Sharing is Caring, & Makes the Cars Go Round
By: Jared Harvill | Tennessee SLC Member
A few days ago, while I was trapped in a YouTube rabbit hole, I came across a video that suggested we should get rid of traffic signs altogether. Naturally, when I read that thumbnail, I was intrigued but also horrified at the thought of what a disaster that would mean for traffic safety. At least that’s what I thought until I watched the whole video. As it turns out, this idea may not be so crazy to some. Some experts suggest replacing intersections with “shared spaces” could reduce traffic accidents, traffic congestion and make intersections safer for pedestrians.
The idea comes from urban planners who seek to reduce traffic congestion in intersections and make them more free-flowing. It has been done in several cities across Europe within the last decade and has shown to accomplish the desired goal behind them. For example, Ipswich, UK, replaced one of their intersections with a shared space, which resulted in their fatal accident rate to fall from 23 over 3 years to only 1 per year. That’s a significant drop! There have also been similar drops in fatality rates in other cities that have done the same thing. In each case, the shared spaces reduce traffic and waiting times because cars do not have to stop and wait for the traffic lights. Cars, bicycles, and pedestrians all share the same open space and therefore slow down and steadily move around. This creates a situation where everyone must become more aware of their surroundings rather than relying on traffic lights. In these cases, the concept works. Traffic congestion is reduced, fatal accident rates drop, and pedestrians are given more consideration and have more room to walk freely.
While it may seem as though a shared space is the perfect alternative to traditional intersections, it does have its own challenges. Shared spaces have proven to be somewhat of a challenge for disabled individuals who previously relied on traffic lights and signals to cue them to be able to cross the street. One family in the UK lost their disabled loved one during a vehicular accident in one of these shared spaces. They called for a return to traditional traffic lights, claiming that their son would not have died if they were still there. In 2015, the UK Parliament called for a temporary pause on installing all-new shared spaces until they could develop a better way of accommodating disabled people. It is now up to our elected officials and us to weigh both the issues and benefits of shared spaces.
We have seen these shared spaces in Europe over the last few years, but could they work in the United States? Could we take away all of our traffic light intersections and replace them with shared spaces? Should we do this? Of course, more research needs to be conducted on these shared spaces, but the existing data is thought-provoking. Replacing our intersections with shared spaces could lead to less traffic congestion, more free-flowing movement of cars and pedestrians, and higher levels of traffic safety for all who use them, as long as the right accommodations and safety precautions are made. However, they may not work in every community depending on their terrain or other factors that would hinder their effectiveness, so we need to consider this new idea carefully. It’s a gray area that the leaders of today and tomorrow should definitely continue to research!