Northwest pedestrians, especially in Seattle, are known for being peculiarly law-abiding. We wait patiently at crosswalks for the walk signal, even when a car is nowhere in sight. But we might be better off—even safer—with a little more anarchy on our asphalt, according to this fascinating Salon article (you have to register for a one-day pass, then go to the Tech section).

Portland writer Linda Baker describes a trend called “second-generation” traffic calming, which proposes a chaos theory of the streets that’s taken off in Europe: instead of separating and regulating pedestrian and vehicle traffic, we should pull out traffic lights, stop signs, and other controls; add in design elements that blur the boundary between street and sidewalk; and let everyone, including cars, regulate themselves.

Without any clear right of way, “motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.” It might even improve traffic flow and reduce congestion. And streets become more like what they used to be, public spaces where playing children, pedestrians, cyclists, and streetcars, are on equal footing with slow-moving cars.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Sheenie Yao for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • The approach has worked well in areas of the Netherlands and Denmark (in some cases fatality rates at busy intersections have dropped to zero when controls were taken away), and is spreading to other parts of Europe. Will it take off in North America? It’s a tough call, says Baker, pointing out that our lack of a communal sensibility might hinder the process.

    But each of our great Northwest cities already has a few, exceptional locations where cars and pedestrians interact in unorthodox ways and create surprising, even festive, places: Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square in Seattle and Granville Island and Gastown in Vancouver are the best known (send us a note about what we’ve missed). As more cities embrace multiple transportation modes-another Northwest trend—this approach might make a lot of sense.

    The “shared street” approach echoes ideas of many others, including David Engwicht, author of Street Reclaiming; and urban design legend Jane Jacobs, who in the 1960s pioneered the then-radical observation that parks, streets, and city blocks designed for multiple uses and varied schedules are safer, more people-friendly, and interesting. To Jacobs, one of the worst ills affecting American cities was the “Great Blight of Dullness.” Shared streets are one cure.