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Shared Spaces

Posted in Models by Ferne Edwards on February 4th, 2009

The section below is republished with permission from the Going Solar Transport Newsletter #94, 20 January 2009, compiled by Stephen Ingrouille. Going Solar newsletter provides an excellent commentary on local sustainable transport issues in Melbourne. This article originally from The Age written by Debra Mayrhofer, 5/1/09, is an excellent introduction to the topic of “sustainable sharing” – the theme for the upcoming Sustainable Cities Round Table!

“I was waiting at the lights the other day; wondering why we were being held up when there was no opposing traffic. The pedestrians and cyclists beside me gave it up as a bad joke and just ignored the red signal. Finally we got the green light and the impatient motorist on my right screeched off, barely missing an elderly pedestrian whose slow pace had left him in no-man’s-land. There has to be a better way, I thought. And it seems there is. The first step is getting rid of most traffic lights. They diminish road safety, increase congestion, add to environmental pollution and compromise public space. Contrary to the trend of 20th-century planning, which assumed that efficient traffic flows and road safety depended on separating vehicles from the civic spaces, progressive cities around the world – including Bendigo – are removing traffic lights and gratuitous road signs.

“Planners are finding that rather than resulting in chaos, ‘naked streets create shared spaces, which produce lower speeds for motor traffic, shorter trip times, fewer serious crashes and an increase in the number of pedestrians and cyclists. The logic behind ‘shared space theory is that traffic lights make us bow mindlessly to technology and lull us into a false sense of security, meaning we pay less attention to pedestrians, cyclists and other such ‘movable hazardous objects, as traffic engineers like to call us. On the other hand, if you create uncertainty on the roads, they actually become safer because we
compensate for the perceived risk by behaving more cautiously and being more alert. You don’t have to do away with every set of traffic lights. The shared space philosophy distinguishes between the slow network hubs and the fast network, which uses traditional traffic engineering to allow traffic to reach outlying destinations quickly. But in many cases we would be better off with nothing, or with a roundabout.

“As well as the safety and congestion issues, traffic lights are also environmentally unsound because they force vehicles to stop and idle. In a US study published earlier this year, researchers from Kansas State University found that intersections with roundabouts, rather than traffic lights or stop signs, generated between 55 and 61 per cent less carbon dioxide, depending on the time of day. Emissions of hydrocarbons, also greenhouse gases, dropped by more than two-thirds. Next time you are at lights, take note of how much time is spent waiting while an empty stretch of road has priority; and how much traffic could have moved through if logic prevailed. You can also see this whenever traffic lights are ‘out. Rather than chaos, we approach slowly and take it in turns.
“Reclaiming shared space is good for business, too, as economic regeneration has been closely linked with the quality of streetscapes. A classic example of this is Bogota, the capital of Colombia, best known for its drug cartels and hostage-taking guerrillas. In 1995, Bogota had 3363 murders and about 1400 traffic deaths. As a result of the traffic congestion, drivers parked on footpaths and the air pollution was among the worst in the world. Workers from the ghettos at the city’s edge spent up to four hours a day commuting. Everyone was unhappy. When Enrique Penalosa became mayor he introduced reforms that gave priority to public spaces, including creating the world’s longest pedestrian street, a 17-kilometre path lined with trees, lamps and benches through some of the poorest neighbourhoods, and a 45- kilometre bike path and greenway along an intra-city route that had been zoned for an eight-lane highway. By the end of his term in 2003, the murder rate had fallen by 40 per cent and has decreased ever since. Traffic deaths fell to about 600 a year and peak traffic now moves three times faster.

“According to Penalosa, taking a stand for shared space is taking a stand for democracy because we are saying that a person on foot, or on a $40 bike, is as important as a person in a $40,000 car. Moreover, it means that we are treating drivers as intelligent citizens who are capable of making rational decisions, rather than as bogans who must be controlled by a traffic robot. If you watch riders at a skate park you can see the difference between chaos and anarchy in action. The skaters don’t need regulation, just eye contact and the odd nod, and they flow seamlessly together. Or at the other extreme, Place de la Concorde in Paris during peak times, when traffic from six different directions streams through, with barely a line marker in sight. If schools of fish and flocks of birds can be trusted to yield and merge co-operatively, surely we can, too?”

Ref: Debra Mayrhofer, The Age, 5/1/09

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