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How to Make Shared Streets Truly Shared by All?


Shared streets, curbless streets, shared spaces, all these facilities have been on the rise for the last fifteen years. Based on the removal of the conventional division between sidewalk and roadway, they lead to a decline in car domination, a good way to improve safety, quality of life and the attractiveness of city centers! At least on paper. In reality, experience shows that the most vulnerable users do not always find their way there. Among them are seniors and people who are blind or visually impaired. Sharing the street with bicycles and motor vehicles reinforces the sense of insecurity when navigating those spaces.

How to reconcile road sharing and comfort for all? How to ensure that shared streets do not become zones closed to the most fragile pedestrians? In this article, we provide you with a series of recommendations resulting from international experience so that shared streets are truly shared by all.

What are shared streets?

Shared streets or shared spaces are zones where pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles mix in the same space. The design of shared streets should suggest that the most vulnerable users have greater priority over all others. In other words, a child, an elderly or disabled pedestrian should benefit from the awareness of all other users in order to be able to move around safely. Next on the “vulnerability scale” are able-bodied pedestrians, bicyclists and other active modes of transportation, powered two-wheelers, cars and trucks.

The design of a shared street aims to reduce traffic speed and increase driver awareness. Shared streets are generally designed to produce motor vehicle operating speeds between 5 and 15 mph. Thus, design elements that suggest priority to motor vehicles and separate modes are removed. They include vertical curbs, traffic signals, pavement marking, and other conventional street elements.

It happens that curbless streets and complete streets operate quite similarly to shared streets. The recommendations we’re going to cover apply to all categories of shared spaces, regardless of their official classification.

The benefits of shared streets

The transformation of city centers into shared streets or low-speed zones has many advantages.

Pedestrian safety

Creating shared streets aims to provide more space for pedestrians, bicyclists and other active modes of transportation, while improving their safety.

Space flexibility

Compared to a conventional street, a shared street offers more flexibility. It can be easily converted into a pedestrian area when organizing markets, festivals or other events. The rest of the time, it allows access for motor vehicles even if it does not give them priority.

Improving accessibility and economic development with shared streets

When a street is too narrow to provide comfortable sidewalks that comply with accessibility standards, converting it into a shared street saves space. It is also a good way to facilitate access to shops and services for people with reduced mobility or using a stroller. If the shared street is well designed, it is likely to attract a lot of people and have a positive impact on economic development.

The recommendations we give you in this article are precisely intended to help you design safe and welcoming shared streets for everyone, in order to be able to derive all the expected benefits.

How to avoid creating zones closed to the most vulnerable users?

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides that no person with a disability shall, because a public entity’s facilities are inaccessible or unusable, be excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of a public entity’s programs, services, or activities-including pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way. 

The concept of shared streets was originally created on the basis of “normal” human abilities. However, in terms of human capacities, we know well that the norm does not exist. There is simply no question that certain people are deprived of essential faculties. They are already vulnerable in general, and even more exposed to close contact with motor vehicles due to the removal of physical barriers. This primarily concerns blind or visually impaired people and seniors. The absence of detectable landmarks such as curb lines creates orientation difficulties for them and increases their feeling of insecurity. In addition, negotiating priorities in shared streets involves eye contact, which is obviously impossible for blind or visually impaired people. The same goes for “smombies ”, smartphone addicts who never look up from their screen, even if, in their case, it’s voluntary.

In a conventional street, visually impaired people rely above all on detectable edges, such as curbs and building faces to keep their path. They identify the location of pedestrian crossings thanks to the noise of traffic flows and learn to analyze intersections to cross at the right time. Detectable warning surfaces alert them as soon as they are about to cross the road. The accessible pedestrian signals (APS) associated with the traffic lights are also very useful for identifying crosswalks and crossing safely. In an environment where traffic flows are not regulated, all these landmarks disappear. The shared streets are also used a lot by silent vehicles such as bicycles or electric scooters.

Seniors also face similar challenges. Promiscuity with motor vehicles, bicycles and scooters creates a feeling of insecurity. Indeed, age-related sensory and cognitive impairments complicate risk assessment. Many seniors say they avoid shared streets for fear of an accident.

The fact that these vulnerable users avoid shared streets also calls accident data into question. How can we say that these developments are less accident-prone if part of the population avoids them?

What design rules for a space truly shared by all?

The rules for designing a shared street aim to naturally induce a reduction in speed. The removal of signs, curbs and road markings delimiting spaces aims to reduce the illusion of safety and create uncertainty in the minds of drivers to encourage them to slow down. But experience shows that removing signs is not enough to change behavior overnight.

Show Pedestrian Priority

The first step to take when designing a shared street is to make its operation visible and to leave no ambiguity about the priority scheme. This requires the installation of Share Road Signs at any entry/exit of shared streets, but also at intersections so as to remind drivers of the pedestrian priority.

The facilities present in a shared street should also encourage pedestrians to appropriate space and drivers not to feel at home. Among them are:

Creating chicanes, raised crossings and textured paving to calm the traffic speed,

Installing seats and benches,

Introducing revegetation by planting trees, installing planters and vegetable plots,

Designing a lighting homogeneous over the entire area.

