Shared Space

The concept of building shared space within the public realm is a radical one here in the United States, where automobiles are not only given priority, but completely dominate most public spaces. With the financial insolvency inherent in our current approach becoming more and more apparent each day, there is a need to study alternatives. The shared space model — while a dramatic departure from the status quo — can help us build Strong Towns while making our urban neighborhoods safer in the process.

This year at Strong Towns we have focused on a comparison between the financial productivity of the traditional neighborhood pattern and the post-WW II development pattern of the Suburban Experiment. Our case study has been a three block area in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, where the city has provided a 26-year Tax Increment Financing (TIF) package to a fast food restaurant that, despite being brand new and built in full conformance with the local suburban codes, has a total value 41% less than an adjacent block of the same size that has retained — in a much deteriorated state — the traditional development pattern.

The traditional development pattern is more financially productive and more resilient. So how do we, at this point in the process, embrace the historic DNA of our urban centers and start to reverse the decline? The next posts in this series will seek to answer that question starting today with perhaps the most difficult change we need to make; the orientation of our highways as they pass through urban neighborhoods.

The single piece of public infrastructure doing the most damage to the value of the neighborhood we are studying is the state highway. Its design is sucking the value out of the entire place. Like most highways, the design through this urban neighborhood is indistinguishable from the design used on the open road outside of town. This helps the engineers at the DOT to theoretically meet their mandate — move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible — but does little to create a platform for creating, let alone retaining, real financial value.

The STROAD design — a street/road hybrid — is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.

When a highway enters an urban area, it needs to adopt an urban geometry. That means narrower lanes, slower speeds and more awareness of the need to share space. The concept of “sharing space” is so foreign to Americans that it is worth deeper explanation. We’re not talking about having a place for everything — aka, Complete Streets — or even having everything in its place — aka, Complete Roads — but that the concept of “priority” needs to be abolished in favor of an approach where all space is shared amongst transportation options.

Priority is what keeps you waiting at a traffic signal. It is what makes pedestrians run across the street when the light is about to change, even when they are in the crosswalk. Priority is what keeps drivers from being prosecuted when they run into a cyclist. It is one of the physical mechanisms that foments the mental reaction of road rage.

The concept of priority is the opposite of shared space. With priority, traffic devices, controls and regulations are used to designate who has domination of the public realm at any particular time. Generally, automobile through traffic is given the priority. When a car is forced to stop at a signal, pedestrians and traffic moving in a perpendicular direction can be given priority while the through traffic waits. Bikes are sometimes given priority in designated lanes. Sometimes cyclists ride within the traffic stream and theoretically have the same priority as an automobile, although too frequently that right is not recognized by the driver.

The connection to road rage is simple; when the system gives you priority, the public realm belongs to you. This gives drivers a feeling of entitlement and of domination — they waited their turn and now the road is theirs. Add the relative anonymity of being in an automobile to the equation, and it is not difficult to see why we have road rage problems in the United States. In a priority system such as ours, anyone that fails to properly signal their turn, drives a little too slow or cuts into traffic is taking away the right of the driver with priority to access and fully utilize the public realm.

And priority is dangerous too. When we give a driver priority, we tell them that it is okay to go. The system of priority is supposed to make the public realm safe for the driver who has been given control over it. While we talk about defensive driving, we are conditioned to expect normal, routine conditions. In a system of priority, we are not automatically looking out for the accident-causing exception to the rule.

Most Americans that read what is going to come next in this post will find it bizarre. That is not because it is crazy but because we are so conditioned to believe that a system that gives priority for using the public realm is both efficient and fair. It is neither.

In an urban area — and don’t confuse what I am going to write here with a suburban road situation — in an urban area, remove the traffic signals, the excessive (and generally ignored) signage, the stops signs, the hard elevated curb that separates pedestrians space from automobile space and the crosswalks. Reconfigure the public realm to give it an intuitive sense of complexity. What happens? Chaos? We may be inclined to believe so, but no.

What happens is shared space. I’ll give you an American example where this works so you can picture the mechanism. Say you are attending a concert or a sporting event where the overflow parking is in a field or some type of area where the stalls and driving lanes are not well defined. When the event is over, people (some of whom may be under the influence of adult beverages) are walking around this undefined space at the same time that cars (sometimes driven by those also under the influence of adult beverages) are trying to navigate the same space. Despite the chaos, nobody is run over and people don’t die in this environment. Why? Because it is a shared space.

In a shared space, drivers expect pedestrians and look out for them. Pedestrians expect cars to be there and do likewise. Instead of the aggressive stop and go of a priority system, you have flow. Everything flows naturally and the public realm is shared amongst all traffic options. Cars, bikes, pedestrians, people with baby strollers, people in wheelchairs, etc… They all are equally accommodated.

Counterintuitive as it may sound to the American used to the priority system, share space works because the perception of risk makes people more alert, more accommodating and more cautious.

A shared space approach may mean that cars will need to be driven at 10 or 15 mph, but before you think that the result is tremendous delay, understand that they are not stopping at lights or other places where priority would make someone wait. The continuous flow combined with the ability to intelligently access the entire neighborhood grid system (as opposed to the hierarchical system that funnels all traffic to collectors and then to arterials) not only increases the total capacity of the system but provide drivers with multiple, viable options for each trip.

Getting back to our three block case study, once we slow the cars and convert the STROAD to a street, we will provide for a more complex environment that will favor the traditional development pattern. People will be able to park on the street without worrying about getting their door sheared off. People will be able to walk without a car traveling 45+ mph mere feet away. Bikers from the surrounding neighborhoods can return. Some shade trees can be provided in the recaptured area to add even more value.

Now here’s the punch line to this entire concept: to do everything I’ve described here and convert thisSTROAD to a productive, shared-space environment would cost a fraction of what our current priority-based system costs to build and maintain.

Back in 2004, this quote appeared in an article in Wired magazine appropriately called Roads Gone Wild:

The old ways of traffic engineering – build it bigger, wider, faster – aren’t going to disappear overnight. But one look at West Palm Beach suggests an evolution is under way. When the city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town’s main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured. “In West Palm, people were just fed up with the way things were, and sometimes, that’s what it takes,” says Lockwood, the town’s former transportation manager. “What we really need is a complete paradigm shift in traffic engineering and city planning to break away from the conventional ideas that have got us in this mess.”

An urban street that costs less to build and maintain, attracts more private sector investment, creates a greater, more resilient tax base than the standard approach, and is safer too. Those are the types of advantages that come from building a Strong Town.


You can get more information about Strong Towns and the Strong Towns movement online at, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes and now at a new social platform called the Strong Towns Network.

Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.