on as a road safety engineer in the town of Oudehaske in the Netherlands. As a result of Monderman’s efforts in creating shared space street design, accidents decreased and a new method for increasing safety among certain city blocks was born. 

"The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there's a problem with a road, they always try to add something," Monderman told Wired in 2004. "To my mind, it's much better to remove things." 

This is a quote also referenced by urban planner and author, Jeff Speck, during a recent interview I did with Speck for an episode of the Parksify Podcast. Speck told me about Monderman’s shared space street design and mentioned that his own work played a part in the development of Española Way in Miami Beach. 

But Speck reiterated that even as an expert on shared space street design, he’s never gotten one build. “I’m about as much of an expert on shared space as you can be having never gotten one build,” Speck to me. “And that’s because I’m American.” 

Monderman’s theory of street design never materialized much outside of European cities. Here in the U.S., ideas to improve street safety are still linked with adding things—signs, traffic signals, etc. More seems to be the ideal method for street design, even though statistics show that shared streets are safer streets. 

Much of this lack of belief in the shared space design comes from our ideas of how streets in the U.S. should be built. “The majority of traffic engineers practicing today are still adhering to a philosophy that says that we aren’t impacting people’s speeds with the environment, we are merely making it safe for them to drive fast and therefore encouraging speed,” says Speck.

Often, streets that have a speed limit of 35 are designed in ways that enable traffic to move much faster. It’s just expected that drivers will obey the speed limit, though as we all know, rarely do. The design concept of the shared street is to design a street that actually adheres to the intended speed limit (even when that limit isn’t visibly posted). 

While shared space street design slows traffic and makes for safer places to drive, bike, and walk, this method of design isn’t intended to be used everywhere. According to Speck, it works on along certain blocks where there’s not a lot of traffic or where foot traffic is heavy. For example, within plazas, intersections near high streets and shopping destinations. It’s why a shared space street designed works well along Española Way. 

We can learn a lot from Monderman’s theory, and we can adapt these ideas to help make many of our cities’ intersections safer and more appealing to cyclists and pedestrians.