In an article in the latest Scientific American, titled “Removing Roads and Traffic Lights Speeds Urban Travel,” (concepts which are well familiar round here), I was intrigued to see a reference to a so-called “shared space” (a.k.a. “livable streets,” etc.) project in Montgomery, Alabama. In brief, the project entailed turning the city’s languishing ‘Court Square’ (pictured above) from a conventional signalized intersection to a cobble-stoned urban ‘plaza,’ with fewer obvious forms of traffic control. While these projects are becoming common in Europe, they can still be a hard sell stateside. So I got in touch with Chris Conway, an engineer with the city, to see how it had happened. Here’s what he told me:
“The project began as just a way to reopen an area closed during urban renewal in the 70′s, and bring our Court Square fountain into focus as the anchor of Capitol Hill. The urban renewal had essentially killed all commerce in the area it had intended to enhance.
In an effort to “renew the renewal”, we began looking at a concept to reopen Court Square as it had originally functioned. This was more or less a traditional roundabout around our historic Court Square fountain. Plans were drawn to implement the roundabout, but it just so happened that Dover/Kohl and Partners had just been engaged to do our downtown master plan at the same time.
[as a brief interjection, this serendipitous event is similar to the way one of Hans Monderman's first traffic calming experiments unfolded in the Netherlands, as described in Traffic]
We asked their traffic engineers, Hall Planning and Engineering to review the roundabout. Again, as it so happened, Rick Hall (who describes himself as a “reformed” traffic engineer) was in Paris when he received the plans and was inspired to recommend a European style plaza for the space.
[another brief interjection: Should someone form an 'Institute of Reformed Traffic Engineers'?]
This caused a quick redesign essentially scrapping the original plans. Rick’s concept was to remove all traditional traffic control letting drivers “intuitively” navigate the space in an attempt to make the space more than just a traffic control device, but a thriving “marketplace” that could serve the many functions it had once enjoyed. This was a low volume but historically attractive area, so although his ideas were “outside the box”, they were well received by our leadership.
The key points of Hall’s design, says Conway, were:
Lack of traditional traffic markings and control, forcing drivers to be more alert and aware at eye level with other users of the space – other motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.
Use of Belgian cobbles as a roadway surface to give a rumble effect to drivers as they moved through the space – again in an attempt to make them intuitively move slower.
No raised curbing within the plaza to accommodate street closings for fairs, marching bands for parades, and easy pedestrian navigation.
This wasn’t without some controversy, he notes. “Our traffic engineers were uncomfortable with the lack of “direction” given to motorists. Our drivers were also thought to be too unfamiliar with such a “complicated” intersection. There were fears that drivers would be going the wrong way and chaos would result.”
Hall, for its part, describes the lack of markings as a kind of symbiotic relationship. As they note on their website: “HPE designers assured the city that a design speed of 25 mph would make explicit pavement markings, or guide lines, unnecessary. The lack of extensive markings would, in fact, help manage the vehicle speeds to the pedestrian friendly 20 to 25 mph range. Rough pavement texture and traffic enforcement will also help manage vehicle speeds.”
And the safety? “Drivers for the most part act as Rick predicted they would. The occasional driver goes the wrong way, but since the plaza is wide open and the speeds are so low, no accidents have resulted. There has actually not been a single accident involving vehicles or pedestrians due to the plaza concept.
We have had one intoxicated driver drive his Hummer straight into the fountain at 3am claiming he never even saw the always well lit 30′ fountain. No injuries other than our wrought iron fence and his Hummer damage.”
As Monderman once told me, similarly about a drunken driver, “there’s not a street that can cope with that problem.” And blog readers will of course know of Hummer drivers’ particular aversion to pesky things like laws.
I’ve not been to Montgomery, and I don’t know what the space was like before, but judging by the historic photo below, it almost seems like ‘back to the future,’ an era before the passenger vehicle had monopolized or helped destroy every last inch of urban space. As Monderman put it, “when you want people to behave in a village, you have to build a village.” Montgomery’s project suggests that design and context can be strong enough to guide proper driving behavior — and it doesn’t hurt to design places that actually want to make you leave your car.