We Need to Ask More Questions About How We Move Through Places

Provincetown

Pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars regularly cohabitate on the economically lively Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

There appears to be two lines of thinking about bicyclists and pedestrians in the modal mix.

On the one hand, there is a growing movement for separated bicycle facilities – not just bike lanes but ones with a physical barrier offering true separation from automobile traffic.

On the other hand, there is the idea of the “woonerf,” which has been around for a while now but keeps coming up again, taking slightly different form. In its most recent iteration, the woonerf would get rid of all barriers amongst modes, pedestrians included. Yes, in this scheme, even curbs would be eliminated.

So which is it – are our multiple modes better off separated or together?

Clearly, the answer isn’t so simple, as we must consider two different kinds of spaces – travel corridors and activity nodes.

In the former, the emphasis is on movement. In New York City, advocacy for separated bikeways touts their potential to increase the speed of both cars and bicyclists while ensuring the safety of both.

Contrast that against activity nodes in which the emphasis is on interaction. There’s a lot to absorb in places with pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, attractive store windows, the corner guitarist, and the smell of a nearby bakery. Bicyclists and autos are part of the mix. The theory behind the woonerf is that eliminating all guidance (signage would be removed) and barriers (like curbs) forces everyone to be on a heightened state of vigilance, resulting in the environment being more safe.

Woonerf in Vistoria, British Columbia

A good example of a “woonerf” in Victoria, British Columbia.

Okay, now it’s time for me to weigh in. As a cyclist, I really like the idea of separated bikeways. For one thing, I think higher volume roadways are safer when boundaries are clearly delineated between modes. In an era of distractions, from car radios to smart phones, and a delusional belief in our ability to “multitask,” I like predictability of separated facilities – every mode in its place. In addition, the ability to move faster helps give cycling a competitive edge against driving and thus makes it an even more viable and attractive mode. The car may still get you there faster, but with the bicycle, you don’t have the hassle or expense of parking.

As for the woonerf treatment, thinking of Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts (not some quiet residential street), I am uncomfortable removing all barriers.

If the aim is to slow cars to a pedestrian speed, why not eliminate them entirely and create an auto-free zone?

I think it’s risky enough traveling in busy centers with signage and curbs. As a pedestrian, I feel safe walking along the sidewalks but more anxious when it’s time to cross the street.

With all the activity going on, will cars stop at traffic lights?

Will they yield at unsignalized pedestrian crossings?

At the same time, it’s stressful being a motorist, or even a cyclist in places like these.

Will someone dart out midblock?

Will I manage to get through the congestion safely?

Our urban spaces aren’t all created equal and therefore needed tailored strategies to create a safe environment for everyone. What strategies we select will depend on the right-of-way available and the tradeoffs we are willing to make. If the right-of-way can accommodate wide sidewalks, separated bikeways, and vehicular traffic, then we can achieve both separation and safety. If, on the other hand, it cannot, which is the more common scenario, then tradeoffs need to be made.

Give up on-street parking for protected bike lanes?

Or eliminate cyclists from the roadway altogether and move them to a parallel street?

Good questions to spur community dialogue.

Photos by Dylan Passmore and Joe Shlabotnik

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7 Comments or Mentions

7 Comment(s)

Sheryl Gross-Glaser

Italy is full of what you call woonerf streets. Walking feels much safer on those streets because cars and bikes go at pedestrian speed when pedestrians are around. It seems that for cars, at least, people use them on the woonerf streets just to get to high-speed streets and not as a lovely way to get to their destinations. Those streets also are very narrow, often with parked cars, so that cars would be going pretty slowly in any case.

The segregated lanes provide a conundrum for walkers. There are long stretches where pedestrians do not have to mix with other modes and, therefore, feel safer, though at any intersection of modes, an unsafe situation occurs. You have the slow walker and the fast car or bike. This presents the problems of pedestrians eternally yielding, anxious, and fending for their own safety against potentially much more dangerous modal activity. Even in a so-called pedestrian place like DC, there are numerous examples.

