The road used to be for pedestrians first, then carts, horses and donkeys joined a bit later. Then came the bicycle, the tramcar, the petrol car and the truck. Mostly in that order. Some places have sledges and skis as well apparently. Boats maybe too?
Concepts for streets
The street used to be a place for everyone, where life in the city happened. Street vendors, children playing, people walking places and carts all chaotically rummaged around in the street.
In the 1920s, car and rubber companies conspired against the pedestrians in the (at that time still great…) United States to make the roads theirs and increase sales of cars. That ingenious PR campaign turned the blame for automobile deaths from cars on its head, blamed the injured person instead and assured vehicular dominance, still ongoing today.
To combat congestion, cars were subsequently allowed and encouraged to drive faster and faster in cities, where now, some inner city roads in Melbourne have speed limits of 70 km/h. These are definitely not places people want to cross, linger or daydream. Roads like this divide communities and are really un-fun.
For residential zones, a common thing in places like Scandinavia and Germany are play streets (called “Spielstrasse” or the correct term, and suitably lovely “Verkehrsberuhigter Bereich” in German). These streets require cars to driver slower (sometimes even walking speed) and ensures pedestrians have right of way. In Australia a variant is the shared zone, which still allows speeds of 20 km/h in places, which is still pretty fast for a car.
The logical next level is – back to the past – the shared space, which is another Urban Design concept originating in the Netherlands (similar to something with the beautiful name “woonerf”- recreation area). A shared space practically removes all signage, kerbs, markings and traffic lights and gives equal priority to all modes of transport (how about elephants?). It’s not a great concept for a thoroughfare I gather but does ensure children can play in the street, which is totally frowned upon and very unthinkable in Australia, sadly.
The dreaded shared path
What many places in Australia in New Zealand are instead doing is sharing space, but only between pedestrians and bicycles. Cars can still do what they want on the road and bicycles and pedestrians get to share an enlarged footpath. Normally footpaths are designed 1.5m wide (if at all). Shared paths are then 2.5m to 3m wide. This sounds theoretically great until you actually use one of these shared paths. Pedestrians rarely walk by themselves. They love walking next to each other, in groups of two, three or more, they carry stuff, stop and change direction erratically and are pretty hard to predict.
This pretty much results in shared paths being not great places to get places fast on a bicycle, which annoys me as a cyclist enormously. I like to compare sharing a path with a pedestrians to a car sharing a road with an airplane. The velocity difference is similar order of magnitude.
A normal pedestrian: 3 km/h – A cyclist: 20 km/h
A normal car: 40 km/h – A Boeing 737 taking off: 250 km/h
Make it more dangerous
But I have fallen into the same trap that car drivers have fallen into: The faster you go, the less you want to slow down. Highways encourage less regard for other participants.
I have noticed this first-hand while riding on a state highway repeatedly in New Zealand (there was simply only one road going to the areas I wanted to go to, which happened to be a highway …). On any straight stretches where cars could go fast (with 100km/h speed limits) a large majority of the drivers didn’t slow down for cyclists and only barely moved out of the way when passing. Especially bad were the logging trucks who didn’t move at all. But then on windy mountain roads, where the recommended speed was about 35 km/h, all cars and trucks were much more considerate at moving out of the way and reduce speeds and even slowing down completely behind me in case of incoming traffic from the other direction.
This is consistent with findings in cities in traffic research. The more dangerous roads are for the drivers, the more they watch out for others. Which then makes the roads safer for everyone. When you already have a foot on the break, it’s easier to break for a cyclist. But when you are on cruise control, taking care of fellow squishy humans is just a little bit too hard it seems.
So maybe we need to all chill out a bit more in the interest of safety and mental calm and share more space together. Also with cars. But in places where fast transit is encouraged, separation (also between pedestrians and cyclists) might be the way to go.