Public Works: Shared Streets Put Faith in Pedestrians and Drivers
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Public Works: Shared Streets Put Faith in Pedestrians and Drivers

Chicago and London are among the growing number of cities tearing down stop signs, traffic lights, and curbs from their streets and trusting people to be safe. It may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A rendering of Exhibition Road, one of London’s “shared streets.” Image by Dixon Jones architects.

Chicago’s Argyle Street looks a lot like any moderately sized city thoroughfare—a couple of traffic lanes, ample street parking, and narrow sidewalks squeezed tightly with mailboxes, lampposts, and skinny trees. But in 2015, four blocks (about 320 metres) of the street will undergo a “blurring of lines between pedestrian and vehicular spaces.” Argyle Street, from North Broadway to North Sheridan Road, will become a “shared street.”

That means capping speed limits at 24 km/h, ditching all the protective and regulatory features normally found on city streets—stop lights, crosswalks, traffic signs, and curbs—and moving several of Argyle’s street-side parking spaces to abutting streets. That leaves more room for meanderers, loungers, and roadside greenery.

Most significantly of all, the model removes all the barriers that keep car, foot, and bike traffic separate, thereby drastically changing the relationship between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

“The philosophy is that absence of all of those [barriers] forces all users of the space—from pedestrians to drivers—to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation,” wrote New Jersey Department of Transportation traffic engineer Gary Toth in a blog post.

“This is all premised on the idea that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to the different modes, and in doing so create a false sense of security to each user leading them to behave as if they have no responsibility to look out for other users in ‘their’ space.”

It’s a nice theory, but it lists toward pop psychology. Shared streets sort of sound like pandemonium.

Yet in 2003 London’s Kensington High Street was converted to shared space and traffic-related injuries really did decrease. Local bureaucrats liked the concept so much they decided to turn part of another Kensington thoroughfare, Exhibition Road, into a shared street in 2012.

One benefit of shared streets is the opening up of sidewalk space. Chicago’s plan for Argyle would see the street’s sidewalks expanded from 3.8 metres to 4.5 metres wide. And with curbs eliminated, putting sidewalk and street on the same level, the space becomes more flexible—and useable in more creative ways. Chicago promises street fairs and sidewalk cafés for Argyle.

So what about shared streets in Toronto? It’s a tough call. The idea puts a lot of faith in drivers and pedestrians alike—faith they haven’t necessarily earned, in each others’ eyes. But considering the deplorable number of traffic accidents in recent years, it’s clear the City’s approach to the traffic-pedestrian relationship needs serious work. In the right conditions—with proper education for walkers and drivers, speed limits enforced, and a whole lot of vigilance—street sharing in Toronto could turn out all right.