The bikes that travel on the sidewalk are slow, on the other hand, possibly because the bikers realize they are on walking territory. The bikes on woonerf streets are likewise slow as are cars, for similar reason. Compare those with the side-by-side walking and biking on 15th Street in DC or on the Brooklyn Bridge. Fast bikes, though a vast minority in a sea of pedestrian travelers, yet requiring that pedestrians keep to their space and be placed in a challenging situation whenever crossing the bike lane.

That said, I’m not sure I would trade the typical US urban street pattern for, example, Rome, with its quaint, safe woonerfs, and crazy main thoroughfares. However, when you add into the equation the food, and throw in the piazzas and art, this becomes a more difficult weighing of priorities.

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Monique Wahba

Thanks for sharing. I see your point about potential bike/ ped conflict where there’s no traffic signalization. I have encountered this on off-street paths. I don’t remember experiencing woonerfs in Italy so much as narrow streets. I’m particularly interested to see how the more modern woonerfs work when there are no separations between modes.”

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Shannon

Western Australia has almost exclusively Principal Shared Paths (PSPs) where all levels of cyclists and pedestrians share the same path. Perth has the best bike path network in Australia but the shared paths can be stressful at times. As a competent cyclist I prefer segregation except in activity centres. Pedestrians often do not feel safe walking on these paths and cyclists are concerned about the dog walker or the ‘reccy’ (recreational cyclist) up ahead that is travelling at a much slower speed and needs to be safely passed. Context is important and of course the lower the speed limit, the safter for all!

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Jonathan Daly

I’ve spoke about this at various conferences around the world over the last few years – here’s the audio from Velocity in Adelaide last year [https://soundcloud.com/adelaidecitycouncil/is-separation-the-answer-the-difficult-relationship-between-cyclists-and-other-road-users|leo://plh/https%3A*3*3soundcloud%2Ecom*3adelaidecitycouncil*3is-separation-the-answer-the-difficult-relationship-between-cyclists-and-other-road-users/_EWV?_t=tracking_disc] Ultimately I believe that separation in urban centres of high people activity is a failure to design people-centred environments. In the end, it is social and cultural question and answer.

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Monique Wahba

Shannon, your comments underscore an important element here, i.e. the “unpredictability” of pedestrians. What I mean is that walking provides the least constraint of all modes. It’s easy to change quickly change direction. Add some dogs and the possibilities for movement multiply. Bikes, by contrast, operate more like motor vehicles, i.e. follow a straight course (esp when segregated) and of course, at higher speed than walking. All arguments for separation of modes.

Jonathan – I listened to the audio from your conference. Very intriguing. Unfortunately, not seeing the slides from your talk, I literally am not seeing the whole picture. Are the slides available somewhere?

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Osric

Provincetown’s Commercial Street is a pretty unique case, and I imagine it would be extremely difficult to replicate elsewhere. The street is barely 22 ft wide at its widest point. It has a sidewalk on one side that is no wider than 4 ft. The speed limit is 15 mph. There are no traffic lights or stop signs for its entire length. It is one-way for cars and two-way for bicycles. It is hundreds of years old.
It’s also the main street for town, with the Post Office, movie theater, access to the town pier and ferry terminal, and hundreds of galleries, shops and restaurants.
In the summer it’s packed with tourists, so cars and bikes have to slow down to a walking pace to avoid people meandering around the street every which way as they take in the architecture, performers, restaurant barkers, and the very lively street life.
Fortunately there is another road parallel to Commercial St that everyone uses in the summer to avoid the crowds, and traffic zips by at 25 mph. But it’s a narrow 2-lane street and has no sidewalks, so again bikes, cars, and pedestrians jumble together and somehow it all works out.

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JeanSC

In Chicago while being a pedestrian I have been physically attacked by bicyclists who are breaking the law by riding on the sidewalks and demanding I yield to them. They have hit me with fists and run into me with their bikes. The police do nothing. They think pedestrians thus attacked should turn the other cheek. When I ride my bike, I do not break any laws and I yield to all pedestrians. I’m thinking, now, about a physically separate bikeway parallel to the sidewalk at the same level. I refuse to tolerate being hit by outlaw bicyclists and will exercise my legal right to self-defense.

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