Naked Streets: Is Shared Space a More Human Approach to Traffic?

Could "naked streets" be the answer to the pushy car?

Recently, in my local newspaper, a few articles have caught my attention.

There have been several stories of drivers who have driven dangerously, resulting in loss of life. There was a case of a hit-and-run driver leaving a victim fighting for his life. There were also a couple of stories about teenagers involved in accidents with no other vehicle - presumably they simply lost control of their cars, through going too fast for the road conditions.

A driver who killed a pedestrian in a residential area in the early hours of the morning was found to have been travelling at double the speed limit in a sub-standard car. Despite two previous speeding convictions, he was given just a one year sentence and a two year ban.

More than 1000 motorists were caught speeding in Suffolk in just a two week period. In the same month, also in Suffolk, nine school children were injured when a car ploughed into them while they were walking along a pavement.

Now, I don't have a solution to all these problems. But it's clear there is a big problem with car culture in some parts of the world, even in relatively rural Suffolk.

This article takes a look at an initiative to help tame the car and give the streets back to the people: naked streets. Read on for an explanation of the idea behind naked streets and a look at how they could help revolutionise our towns and cities.

Responsible car ownership

The kind of problems described above are all too common in many parts of the world. Until we take the issue of road safety and the responsibilities of car ownership more seriously we will continue to hear of these needless tragedies on our roads.

There is a perception in our media, often fostered by celebrities, that the car is king and that other road users, especially cyclists, are a minority deserving contempt and ridicule.

Celebrity chef James Martin had to apologise after bragging about driving a group of cyclists into a hedge. Jeremy Clarkson (of Top Gear fame) has a unique brand of humour which has often turned to deriding cyclists. While this can be quite amusing in the context of the many ridiculous remarks that he likes to make, there is a serious point here: While such attitudes are commonplace it will be hard to get more people to use bicycles for commuting and short journeys. And the perception that the car is king is given another endorsement.

There are plenty of reasons to support a change in our attitudes to cars and vehicles. Safety on the roads is one big issue. Climate change is another.

Run-away climate change

The scientific community is largely in agreement about the need for stringent controls on greenhouse gas emissions. Road traffic in the UK currently accounts for around 22% of our carbon emissions, as well as for other pollutant gases.

Our government is adopting stringent climate change laws in order to help stabilise the climate for future generations. In the near future it looks like everyone may need to consider their lifestyle choices as part of the push to control runaway climate change. Changing our perception of the car and its status on the roads may be part of this.

Cycling, walking and public transport will need to become more popular and to be seen as good, credible and safe ways of getting about. To this end, cars need to be put in their place as just one form of transport amongst many - and perhaps the last option to consider.

(The wider environment is also under the cosh from the huge volume of road traffic that we have come to accept as normal. Roads cause a lot of pollution from petrochemicals and other toxic matter washed down drains. See The causes of water pollution for more on this.

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Curb the car

According to the UN and Make Roads Safe, by 2015 road accidents are set to be the leading cause of disability and death for 5-14 year-olds in developing countries across the globe. A new charity, Make Roads Safe hopes to tackle the menace of out-of-control motorists.

One approach to making streets safer is to strip out most or all of the signage. This has been tried with notable success in the Netherlands and in Ashford, Kent. The idea was started by Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer, some twenty years ago. It is sometimes called "naked streets" and sometimes referred to as "shared space". The idea is taking off across the globe, with many countries starting naked streets projects.

Naked streets - equal shares for all

The system relies on people looking to other people for clues as to how to behave - whether those people are driving, riding or walking. A distinction is made simply between traffic zones (eg. motorways) and shared spaces such as villages and residential areas.

The idea is to create a shared space in which all forms of transport are equal. In order to avoid crashes, motorists are forced to go slowly, especially at busy intersections. Of course, this method supposes that drivers are rational and caring human beings.

Some of the outrageous behaviour of drivers, as cited above, leads me to believe that we have a long way to go in disciplining the car. Here, in the UK we have one of the best safety records but even so, around eight people die on our roads every single day of the year. That is a lot of human misery. In the US 34,000 people lost their lives in 2009.

For countries which have a poor safety record, there will be much additional work required to "tame the car" so that schemes such as shared spaces work effectively for everyone's benefit.

Naked streets - can they work?

Opinion is divided.

There is evidence that accident rates ave been cut in some areas. In the UK the shared space approach is being trialled in a number of places and has support from The Women's Institute and English Heritage.

Certainly shared space is not viewed positively by most people in the blind community.

Walking about in streets where there is very little by way of street furniture is never going to be easy for people with impaired vision. Most naked streets not only have no signs or traffic lights, there are no kerbs either. This makes it particularly hard for the blind and partially sighted and their dogs. At the moment, dogs for the blind are trained to recognise street architecture such as posts and kerbs and to use them to help keep their owner safely out of the traffic. Without kerbs and other clues to guide them when crossing the road, blind people are left feeling vulnerable and unsure whether they have reached the safety of a traffic-free area.

(Now, in 2010, there are moves to reduce the numbers of traffic lights in some parts of Britain. Recent research has shown that safety and traffic through-flow can be improved by selectively reducing stop lights.)

Information overload

Clearly, there is room for improvement in many urban streets, where motor traffic dominates the scene. Drivers are constantly bombarded with information which may distract them from driving safely. Some streets are so bad that signs obscure other signs.

Some signs also may not tally well with the painted lines on the ground - which also need to be assimilated by the conscientious driver.

Naked streets are much easier on the eye and drivers are likely to be far more aware of other road users moving in the shared space. The lack of distractions lead to better levels of safety, according to researchers.

If you want to learn more about naked streets you can view them working in practice on YouTube. See below for one example.

“Save Our Streets” by English Heritage and the Women’s Institute (2004) is a useful introduction to some of these issues.

Please note that I am not taking a stance here - I'm just trying to help publicise this interesting initiative. As with so many schemes, the devil is in the detail - and for the naked streets approach to work, it's clear that there needs to be something of a cultural sea change.

I was impressed by the Dutch approach to traffic management when I cycled in Holland. Every road, almost, has provision for cyclists and pedestrians - not as an afterthought but as part of the design. For more on this please see Cycling in Holland. This affects safety and it also has benefits for all road users and for carbon reduction.

There are a number of publications on Amazon which may be of interest to serious students of road safety. There are also several children's books to teach help instill road safety in young readers.

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