Shared Space

Photo of a shared space in Groningen, The Netherlands

Shared space in Haren, the Netherlands. The different pavement textures help indicate that the area is a shared space zone.1

Shared space has emerged as a potential solution to reprioritize streets in favour of people and place over the movement of motor vehicles. But shared spaces need to be thoughtfully designed and managed to benefit people.

What Is Shared Space?

“Shared space” is a street design concept in which there are no marked traffic lanes or sidewalks, but a blended space shared between all road users. There are no signs or painted lines demarcating who belongs where and no traffic signals determining when each mode has the right of way.

In these spaces, the onus of deciding who has the right of way in the street is placed on each individual. It is based on the theory that people pay more attention to their surroundings when they are not relying on signals or demarcations to guide their behaviour. The effect of the redesigned street, ideally, is to create a space in which drivers are “guests, not masters,”2 of the road. The concept is grounded in and seeks to promote a sense of place, vibrancy, and community in public space.

Designing Shared Space

Streets designed as shared spaces typically have no traffic lights and a minimal number of signs, road paint, and curbs delineating space for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.3 Street furniture such as “bollards, benches, planters, and bicycle parking, can help define a shared space” and often subtly differentiate a car-free space from a space in which all road users are integrated, including drivers.4 To be successful, shared spaces must be designed to account for the needs of all road users, including users who have visual and aural impairments. The creation of different pavement textures is one way of providing wayfinding for people who navigate using a cane, for example.5

Typically, local residential streets are well suited to successful shared space as both traffic volumes and vehicle speeds are, or can be made, exceptionally low. However, shared space can be successful on other streets if similar conditions are created, including:

  • Low speed limits and low traffic volumes.6
  • High pedestrian and active transportation volumes.7
  • Clear demarcation of entry points to the area.6
  • Clear communication to motorists of expectations for the area through education, signage, and design of the space (“mental speed bumps”).6
  • Low heavy duty vehicle volumes, and ideally heavy duty vehicles pass through at night.
  • Limited vehicle parking and loading.6

Challenges with Shared Space

When the proper conditions are not met, shared space can have a negative impact on walking and cycling and reinforce the dominance of vehicles. By relying on individual attentiveness, poorly designed shared space can be scary, unpleasant, and intimidating.This is especially true for seniors, children, and people with disabilities, who may not be able to negotiate shared space using the eye contact and signals necessary for the space to work.

Shared Space in Toronto

When shared spaces are done poorly, people who travel by foot, bike, or other mobility devices are endangered and discouraged. Shared space in Toronto will not work unless it actively prioritizes pedestrians and other active transportation users. This means strictly limiting cars and larger vehicles.

In Toronto, motorized vehicles dominate our roads. But the safety of all road users needs to be reprioritized as we move away from traditional car-dominated street design and toward a complete streets approach, one that both responds to and creates a welcoming environment for active transportation.

Designed well, shared spaces can be a tool to deliver safe, inviting spaces that allow our city to prioritize community and placemaking and enhance the wonderful neighbourhoods Toronto has to offer.

In spring 2020, the City of Toronto rolled out its ActiveTO program to temporarily provide space to physically distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Quiet Streets were implemented across the city and are the first look at how Toronto could rapidly deploy shared space quickly. For a permanent shared space, future improvements could include more strict measures to limit vehicular access and make the prioritization of pedestrians and other active transportation users clearer.

Footnotes

  1. henkmulder, “Shared Space in Haren near Groningen part 2 part 2,” YouTube, April 14, 2011. 
  2. What Is Shared Space?Project for Public Spaces, October 5, 2017, accessed May 16, 2020.
  3.  New York Department of Transportation, Street Design Manual, 2009, accessed May 16, 2020.
  4.  “Urban Street Design Guide: Residential Shared Space,” National Association of City Transportation Officials, accessed May 16, 2020.
  5.  Else M. Havik and Bart J. M. Melis-Dankers, “Shared Spaces for Blind and Partially Sighted People: a Challenge for Designers," Accessibility Service of Royal Dutch Visio, accessed May 16, 2020.
  6.  Auttapone (Aut) Karndacharuk, Douglas J. Wilson, and Roger C. M. Dunn, “Safety Performance Study of Shared Pedestrian and Vehicle Space in New Zealand,” Transportation Research Record 2464, no. 1 (2014): 2.
  7.  European Commission, “Mixed-Use Zones,” accessed May 16, 2020.

Annotated Further Reading

  • Adams, Eric, “Are 'Shared Spaces' Where Cars, Bicycles, and Pedestrians Meet the Future of Urban Mobility?The Drive, January 26, 2018. A 2018 summary of how shared space is working post-implementation.
  • Arditti, David, “Byng Place and the Influence of the Anti-Infrastructural ‘Shared Space’ movement,” Vole O’Speed, July 1, 2011. A perspective against shared space.
  • City of Guelph, Streetscape Manual, 2014. See page 15 on flexible streets.
  • European Commission, “Mixed-Use Zones,” last updated May 16, 2020. Considerations for designing and maintaining shared space, with case studies and links to further reading.
  • Karndacharuk, Auttapone, “The Development of a Multi-Faceted Evaluation Framework of Shared Spaces,” The University of Auckland, 2014. A PhD dissertation on the subject.
  • National Association of City Transportation Officials, Urban Street Design Guide, accessed May 16, 2020. See sections on “Commercial Shared Street” and “Residential Shared Street.”
  • New York Department of Transportation, Street Design Manual, 2009. See page 59 for a discussion of shared streets.
  • Sustrans, “Our Position on Shared Space and People-Prioritised Streets and Places,” June 20, 2018. Sustrans is a UK-based walking and cycling charity.

Header image taken from henkmulder, “Shared Space in Haren near Groningen part 2 part 2,” YouTube, April 14, 2011, video.