Letter to the Editor: Safety Issues of Shared Streets

To the Editor:

The recent letter to the editor by the former chair of the transportation commission reflects how dissent is treated at City Hall. The author used inaccurately reported quotes as an opportunity to ask the City Council to ignore my testimony in the future.

So, let us put it into context: The City Council held a public hearing in December to implement the shared street idea at the corner of King and Union Streets. The shared-spaces philosophy assumes that a more dangerous environment will cause everyone to be more considerate and cause people to behave more safely. This is accomplished by removing rules, traffic lights, stop signs and the separation among different modes of transport (pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses, and trucks).

Shared Streets shows a remarkable faith in human nature, and we all would like it to be true. But a reasonable discussion would incorporate scientific evidence of its truth as a forerunner. Fortunately, there are many peer-reviewed articles published by reputable university researchers easily accessible that look at the empirical evidence. Unfortunately, they all conclude there is a large discrepancy between the theoretical philosophy of Shared Space and its practice.

Below are quotes from the studies presented to the City Council at the public hearing.

Looking specifically at the Netherlands, the studies find that “Observations in Drachten and Haren (original site for Shared Spaces) actually show that car drivers take their right of way and push ahead. In Haren, bicyclists intimidate pedestrians.” “Surveys of citizens in Drachten and Haren show divergent views about the traffic safety, as most respondents do not find the described situations to be safe.” “Noteworthy among their responses is the fact that 90 percent of respondents to surveys concerning the Rijksstraatweg in Haren want clear controls for bicycle traffic ….“

“For instance, 45 percent of respondents regard the post-conversion situation as unsafe, whereas the pre-conversion intersection is regarded as such by 30 percent.” “In Haren with regard to the achieved safety level the opinions are mixed, but most respondents do not think the situations are safe. Both car drivers and bicyclists and pedestrians are critical about it.”

Then there is this. “Monderman (founder of Shared Spaces) indicates that, pedestrians and drivers have to be friendlier and to look out for one another, and then zebra (pedestrian) crossings and suchlike are not needed. It doesn't work in practice. At the insistence of many organizations (parents’ organizations, Fietsersbond (the cyclists union), several zebra (pedestrian) crossings have been laid."

There is an unfortunate tendency to assume bicycle and pedestrian venues are synonymous. Far from it, so when bicycle groups applaud the removal of stop signs as it will improve the throughput speed, it might not be so beneficial for pedestrians. Maybe that is why the bicycle web sites feature school children collecting signatures to have the share street removed in Haren.

These issues might explain the following quote from A View from the Cyclepath (main bicycle web site).

“There is only one reason why this work was being done specifically about Shared Space, and that is because it remains controversial and unpopular in the Netherlands, even though some ‘experts’ still promote it. “

By the way, no one has asked for the studies. Furthermore, this is the same City Hall initially told people years ago, telling them “he talks about the Mirant Plant as if it were fact, but does not know what is talking about” adding that what we had was “just common dirt.” Openness starts at the top, and the first lesson is, listen to science.

Poul Hertel