PEOPLE PRIORITY STREETS: Neighborways, Slow Streets, and Safety Zones

Roads are for moving on. But they are also for being in. There is a growing effort to reclaim the historic role of streets as a neighborhood’s collective front yard, a place for people to meet and talk, to sit and look or eat, and for their children to play.  From temporary Play Streets and Open Streets to more permanent Shared Space, Neighborways, and Slow Zones, there are a growing menu of strategies for combining the two roles of streets as travel corridors and public space – the largest single asset owned by most local governments. And along with these is a re-emergence of “traffic calming” as a positive goal.  


Building on the amazing CycloVia movement made famous in Bogota, Columbia, Open Streets  events temporarily replace cars with people on city streets, creating a new urban playground full of dancing, games, bicycling, food, people, and giving a glimpse of what could be done with the publicly-owned space between buildings other than car traffic.  (The movement was represented in Boston by the unfortunately no-longer active Circle The City project.)  Focusing on children and low-volume residential streets, New York City’s Play Streets are closed to traffic regularly during summer weekdays; Boston’s Play Streets are permitted one day at a time.

A more permanent approach is the transformation of intersections or streets into pedestrian malls or plazas – the most famous being New York City’s Times Square which, despite its subsequent infestation by the crassest commercialism, has become – like its duplicates in other parts of the city – a highly valued public amenity. 

But given our continuing reliance on cars, forbidding them entirely is not scalable across large areas or even on all streets and in all neighborhoods.  We need to find ways to accommodate all modes, letting delivery vehicles restock stores, families get to and from their homes, visitors and customers get to their destinations.  The standard strategy for allowing people using different modes of transportation to move safely and efficiently in the same corridor is to keep them separated.   Most streets have distinct, curb-separated lanes for traffic and pedestrians, usually described as the street and the sidewalk.  In more recent years, cities have been adding separated bus lanes (sometimes as part of a Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system) and separated or protected bike lanes (a.k.a. cycle tracks).


However, there is also an opposite approach – keeping everyone together.  The best known modern version of this strategy, often called Shared Space, started in Germany and is most frequently used in the UK. It focuses on busy intersections with complex road patterns.  Signs and speed humps warn approaching motorists that they are entering a 5-10 mph zone in which there are no curbs, traffic signals, sidewalks, or marked lanes – just a flat surface that everyone has to negotiate.  Supporters claim that these are not only incredibly safe (primarily because everyone is going slowly and paying attention) but also extremely efficient at getting people through and avoiding congestion (primarily because everyone is moving, even if slowly, rather than spending long periods waiting for a green light, and because the slow speed means that fewer people get confused or lost while trying to find their way through).  However, opponents cite counter evidence that the UK version, at least, is not as hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists as claimed.  Pedestrian crosswalks are being re-installed in some UK intersections on the grounds that the increase in “tourists” unfamiliar with the concept requires more explicit markings.

But there is another version of the shared space idea that focuses on the road between intersections and the entire right-of-way width of the corridor.   Called woonerofs (or “living streets”) in Holland, “home zones” in the UK, “traffic calming areas” in German, “slow streets” in Boston, and “neighborways” in Somerville, these extreme forms of “traffic calming” are typically located in quiet residential areas.  (Non-exclusive pedestrian malls such as Boston’s Washington Street are the parallel strategy in commercial areas.) Cars are allowed but the streets have been altered to deter through-traffic, sometimes by entry barriers, sometimes by making the surface uncomfortable for car speeds over 10 or 15 mph using raised crosswalks, curb extensions, speed humps or bumps, or other structural changes.  Some neighborways legally forbid through traffic: only allow local residents (abutters) to enter.  Others are more open.   Heavy trucks are banned.  Signs announce “cars are guests” and “yield to pedestrians”.  Planters break up the lane, requiring cars to zig-zag.  Tree openings are scattered across the roadway.  And street murals and pavement paintings proclaim the surfaces’ pedestrian-priority status.  The goal is that the streets are safe enough for children to play in – meaning that vehicles are going slowly enough and drivers are paying enough attention to notice what’s around them.


What’s interesting is the different scales that these projects are beginning to take.  Some are just one block long, such as the shared space on Winthrop Street in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.  Others include the between-intersection blocks along a short route:  the Somerville Neighborways connect schools to parks and city centers.  Others follow a street for an extended length, creating a Bike Boulevard. (Although Bicycle Boulevards are as much for pedestrians as for bicyclists, it is the bikes presence and pressure that requires the longer distances and more radical street redesign – hence the name.)  And the plan for the Talbot-Norfolk-Triangle Eco-Innovation District in Dorchester is to create an entire neighborhood of reduced traffic speed – a “slow zone.”  This is a large scale approach already happening in Switzerland where the areas between major arterials are declared “safety zones” with drastically reduced traffic speeds.  This strategy of channeling higher speed car traffic into major roads (and highest speed traffic to the Interstate-like highways) while structurally prioritizing the safety and comfort of people on foot or bikes on residential and local commercial streets is one of the most powerful and effective extensions of the original shared space idea.

And it is an idea whose time may have come. New York City, Chicago, Portland (OR), Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, and Boston have all adopted “Vision Zero” policies with the goal of eliminating transportation fatalities and/or injuries.  (Full and proud disclosure: LivableStreets was and is part of the coalition pushing for its adoption and effective implementation.)  And the movement is rapidly spreading to other cities as well. As the posters say, “speed = death” and it’s as true for vehicles as for drugs.  It seems inevitable that the multi-level strategy of creating people priority streets will be a key component of any Vision Zero program. 

When urban designer Jan Gehl was visiting Boston recently he was asked how he framed his car-limiting  ideas so as to not trigger instant push-back from people worried about losing space for cars.   He said he simply talked about making our cities and streets into “people priority” areas. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if parents weren’t afraid to let their kids play outside?


Thanks to David Queeley and Mark Chase for feedback on an earlier draft.  Any remaining factual errors or opinions are my own responsibility.


Related previous posts:


OPENING STREETS, CHANGING POLICIES: Creating Space for Neighborhood Revival and Transportation Reform

OPEN STREETS: How Public Space Creates Civic Culture – and Democracy

OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

ReDEFINING TRANSPORTATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

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