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Slow spaces for a Public Space Dividend in the Streets

Shared space street design is a fantastic innovation. But most excitement about shared space (or “naked streets”) seems to focus on the counter-intuitive phenomenon of “safety through uncertainty”.

I think another important lesson from shared space has been neglected. A key benefit of shared space is that it expands the urban public realm. And this is done with little or no loss of transport utility. This point was emphasized by shared-space pioneer, Hans Monderman, but is often forgotten or under-emphasised.

This "public space dividend" is also relevant to many more streets than shared space itself will ever be applied to. Many street-design innovations can yield such a dividend if they create spaces where speeds stay below about 30 km/h. This would allow a surprising amount of what we now think of as traffic space to become part of the low-speed public realm.

How? I try to explain in an article, "Earning a Public Space Dividend in the Streets" (pdf), just out in "Journeys" (the magazine of Singapore's LTA Academy), Issue 2, 2009.

In my article, I argue that all of the following street innovations can offer us a public space dividend:
  • various kinds of Traffic Calming
  • shared space (also called 'naked streets' or second generation traffic calming)
  • 'Tempo 30' zones (or 'Twenty's Plenty' zones)
  • multi-way boulevards, as described in the Boulevard Book
  • slow-streets dedicated to vulnerable modes (such as 'bicycle streets' or 'fahrradstrasse' or Bicycle Boulevards and similar ideas)
  • some kinds of 'road diets'

A multiway boulevard section in Vienna. The access-way (left) and the median are slow-spaces and are part of the public realm. The higher-speed traffic lanes are just visible to the right. They are 'traffic space'.

"These innovations shift the boundary between public realm and traffic space, so that a surprising amount of what we now think of as traffic space becomes part of the low-speed public realm. In shared spaces and in other slow zones, such as Tempo 30 zones and bicycle boulevards, whole streets and intersections are converted to forms of public space. In multi-way boulevards, public realm includes everything from the building line to the outer edge of the central, high-speed traffic lanes. This newly expanded public realm serves local motor vehicle access, slow-mode movement, public space roles and sometimes some through-traffic (with low priority and at low speed). Only the high-speed traffic movement is excluded and kept within traffic space." (pp. 33-34)

I also suggest that this space dividend should be especially welcome in dense cities that are congested and short of public space. Such street designs should be well suited to Asian cities where a lack of space seems to make it difficult to create safe places for walking, cycling and for pleasant urban places.

In fact, Asian cities are full of "accidental shared space".
"The informal emergence of shared space street dynamics can be seen when pedestrians and/or slow vehicles dominate a street space, leaving motorists little choice but to proceed on a negotiated and cautious basis. This is common in inner urban streets of many developing countries (see Figure). It can be seen also on the narrow streets of Singapore’s Little India area. Such “chaos” is of course widely lamented, with pedestrians and other road users blamed for indiscipline. Moreover, at times of low pedestrian activity, traffic speeds do rise and crash risk and severity can become very high. However, the imposition of traffic-focused design in such places would often be a mistake. A better option for these streets might be shared space by design rather than by accident." (p.37)

An example of “accidental shared space" in Nanjing, China


  1. Good post and paper, which I skimmed.

    I think a next-step understanding of this topic would need to look at the way both public space and traffic space tends to attract commercial activity. We're used to having this regulated in wealthy countries but it's often an overwhelming force in poorer ones.

    In India pedestrians are often pushed into the traffic lanes of high-speed streets because commercial stalls have filled up the "sidewalk." In Visakhapatnam I was shown a major street where fairly substantial structures had been built illegally in the street right-of-way, essentially blocking the space intended for peds. Indian planners call this "encroachment" and it's pretty much a universal reality of their streets.

    This activity happens on major streets -- which should be fast -- partly because commerce goes wherever traffic is. Only in major market areas can a stall do a viable business without the visibility from the boulevard.

    I have only watched these streets in the dry season, and can only assume that the problem is even worse when drainage needs start consuming street space.

    Great topic. I hope you have a market translating these European-sourced concepts for Asia.

  2. What If We Loved Our Kids More than Our Cars?

    For it must be a sick society indeed that can, and does, and continues to, love its cars more than its children.

    WITHIN just one generation, the lives of children throughout the world have changed radically, with just one indication among many being that so many children are now driven to school rather than walking. The same change that occurred in the United States has also happened where I now live, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Even though car owners are very much the minority, children’s freedom has been greatly curtailed by those cars. Those whose parents do have cars are driven everywhere; those whose parents do not, unless they are very poor, are escorted by adults and strictly prohibited from playing outdoors. It sometimes seems the only children in the city who have the opportunity for wholehearted pleasure, and who have confidence and skill in negotiating the streets, are the slum children

    We have slum children helping to run the programme and fix the bicycles; like it or not, if you want to ride, you have to interact with these kids, and interact they do. A couple of child servants who have no other opportunity for recreation sneak away to join and revel in being treated the same by our staff as the rich neighbourhood kids. The children who repair the bikes have gained confidence as well as new skills, marching about with great authority; twice a week a few of them eat lunch with our office staff. During school holidays, children from the street come to our office to borrow bikes, usually in groups; it is now perfectly normal to have children moving around as freely as if it were their office.


    What we are giving to the children at one level seems so minor – the chance to ride a bike up and down a stretch of road, while passing drivers blare their horns. On the other hand, we are giving them the freedom to leave their homes unescorted, to gain a new skill, to form friendships, to interact with different kinds of people...and to have fun. Perhaps, if things go well, if we are able to continue and expand, we will even succeed in communicating our key message: cars should not be allowed to destroy the joy in children’s lives. Perhaps, people will see that children don’t have to grow up trapped in cars and behind TV, helpless and dependent, growing up in fear of strangers and of the world around them. Perhaps, they will come to see the harm in the mentality that has developed; in which any sacrifice of children’s natural state seems preferable to restrictions on cars. For it must be a sick society indeed that can, and does, and continues to, love its cars more than its children.

  3. 1. This piece from Ahmedabad,INDIA demonstrates how kids use the street space.

    2. This piece from TamilNadu reflects the age old tradition still enlivened on the street space - a social and community event. Town's population where this is happening - 70000, floating population per day - 1000+

    In many of these towns, streets are ever for multiuse, to salute the creator right from sun rise through 'Kolams' (art on street floor), to allow for temple activities, to spread the daily market for edibles, flowers fruits for specified hours, to relax in the hot afternoons on a cane cot, to learn scriptures in the evenings, or to play cricket, once again to pay their tributes to the creator(God) , to give food to kids at night and then to sleep out during summer.

    We have all of it till date with total vibrancy.


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