A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shared Spaces on Portland's streets?

A good article in last week's Boston Sunday Globe talked about "Shared Space," a new concept in street planning that's gaining more and more attention from the designers of our streets and public places [thanks for the tip, Jesse].

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?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bikes on the Beat

A nice article in today's Portland Press Herald profiles two of the Portland Police Department's bicycle patrolmen, who ride year-round, rain or shine, and have some of the best arrest records in the department.

Officers Dan Knight (left) and Karl Geib (right). Photo from the Portland Press Herald.

While a lot of police officers isolate themselves from their neighborhoods inside the shell of a patrol car, bike patrols are able to interact more with people on the street. The article quotes Lt. Bill Preis, the officers' supervisor: "It allows a lot of face-to-face contact with citizens, which is positive for the police department and the community, and it's also a very effective enforcement tool because they're able to sneak up on people."

The article covers the officers' heroic rescue of a vintage bike that was stolen from local mechanic Percy Wheeler. Bike geeks will also enjoy the article's descriptions of the department's patrol bikes, which include studded tires for winter riding and a silent rear hub.

I'd say that this article is also one of the better "public safety" stories I've seen in the PPH in recent times - a good profile of two officers, and an open-and-shut crime story thrown in too. Maybe our news reporters should spend more time on the bike beat as well.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Zipcars coming to Biddeford, Brunswick

As the school year approaches, two more local college campuses are bringing Zipcars to southern Maine. The University of New England and Bowdoin College are bringing four new shared cars to Biddeford Pool and downtown Brunswick, respectively.

New members of Zipcar from these campuses will also have access to hundreds of shared cars in the Boston area. So UNE students could catch a train from the Saco station and pick up one of the dozens of Zipcars located within walking distance of North Station. Brunswick students will have the same option two years from now, when expanded Downeaster service will have its last stop across Maine Street from the Bowdoin campus.

In addition to existing Zipcars at Bates, Colby, and the University of Maine at Orono, Maine will soon have a fleet of Zipcars scattered around the state. There are still no shared cars in the state's largest city, Portland - but supporting a carsharing program is a recommendation of the Portland Peninsula Transit Study, and other carsharing franchises, including a newly-launched carsharing subsidiary of Enterprise Car Rental, have expressed interest in setting up shop in the city.