Does Confusion = Safety?

How 15 mph Makes a Difference

I found this awesome visual (and accompanying story!) on streets.mn. It shows the difference between what a driver traveling at 30 mph sees vs what a driver traveling at 15 mph sees.

Notice at 30mph, all the pedestrians are removed from focus.

I came into the National Street Service thinking that the lack of signage and “designated areas” on my neighborhood streets lead to a Car is King mentality.

I had a somewhat mis-guided belief that signage and designations provide comfort and safety for all users to co-exist.

Perhaps that would be true if roads were created as shared space, but that is, of course, not the case. The VAST majority of city streets were created in the hay day of the automobile. All elements of the road were put there to ensure the cars were cared for, all other were a nuisance.

So what if we return to a more shared space model? The type of roads that existed to serve everyone, without the need for explicit lanes, permissions, and zones. One of my city leads shared a great photo from Boise in the early days. The photo shows streets bustling with cars, bikes, streetcars, and people all sharing the road. Which leads me to the question:

Does Confusion = Safety?

Enter Exhibit A: Poynton Place

This video shows a busy intersection full of signals, signs, and street designations for various uses. It definitely feels like the different uses are seen as impediments to one another, instead of peacefully coexisting.

The Shared Space Model

So, they went about creating an intersection with a shared space model. The interviewee states:

“The green light licenses aggression and speed. Take away the light and there’s uncertainty. People naturally approach slowly.” 

“If you bring speeds down, you get a completely different relationship between pedestrians and drivers. A new hierarchy emerges with “vulnerable” road users at the top. When there are no lights to dictate behavior, pedestrians in the shared space scenery are seen as fellow road users rather than obstacles in the way of the next light.”

This is absolutely true. We are cautious when there are many unknown elements. Just this weekend, when traveling through downtown Boise during Treefort, I drove no more than 15 mph through the heart of downtown to remain vigilant with all the foot traffic, bikes, and sudden stopping in the flow of traffic.

So then, the question should be:

How can we design our streets to create more of a shared space approach and move beyond designating “areas of safety” for various modes.