NORTH ADAMS -- Beginning in the 1930s street and road design in the U.S. and abroad shifted from a shared perspective to one focused only on vehicles -- a flaw that many places around the country and the world are trying to correct, according to Norman W. Garrick, a civil engineering professor at the University of Connecticut.
Garrick, who spoke Thursday about "Shared Space: A New-Old Way of Looking at Streets" during the eighth presentation of the on-going Green Living Series at MCLA, challenged the idea that road designs need to be based the flow of traffic.
"For a long time in this country, transportation has been about how you can move stuff and about how fast you can move cars," he said. "We have started to think differently about transportation -- its environmental, social and economic impact. The concept of shared space is about design. It forces us to start thinking about the underlying assumptions we have about street and highway designs."
Using pictures of redesigned roads and shared spaces from the Netherlands and London, Garrick demonstrated how simple changes in design can change the speed of traffic on a road and make it more comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists to use, while keeping the same flow of traffic.
"Shared space is a reconsideration of how urban space is used," he said. "Shared space means that signs, signals and lines play a subordinate role. It's not about designing a 25-mile-per-hour road. It's designing a road that fits the space. For a long time engineers were not told their designs controlled behavior."
Garrick added, "Hans Monderman, a Dutch engineer who conceptualized the idea of shared spaces, believe that the best public spaces and streets were the ones where human behavior governs. The United States has the worst traffic safety record of any developed country -- a problem created by how we think about spaces. Contemporary traffic engineering is based largely on rules and regulations. We design highways very well, but we have forced highway design onto our urban streets."
Examples of subtle changes to road design that can create shared spaces included widened sidewalks, diagonal or head-in street parking, median strips with bicycle racks and roundabouts placed inside squared-shaped intersections.
"These subtle changes result in vehicles ceding priority to bikes and pedestrians and slower traffic, that flows at the same rate," he said. "Merchants benefit from the designs. Studies also show less traffic accidents and a decrease in the severity of those accidents."
Mayor Richard J. Alcombright questioned how cities and towns, which rely heavily on grant funding from federal and state agencies could utilize shared space designs, when much of the designs are dictated by federal guidelines.
"It will come in time," Garrick said. "What happens is community groups and cities put pressure on the departments of transportation to accept change. We also have a new generation of engineers coming out of UMass and UConn that are being taught this form of design. There is a different attitude that will permeate the culture."
Others in attendance questioned potential lawsuits -- how fault for an accident would be determined -- and safety tradeoffs.
"In the Netherlands, the culture changed. They changed the law. If you are driving a car and hit a pedestrian, you are at fault," Garrick said. "There are no negative tradeoffs that I have found. In the Netherlands, they went from 3,700 vehicular fatalities in a year to 400 fatalities a year now, partially because of the changes that have been made."