Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shared space: a message from Elizabeth Harper Neeld

 have written a few times in the past about my friend Elizabeth Harper Neeld.  Elizabeth and I collaborated on the Hunger Project Book, Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has come.  Her book, Seven Choices, helped and inspired me in difficult times. Her book A Spiritual Primer: A Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer helped transform my meditative practice. She is one of those special friends who can always provide wisdom, support and strength, tempered with empathy and compassion when it is needed.

Elizabeth writes a periodic column on her website Elizabethharperneed.com.  The most recent offering  entitled ‘A Counter-Intuitive Phenomenon: Shared  Space Instead of Rules of the Road, provides all of us with food for thought.  You should check out Elizabeth’s site, which is a rich resource.  But in case you don’t have time, here is the entire text of ‘Shared Space...”

Imagine this:

You are driving into a town in the Netherlands called Makkinga. There is a traffic sign that reads “Verkeersbordvrij,” which translates “free of traffic signs.” This means there are no stop signs, no road markings, no parking meters, no pedestrian crossings. There are no stopping restrictions nor even any lines painted on the streets.

Instead of traffic rules and signs in Makkinga, there is the idea that streets are shared by drivers and pedestrians on equal grounds. The assumption that drivers own the road is replaced by the assertion that everyone has the same access to the public space. The thought is that if drivers are going to have to pay attention to pedestrians and bicycle riders and other vehicles—with no help from traffic signals and road signs—they will slow down and be more alert.

According to Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who pioneered the Shared Space approach:

“We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour…the greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles…. When you don’t know exactly who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users…You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” (quoted in Wikipedia)

The basic idea, then, is that when behavior is influenced and controlled by human beings’ taking notice of each other and being consciously alert and personally responsible rather than being artificially regulated by external signs and rules, everyone is safer. Drivers, bike riders, and pedestrians hold an equal place in the interactions in public spaces and connect through eye contact, friendly gestures, and nods of the head.

So, what’s the outcome when a town takes down the traffic lights, removes the stop signs, smoothes out the curbs so that there is no demarcation between road and sidewalk? Havoc? Chaos? Mass increase in accidents?

The opposite.

Three examples from The Netherlands: In the town of Hare, after Shared Space was instituted, the number of accidents are one intersection dropped from 200 a year to about 10, or 95%. In the town of Drachten (40,000 population), casualty figures at one junction where traffic lights were removed dropped from 36 in the four years prior to Shared Space to 2 in the two years following. The town’s main junction handles about 22,000 cars a day. In Makkinga, casualties fell by 10% in the three years following the new design.

Shared Space is considered to have such enormous positive potential that the European Union has subsidized Shared Space programs in seven cities in five countries throughout Europe. Shared space is gaining a foothold in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain, Sweden, Belgium, to name a few. And interest is spreading world-wide.

Ever since I read about Shared Space, I’ve mulled over questions like these:

Are human beings more amenable to being considerate of others–with no rules requiring them to do so– than our species is often given credit for?

What applicability of the Shared Space idea might there be to other areas of daily life besides traffic?

If Shared Space as a traffic engineering phenomenon truly caught on in a massive way, would there be positive fall-out in the amount of consideration human beings give each other in other areas of life?

It’s not always easy to find situations in the world to be optimistic about, especially when we get most of our news from typical media sources. But let’s watch Shared Space. This just might be a development that puts paid to the assertion that human beings will only behave well in public spaces if they are required by rules to do so. And perhaps if Shared Space continues to prove to be workable, there will be reason to be upbeat about other ways we human beings, on our own without being forced to do so, might cooperate.

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