Imagine that…

Making drivers think for themselves and pay attention increases safety.

Watch CBS Videos Online

This is a pretty good overview of Shared Space. The basic principle is, as my friend Wayne says, “chaos equals caution.”

One problem I have with the application shown in the video is that the cyclists are still channeled into a segregated space. It seems to me, the system would flow better if all vehicles were integrated… then it would be more appropriate to call it “shared space.” I’ll never get the wisdom of placing human-powered vehicles in an outer ring around a traffic circle. The silliness of it is demonstrated in this little prank.

Aside from that, the primary point of the story is that making people make decisions based on the dynamic circumstances around them vs trying to control all movements with lines and signs, increases safety. That certainly makes sense.

Like any traffic design concept, it doesn’t work everywhere but it has appropriate applications. This works best in an urban center where you want to slow drivers, make them attentive* and discourage through traffic.

Opponents of shared space tend to get bogged down in ideological arguments that take the concept as a complete, unalterable package. But there’s a lot to be gained from examining the psychological components of it and how they can be applied to other elements of the street system.  We can see that over-regulation increases mindless driving in other roadway situations. Local governments paint residential roads like highways with double-yellow lines, find that motorists speed on them, then haul out the speed bumps, pinch points and gratuitous stop signs. Have you ever noticed that on a road with no center line, motorists give more passing clearance? Cyclists riding in shoulders and bike lanes experience closer and faster passes than cyclists claiming the lane (or even those in wide lanes), because the white line gives the motorist permission to disregard the cyclist. The more you allow people to operate without thinking, the more careless they get. And the easier it is for them to engage in distractions.

For decades, American traffic engineers have been facilitating mindless driving in the name of traffic flow and safety. It’s time we took a look at that practice and its unintended consequences.

*except for American reporters who turn around while driving and talk to the camera in the back seat.

16 replies
  1. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    My opinion on “naked streets” is that they work best if at least 10% of all traffic is bike traffic. Less than 10% and the cars tend to use the lack of TCDs to bully the bikes. More than 10% and everyone gets along just fine.

  2. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    I always wonder if these are situations so rare that they cause the result we wish to obtain. It’s like florescent green attire — it works because it grabs the eye because we don’t see this color in nature or in our environment. BUT — if many more people start wearing that color, will it lose some/most/all of it’s effectiveness? So would this be true for “shared spaces” too?

    Anyway …….. Just can’t see this happening here in our litigatous society. Someone would sue local/state government when in an accident and say it could all have been prevented with appropriate paint/signage/infrastructure. Then we are back at square one …..

  3. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    The traffic circle prank was, on the surface, amusing, but I’m sure the motorists didn’t think so. I would have found some value had it been a protest, clearly displayed, but it is, after all, only a prank, and of limited duration.

    I just watched, for the second time, a video of segregated facilities in New York City, where the sub-standard picante sauce originates, in which cyclists on a segregated cycling facility, adjacent to the roadway, blew through the cycling-traffic signal while it was red. No mention was made of that in the video, of course.

    Shared space, segregated space, bike lanes, bike trails, bike paths. So many options, so little education for cyclists and motorists.

    I haven’t followed Chris’ post, but the wording is something I agree as factual, as I’ve experienced it so many times, prior to learning to control the lane.

    Extra points, for, excessive use, of, commas?

  4. acline
    acline says:

    We have an ever-so-slight experiment in this going on in Springfield right now — the renovation of our downtown Square. The outer portion is finished. What’s been created is a space far more shared that before. I’ve noticed an immediate difference in the way people move about the Square. Traffic is slower. People feel free to wander from the edges to the center. Bicyclists are integrating with traffic. A few signs still exist. But the atmosphere says: This space is for everyone.

    Now, if we can just keep this up.

  5. eddie
    eddie says:

    when I first heard about shared space, I thought it was a good description of what the traffic pattern was like in Taiwan. There are tcd’s,but so much variety in road users that your awareness is on a totally different level. it took me about a month to get it. you just watch where you are going. and another interesting thing is that people don’t take driving personally. I don’t know if that’s a design thing or a cultural thing. but here so many drivers ( and cyclists) spend so much time feeling wronged. there is a give and take which is, well, different. at first I thought they were the rudest drivers in the world. but, after I got it, I think that we are touchy robots here, and there it’s much more of a dance.
    anybody do much riding in Asia?
    it’s hard to describe.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Hi Eddie,

      for some reason I found this on a Google search and just wanted to let you know that I do a fair amount of riding in Asia. If there is anything I might be able to help with let me know. I am based in Thailand and think it has some of the best cycling in the world.



  6. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Andrewp, if you look at the history of traffic regulation, you will find that there was a time in the early 20th century when motor vehicle enthusiasts banded together to make regulations that would keep other road users (e.g. pedestrians) out of the street most of the time, so motor vehicles could pass freely and with minimal hindrance. “Safety” devices such as crosswalk signals are not there for the safety of pedestrians; they exist for the convenience of motorists.

