In the Netherlands, they’re called
woonerfs (if they’re residential) and winkelerfs if
In Britain, they’re called Home Zones.
In Portland, they’re called Festival Streets.
Whatever they’re called, “shared streets” are the
latest trend in designing pedestrian-friendly
streets and calming traffic. The idea is to blur the
division between pedestrian and vehicular areas and
force vehicle drivers to slow and pay attention to
pedestrian and cyclist traffic. This is often
accomplished by “psychological traffic calming” --
removing sidewalks, signs, markings, and other
traffic devices to create a seamless multi-purpose
urban space. Proponents claim that the resulting
uncertainty slows cars and is safer for pedestrians.
Without any clear right-of-way, so the logic goes,
motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds,
make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists, and
other drivers, and decide among themselves when it
is safe to proceed. Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic
engineer, is credited with the first modern use of
shared streets in Drachten, the Netherlands. U. S.
planners and engineers, hoping to obtain the safety
and livability benefits for non-motorized users that
characterize many older European cities, are trying
out shared streets in many places here.
In Portland’s Chinatown, for example, massive
granite planters with palm trees flank the entrance
to the street, which opens onto a one-block space
paved with concrete squares. There are no white lane
dividers or sidewalks. Instead, rough-hewn granite
columns distinguish places for pedestrians and
places for cars. Some designs incorporate a speed
table, raising the street surface to sidewalk level;
some use bollards or planters to delineate the
areas. In concept, the area is transformed into a
pedestrian plaza, where vehicles are only tolerated,
not given primacy. In urban areas, they can provide
more space for sidewalk cafes and similar public
gathering places. In residential areas, shared
streets are intended to create safer places for
children, eliminating speeding vehicles. Suburban
areas without sidewalks have de facto shared
streets, since the vehicular way becomes the default
pedestrian network. Unfortunately, many of those
streets do not incorporate other important traffic
As attractive as these shared spaces may seem to
some pedestrian advocates, they are raising concern
for some individuals with disabilities, especially
those who are blind or have limited vision. Even
wheelchair users, who could be expected to like
level, unobstructed spaces, are finding some designs
The elimination of the curb can pose serious
problems for people who are blind or have low
vision. The curb is often used as a “shoreline” by
both cane and guide dog users. The building line
usually offers a shoreline on the other side, but
that line can be broken by street furniture, and
especially sidewalk cafes, which often proliferate
in these environments. A blind pedestrian who veers
toward the street to avoid such obstacles may
inadvertently end up in the vehicular way.
Obviously, the “make eye contact with drivers” rule
doesn’t work for a blind person, either. Guide dogs
are trained to find the curb to keep their owners
out of harm’s way, but may not be able to do their
job if there is no curb. Planters or bollards placed
too far apart may not help either cane or dog users
navigate the space. Wayfinding cues along and across
an intended route may be less available.
Cars may be slowed, but cyclists may not be. One
blind member of a British focus group on the subject
of shared streets said he was hit and sent flying by
a cyclist, who then yelled, “You’ll get out of the
way next time, won’t you!” Cyclists are usually one
of the beneficiaries for whom shared streets are
planned, but they can also be part of the problem.
And wheelchair users who might be expected to
appreciate not having to contend with curbs
sometimes have trouble negotiating with vehicles.
Lower to the ground, some wheelchair users may not
be seen as well by drivers (the same is true for
children). Moreover, some of the paving treatments
meant to slow vehicles are decidedly unfriendly to
There are several ways to lessen the adverse effects
of shared streets on people with disabilities:
• Provide these treatments only where through
traffic is limited.
• Ensure that pedestrians have the clear
right-of-way and make sure both pedestrians and
drivers are aware of this.
• Since a change in usual driver behavior is
required, make sure drivers are aware that they have
entered a new zone. Design elements, enclosure,
paving treatments, bollards, plantings, and other
cues (a sign is not sufficient) can signal the
change to sighted users.
• If there is no curb, make sure there is a clear
visual distinction between areas where vehicles are
permitted and “safe” pedestrian areas; use
contrasting surface treatments. Consider guidestrips,
edges, and visual contrast to carry wayfinding cues.
Detectable warnings (truncated domes) are not a
wayfinding device and generally should not be used
for that purpose.
• Use bollards, planters or landscaping to provide a
consistent shoreline, with enough gaps for
convenient crossing, but close enough together to
provide cues for dog and cane users. Seattle has
replaced some curb and gutter areas with swales
containing earth and native plants to absorb runoff.
• Provide detectable warnings across pedestrian
routes at intersecting roadways.
• Pay special attention to gateway and entry
• Minimize the intrusion of sidewalk cafes into
pedestrian walkways; where there is sufficient
width, some seating areas can be placed at the outer
edge, leaving the frontage zone free of obstruction.
• Ensure good lighting
• Standardize details to facilitate non-visual
Britain’s Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has
conducted focus groups in the United Kingdom and
Holland on issues raised by Shared Streets.
Summaries are available on the web at http://www.gdba.org.uk/index?id=2635.
Further research is planned.
Shared streets are not dissimilar in use from places
we are already familiar with where right-of-way is
shared between vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Large parking lots – a wayfinding challenge -- are
traffic-calmed by the numbers of pedestrians
crossing them. Urban alleys are shared spaces, too,
and market streets like Seattle’s Pike Place mix
In some of these environments, pedestrians are
expected to keep to the edges; in others, they may
walk or roll anywhere. State and local vehicle codes
and regulations rarely address liability when
pedestrians aren’t crossing at ‘legal’
intersections. Like roundabouts and other
new-to-the-US roadway design schemes, shared spaces
can disadvantage pedestrians who don’t travel using
vision if wayfinding information isn’t provided in