Basically, "Shared Space" is designed anarchy: it advocates for getting rid of most signs, curbs, stripes, traffic lights, and other traffic-control clutter on the road and forcing a street's users to slow down and interact with each other in order to negotiate safe passage. To those of us who are used to cowering at an onslaught of speeding cars, getting rid of curbs and traffic signals seems, at first blush, like insanity. But Christopher Hart, a "shared space" advocate who works for Boston's Institute for Human Centered Design, points out in the Globe article that ""It's not a wild idea. It existed for thousands of years. It was only with the advent of sewers and fast-moving vehicles - horses and trolleys and cars - where you start seeing curbs and really defining where uses go."
"Shared space" is the default nature of many streets in Asian nations - many neighborhood streets in Japan have no distinct "sidewalk" area, for instance, and cars creep along behind and among pedestrian traffic. And you may have seen this YouTube video of an intersection in India. No traffic lights, crosswalks, or stripes on the road, and yet a remarkable amount of traffic moves smoothly through (and by the way, India's per-capita and per-vehicle traffic accident rate is much lower than ours):
"Shared space" is a still a threatening idea to Western traffic engineers, but some designers in the Netherlands and the UK are beginning to experiment with these ideas on a few intersections and streets, and the early results are encouraging. Without signs or traffic signals to direct traffic, cars are forced to slow down and make eye contact with one another, and with pedestrians, as they proceed through an intersection. And because drivers and pedestrians are looking at each other, instead of up in the air at a traffic light, intersections that convert to a "shared space" design frequently experience a dramatic decline in accidents.
As this idea gains credence in the West, where might "shared space" intersections succeed in Portland? My top choices for new "shared space" would be at the junctions of Middle and Union Streets in front of the Nickelodeon Cinemas, and at the end of Free Street in Congress Square.
The plaza in front of the Nickelodeon is an ugly remnant of 1960s urban renewal. Tourists visiting the Old Port frequently walk as far as this intersection, then turn around because there's no clear way and no clear reason to get across - even though Monument Square and Portland's Arts District is only a block away. A block to the east, the four-way stop intersection of Middle and Exchange Streets handles a similar amount of car and pedestrian traffic in a close approximation of "shared space" principles, so there's no good reason it couldn't succeed here as well.
The end of Free Street at Congress Square has been a topic of discussion for the Peninsula Transit Study, since it's a major barrier to pedestrians walking along Congress Street. The study's consultants have recommended closing off Free Street's access from High Street, but there's concern over maintaining access for delivery trucks and tour buses, which wouldn't be able to make the tighter turn from Congress Street:
But sharing the entire block of Free Street between Congress Square and Oak Street could give the space the best of both worlds: access for trucks, buses, and cars could be maintained, but would be forced to yield their way through a newly vibrant pedestrian plaza (this would also give the art museum some room to liven up a rather pathetic public space):
Given this block's activity - it's home to the art museum and the Childrens' Museum of Maine - getting rid of the curbs here and forcing cars to proceed through very slowly (if at all) seems to make a lot of sense to me, and I plan to bring the idea up as a possible solution at our next transit study meeting.
Any other ideas about where Portland might consider "shared space" downtown?