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Shared Space - would it work in Los Angeles? (From Risk in a Hypermobile World"

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  • John Adams
    From our old friend and ever clear-eyed observer Professor John Adams. Article on his blog - Risk in a Hypermobile World - at
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 8, 2007

      From our old friend and ever clear-eyed observer Professor John Adams. Article on his blog – Risk in a Hypermobile World - at http://john-adams.co.uk/2007/09/08/shared-space-would-it-work-in-los-angeles/


      Shared Space – would it work in Los Angeles?


      (Commissioned, but not used – and worse not paid for - by The Los Angeles Times.

      So published here free of charge on the slightly-smaller-circulation Adams’ Blog)


      There is a growing enthusiasm amongst European transport planners for

      “shared space”. It is an intriguing idea pioneered by Hans Monderman, a highway

      engineer in Friesland. He removed almost all the traffic lights, pedestrian barriers,

      stop signs and other road markings that had been assumed to be essential for the

      safe movement of traffic.


      For traditional highway engineers his idea was anathema. Since the advent of the car

      they have planned on the assumption that car drivers are selfish, stupid, obedient

      automatons who had to be protected from their own stupidity, and that pedestrians

      and cyclists were vulnerable, stupid, obedient automatons who had to be protected

      from cars – and their own stupidity. Hence the ideal street was one in which the

      selfish-stupid were completely segregated from the vulnerable-stupid, as on the

      American freeway or European motorway where pedestrians and cyclists are

      forbidden. Where segregation was not possible, in residential suburbs and older

      urban areas, their compromise solution was the ugly jumble of electronic signals,

      stop signs, barriers and road markings that now characterise most urban



      Monderman observed those using the streets for which he was responsible and

      concluded that they were not stupid, nor did they obey the rules and barriers that

      assumed that they were, nor, on the whole, did they behave selfishly. Pedestrians,

      he noticed, were nature’s Pythagoreans – always preferring the hypotenuse to the

      other two sides of the triangle. Given half a chance they did not march to the

      designated crossing point and cross at right angles to the traffic; if they spotted a gap

      in the traffic they opted for the diagonal route of least effort. And motorists did not

      selfishly insist on their right of way at the cost of mowing down pedestrians.

      Monderman decided that those for whom he was planning were vigilant, responsive

      and responsible. He deliberately injected uncertainty into the street environment

      about who had the right of way. The results were transformative. Traditional highway

      engineers have never been concerned with aesthetics. Their job was to move traffic

      safely and efficiently. They dealt not with people but PCUs (passenger car units). The

      removal of the signals, signs and barriers that were the tools of their trade not only

      greatly improved the appearance of the streetscape but, by elevating the status of

      the pedestrian and cyclist relative to that of the motorist, made them more convivial

      as well.


      Motorists no longer blasted their way through intersections because they had a green

      light; they noticed, and negotiated their right of way with, pedestrians. And accident

      statistics were no longer considered the sole criterion of whether a road was safe or

      dangerous. It was now realised that many streets had good accident records not

      because they were safe, but because they were so dangerous that children were

      forbidden to cross them, old people were afraid to cross them, and fit adults crossed

      them quickly and carefully. The good accident records were being purchased at the

      cost of community severance; people on one side of the road no longer knew their

      neighbours on the other.


      Another surprising finding was that on many roads travel times decreased. The

      removal of traffic lights reduced the time that cars spent waiting at red lights when

      nothing was coming in the other direction.



      Would such ideas work in Los Angeles?

      Certainly not on the freeways. Nor in the car-dependent suburbs with no sidewalks or

      pedestrians or cyclists.


      Measured by their attractiveness to American tourists, the most desirable parts of

      Europe are the centres of the old cities where shared space has evolved in the

      context of growing numbers of cars and severely limited space for driving and

      parking. Here, because of lack of space, the application of heritage conservation

      constraints, or benign neglect, one can observe what happens naturally when

      pedestrians and cars are left to sort things out on their own. Other environments,

      perhaps more familiar to most Americans, where such deferential behaviour by

      motorists can also be observed are supermarket car parks and campsites.


      However in Europe, as in America, naturally occurring exemplars of the sharedspace

      principle are under threat. Britain’s car population increased last year by over

      800,000 – enough to fill a new car park stretching from London to Edinburgh 9 lanes

      wide. All these extra cars can only be accommodated in car-dependent, cardominated,

      suburbs. Europe is following America’s lead. Everywhere car ownership

      is increasing and suburbs are sprawling.


      Application of the shared space idea in which pedestrians, cyclists and cars all

      mingle in a spirit of reciprocity is only possible if there are enough pedestrians and

      cyclists – and a small enough number of cars: central Copenhagen, old Amsterdam

      and parts of Paris are good examples. But currently such islands of civilization,

      beloved by American tourists, are surrounded by rising seas of car dependence.

      Perhaps, with a growing appreciation of their attractiveness as places in which to

      work and live, and a growing fear of the car’s carbon wheel print, these islands of

      civilization might rise, and the seas retreat. Even in Los Angeles!

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