    The problem I see with fluorescent attire is not that motorists will become inured to it and stop seeing it, but that anyone not wearing bright colors and having lights fore and aft [including pedestrians] will be ignored, and that they will be blamed if some idiot motorist runs them over. We don’t need more safety devices, we need motorists to take their task seriously, and to pay attention to what they’re doing. Deer don’t wear safety vests, but they can cause massive damage to a car.

  7. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    eddie, your post has brought something to light that I was not recognizing previously.

    “so many drivers and cyclists … feel wronged”

    I felt exactly that way when I was riding on the edge of the lane, putting myself in danger. I felt the whole world (of motorists) were out to get me and I had to defend myself. I didn’t know the right way to do so, and suffered with almost every mile I traveled.

    I’ve since learned how to become one with traffic by taking a couple courses in safe cycling. Except for the far-less-frequent too-close-pass, I no longer feel quite so disturbed by traffic around me. There is also a strong possibility that traffic around me also does not feel quite as disturbed either.

  8. Keri
    Keri says:


    I found Rome to be similar in its patterns in chaos. I think one factor is the diversity of road users. rather than a homogeneous flow of one dominant vehicle (cars), there are low-powered scooters, bicycles, pedestrians.

    My ex-pat friend who lived there taught me to cross the street mid-block. It’s completely counter-intuitive. You walk a constant speed and motorists speed up or slow down to clear your perpendicular path. Of course, I tried to bolt. Everyone from our culture does. He held a firm grip on my arm to prevent my escape. The way it works is really amazing… what seems chaotic and impossible — crossing 4 lanes of traffic — is really easy because the drivers are paying attention to their surroundings. Expecting the unexpected… accepting the existence and right-to-travel of road users other than themselves.

    I’ve ridden a bike through Rome several times, too. I was just another accepted part of traffic. Italians are vocal and demonstrative, for sure, but not territorial and selfish in their use of the commons the way Americans are.

  9. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    As with so many traffic-related strategies, Context is critical. Shared Space works in slower speed environments (and makes them even slower). Uncertainty is a good thing on a neighborhood street or in a heavily pedestrianized area. Not so good on an Interstate. In order for Shared Space to work you generally need buildings that come right up to the sidewalk.

    The cultural context matters, too. Dutch motorists don’t see pedestrians and cyclists as “intruders” on “their” roads.

    Finally, I don’t think the first roundabout the news piece showed is a good example of Shared Space, since it had bike lanes. Bike lanes (and certainly cycle tracks) are contrary to the concept of Shared Space. Some better examples here:

  10. Wayne Pein
    Wayne Pein says:

    I can’t take credit for “chaos equals caution,” but I have noted that ambiguity creates it. Of course I didn’t coin that either I don’t think. But I now like Ambiguity Breeds Caution (ABC) because I’m always on the lookout for catchy memes and acronyms. 🙂

    About a year ago a nearby residential street had a bike lane and center line striped on a short portion of it before I could attempt to stop it. The geniuses at Actively Living by Design thought it would be a good idea and our traffic engineer, planner, BiPed Board, and Town Council agreed. The remaining long section of street had a light preliminary dashing down the center for subsequent double yellow (in this part the street is too narrow for bike lanes).

    I quickly emailed everyone and noted that all the striping did was turn the lowest order of road into a higher order of road and encouraged higher speed. Bike lanes are named shoulders and shoulders are placed on high speed roads like I-40. That got their attention and the rest of the road was not striped with a center line. But how could so many people not recognize this simple axiom?

  11. eddie
    eddie says:

    Rome! I took a three hour bike ride thru Rome starting at 5am. what an amazing city. When I go back to italy, I’ll spend more time there.

    That brings me to my other observation about shared space. In cities like lucca and sienna and pisa, the car was present, but behaved so differently. So much of the area seemed owned by pedestrians, but then here comes a private car, the driver very patient, with an attitude of “excuse me, can I sneak thru here”. The area accomodated all road users,but with a very different social hierarchy

  12. Keri
    Keri says:


    Really good observations. It’s attitude that drives behavior.

    Physical factors (contained cities with narrow streets and no space for parking lots, high fuel taxes and investment in intra-city transit) kept the car from being dominant there. The transition Mighk wrote about in his review of Fighting Traffic hasn’t happened in those places. People still own the commons, not just people with cars.

    Lucca is all about bikes. They have huge group rides on the weekend mornings, just like the ones that cause so much consternation here. My friend Eric and I went on a 50-miler out and around the nearby countryside. A huge pack starts out, but instead of doing a warm-up pace, they hammer the group to shreds. The spit-out riders then start forming smaller groups. Eric and I rode along collecting people, one here, two there, until we had a double paceline of 12 or so. We encountered very few cars and no animosity, as is routine here. Partly because the bike racers are revered in their culture.

  13. ToddBS
    ToddBS says:

    This video is amazing. I find that I “thrive on chaos” (and let me state now that I abhor the use of that term for the title of a management book – a genre that I find to be perhaps the most banal and useless on the face of the planet).

    Taking personal responsibility is a huge part of making a “system” like that work. Sadly, accountability is something that we in the US have turned our backs on.

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