Create a comfort zone for pedestrians

The concept of “comfort zone” for pedestrians was first introduced in England and then in the United States. It is described in the good practice guide published in 2017 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The comfort zone consists in an obstacle-free pedestrian route where pedestrians can move around safely without risk of conflict with other users. Where possible, the comfort zone should be aligned in proximity with building faces.

The guide recommends providing a space between the buildings and the comfort zone to allow the installation of shop signs and storefronts without them invading on the walkway.

Also to preserve the comfort zone, lighting fixtures, road signs, street furniture and café terraces should be grouped together in a “furniture zone” located between the comfort zone and the area shared with the vehicles in the center of the street. The comfort zone should be at least six feet wide so that two pedestrians can walk side by side and comfortably pass a pedestrian walking in the opposite direction.

Provide tactile walking surface indicators and visual contrast

It would of course be counterproductive to recreate the boundaries found in conventional streets. However, it is essential that blind or visually impaired people can find their way around and move around safely. They should then find two types of detectable surfaces: warning surfaces and directional indicators.

Detectable warning surfaces should be installed at each entry/exit of the shared street and at any intersection where vehicles have right-of-way.

Directional indicators should be installed along the comfort zone so that visually impaired people can move around without encountering obstacles. If the comfort zone is more than 11 feet wide, it is better to install directional indicators in the middle of it. If it’s less than 11 feet wide, it is better to place them on the side of the buildings while leaving space for shop signs and storefronts.

There are currently no specifications for the use of directional indicators in the United States but it can be referred to the international standard ISO 23599:2012. This guarantees that directional indicators will be easily detectable and identifiable by people who are blind or have low vision.

In the context of a new street design, it would be a shame not to take advantage of this to integrate directional indicators into the architectural design. The color of this device should contrast with the adjoining surface, either light on dark or dark on light. It should be detectable underfoot and with a white cane. It is essential to organize a consultation bringing together a maximum of users of different profiles to choose the best system. It is unfortunately common that surface treatments theoretically used to provide tactile and visual contrast are totally imperceptible to the main parties concerned.

Install audio signals

The removal of traffic lights and their associated accessible pedestrian signals (APS) from shared streets deprives blind or visually impaired people of valuable landmarks. It is therefore important to restore them by installing audio beacons. These beacons can be activated from a distance with a remote control or the MyMoveo app by Okeenea. The audio beacons have the advantage of providing useful information to visually impaired pedestrians without altering the architectural design of shared streets. Audio beacons can be attached to public lighting poles or on building faces.

We recommend installing sound beacons:

At the entries and exits of the shared street to inform visually impaired pedestrians that they are entering a shared space,

At intersections to make it easier for them to cross the streets,

Whenever an essential point of interest is present.

The audio messages broadcast by the beacons must inform blind or visually impaired pedestrians that they are in a shared street and provide information on its operation and the presence of detectable surfaces.

The ultimate guide to accessible pedestrian signals. I want it!

Don’t skip user consultation to conceive shared streets!

Shared streets are relatively recent facilities in the history of urban planning. We still lack perspective on the appropriation of these shared spaces by all types of users. This is why the consultation stage is essential. This consultation must involve the most varied profiles:

Pedestrian representatives,

Representatives of bicyclists,

The elderly,

Pedestrians with reduced mobility (wheelchair users or other mobility aids: canes, walkers, etc.),

Blind or visually impaired people, as well as orientation and mobility specialists,

People with an auditory, mental, intellectual or cognitive disability,

Maintenance and operation staff who are responsible for roads, vegetation and street furniture.

Key stakeholders should be involved at every stage of the planning and design process, from needs assessment to final design.

Care must be taken to ensure accessibility at all stages of the consultation. Remember to arrange:

Meeting rooms accessible to people with reduced mobility,

A support service for people requiring orientation assistance,

Presentation materials in large print, audio, Braille or accessible digital format (depending on attendee needs),

Sign language interpreters (ASL),

Induction loops or other amplification system for hearing-impaired people with hearing aids (depending on attendee needs),

Contrasting plans and 3D models to facilitate the representation of visually impaired people,

A construction game (Lego or other) to allow participants to represent and manipulate the facility components…

This list is not exhaustive. Remember to ask the participants in the consultation meetings about their specific needs.

In conclusion, the transformation of city centers has accelerated considerably since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can only rejoice at the increase in the place given to walking and other active modes of mobility. But let’s keep in mind that not everyone has the same physical, sensory, cognitive or intellectual abilities. Let’s make sure that everyone finds their place in these new attractive urban environments. We hope these guidelines help you design shared spaces that are truly shared by all.

Want to know how to design an inclusive and safe city for all? Check out our articles:

Vision Zero: A Revolutionary Approach to Road Safety

Removing Traffic Lights vs Pedestrian Safety: a Guide to Inclusive Streets

How Can a Smart City Make Life Easier for People with Disabilities?

How Can Accessible Pedestrian Signals Become Responsive to COVID-19?

Published on March 25th, 2022


A blind pedestrian is walking towards a staircase

The concept of shared streets was originally created on the basis of “normal” human abilities. However, in terms of human capacities, we know well that the norm does not exist. There is simply no question that certain people are deprived of essential faculties. 


Lise Wagner

Lise Wagner

Accessibility Expert

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