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Why Cities Around The World Are Suddenly Ditching Traffic Lights

Chicago joins other urban areas from England to the Netherlands in rethinking the relationship between pedestrians and automobiles.

Why Cities Around The World Are Suddenly Ditching Traffic Lights
[Illustration: Jeremyville]

Common sense says that cars and pedestrians should be kept apart. Pretty straightforward. So why are so many cities challenging that idea? This spring, Chicago will become the latest to do so, as engineers break ground on a $3.5 million street-improvement project to turn a four-block stretch of Argyle Street in the city’s bustling Uptown neighborhood into Chicago’s first shared street—whether residents are ready for it or not.

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The idea of shared streets harks back to an older time, when roadways were a free-for-all of pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. With the rise of the automobile, however, came automobile fatalities, and with them the idea of separating people into zones: pedestrians on the sidewalk and cars on the street.

When traffic engineer Hans Monderman developed the shared-streets idea in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago, he was going against generations of formal street-design wisdom. Removing signs and signals, he thought, would require both drivers and pedestrians to pay more attention to their environment; in Monderman’s initial pilot, vehicle speeds diminished by 40% on average as a result.

“In the traditional system, you see the light is green and then you go, because you trust the system,” explains Pieter de Haan, a psychologist at the University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. You gun the engine and don’t even notice the little kid getting away from his mother and running into the street. “Shared space creates a little bit of confusion, which forces you to communicate with others.”

Not surprisingly, many people—including the elderly and the blind—balk at the idea of shared streets. And indeed, nobody is advocating for total chaos. The Argyle Street plan, for instance, uses landscaping and different paver types to delineate areas for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers. Additional “warning pavers” provide tactile information to the blind, using different textures to indicate where pedestrian areas end and vehicle traffic begins. Small, regularly spaced pillars enforce gentle restrictions on both people and cars.

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“Naysayers said, ‘People are going to get hit,'” says Patrick Donohue, a project manager with Seattle’s Parks and Recreation department, which oversaw a shared-street project in that city’s Bell Street Park last year. “Well, it just hasn’t happened.” In Ashford, England, for instance, the number of traffic accidents in which a person was injured actually dropped by 50% in the three years after a shared space was built in 2008.

Today there are at least a hundred shared-streets projects in Europe and a handful in the U.S., including London’s Exhibition Road and Seattle’s Bell Street. Of course, shared spaces are intended for villages, or urban areas where there are plenty of businesses and foot and bicycle traffic. A 55 mph interstate highway doesn’t have the same issues.

Advocates for more livable cities are eager for the idea to spread more widely to street designers in the U.S. Done right, shared streets may help create a lively urban environment. Ethan Kent, senior vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, says, “It’s about: How do we create these destination streets that are about social and economic development first, that work because they’re also safer?”

Four Wheels Meet Two Legs

How architects at Seattle firms Hewitt and SvR Design reimagined Bell Street

Clarity of vision: SvR landscape architect Nate Cormier created a clear plastic model of the Bell Street Park project to show how all the design elements would work together.
  1. The roadway was raised to the same level as the sidewalk, so that people and cars share the same surface.
  2. The pavement was scored at an angle relative to the surrounding buildings to encourage “diverse movements” across the street.
  3. Varying the width of the roadway encourages pedestrians to gather and linger in “eddies” protected from traffic.
  4. The roadway was substantially narrowed to open up more room for plants and pedestrians.
  5. Textured surfaces provide guidance to the visually impaired.
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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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