Nearly 60 years after the Interstate Highway act changed the way America traveled, planned and built the cities, towns, suburbs and exurbs where we live, our nation is now seeing another great shift. The car is still dominates our roadways, but more people (especially on the coasts) are moving to urban areas and compact neighborhoods where walking, biking and public transportation can replace it for at least some trips. In places like San Francisco, New York, and even our very own Marin County, increasing numbers of people using diverse modes of travel are causing communities to consider streets, roadways and paths differently. Beyond the personal health and environmental benefits of walking, biking, blading and skateboarding, non-vehicular travelers find pleasure in the journey.

Famous for their bike-friendly cities, the Dutch were the first to experiment with “shared space” in the mid-1970’s. Traffic engineer Hans Monderman pioneered this concept. It threw conventional assumptions out the window: instead of separating user groups on streets and regulating their movements using signs, lanes, curbs and traffic signals, Monderman insisted that streets would be truly safe for all travelers only if they relied on their senses and person-to-person communication in the roadway. This may sound crazy, but try to think of a time when you have looked both ways to see if another car or bike has ignored their red light when yours turned green. Now think of your experience when you approach a blind intersection and must look, listen and wait until it is safe to turn. Alertness and using all senses is truly the essence of “defensive” driving, biking or walking.

In Holland, Denmark,  Japan and now England, experiments with shared space are taking hold. These lawsuit-happy United States will likely be less receptive to such radical reliance on “p to p” roadway negotiations. Still, streets here are changing too. While we may not be willing to eliminate curbs that separate sidewalks from roadway, we are seeing  “traffic calming” measures that narrow streets, lowered speed limits and communication campaigns aimed at sharing roadways with cyclists and pedestrians, and colorful ground-graphics and alternating paving techniques that increase visibility and signal the variety of user-groups traveling on our streets.

Clearly, the new reality of the multi-use urban street or pathway requires some changes in attitude and awareness. Every cyclist who has been cut off by a careless driver (or driver who has been enraged by a spaced-out cyclist or pedestrian darting into the street as if invincible) knows that mutual awareness is key to safe and enjoyable travels. These days, no one user group can own the road. It’s time to look, listen, feel the pavement beneath your feet or wheels, and agree to share the space.

San Francisco’s Castro district. Photo by Sergio Ruiz, SPUR


Listen to this BBC segment on Shared Space and the movement to create “thinking streets” Listen >>

Map researcher Daniele Quercia’s TED talk about a creating new kinds of mapping apps. Perhaps efficiency shouldn’t be our only priority.

For more figures on pedestrian, bike and driving safety in San Francisco streets, check out this article in SFGate.