Removing curbs, lane markings, and signage to create a better street

By Bill Holloway

In an effort to create a safer, more inviting environment for walkers and bicyclists, the City of Chicago is beginning construction on its first “shared street” project. The idea behind shared streets, also known as woonerfs or living streets, is to erase the boundaries between uses and question the hard and fast rules that govern driver behavior. The goal is to create a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment by forcing drivers to slow down and pay closer attention to other road users. Rather than using curbs to separate pedestrians from cars, shared streets may use planters, trees, benches, or bollards to reserve portions of the street for pedestrian use.

The concept was pioneered in the Netherlands in the 1970s and has since spread to a number of other countries, including several U.S. cities, where it has been used to increase safety and livability in downtown areas. Chicago’s project is aimed at luring new shoppers and businesses to a stretch of Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood, which has suffered from crime and vacant storefronts.

Although blurring the boundaries between auto, bike, and pedestrian traffic to improve safety is counterintuitive, the available evidence bears it out. This 2014 TRB study, conducted over three years on the same stretch of road in New Zealand—prior to its conversion to a shared street and for two years following the conversion—found that driving speeds and volumes declined as a result of the change. They also found that speeds decreased as the number of pedestrians on the street increased.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.