6 Places Where Cars, Bikes, and Pedestrians All Share the Road As Equals

If you aren’t a traffic engineer or an urban planner, the word woonerf probably looks like a typo, or maybe the Twitter handle of whoever runs marketing for Nerf (woo!). But you might want to get familiar with the term—Dutch for «living street»—because the urban design concepts it embraces are on the rise.

A woonerf is a street or square where cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and other local residents travel together without traditional safety infrastructure to guide them. Also sometimes called a «shared street,» a woonerf is generally free of traffic lights, stop signs, curbs, painted lines, and the like. The basic idea is that once these controls are stripped away, everyone is forced to become more alert and ultimately more cooperative. Through less restraint comes greater focus.

The decades-old vision is not without its critics. Skeptics wonder if drivers feel too much ownership of the road to adapt their ways, or if shared streets can work fine for smaller towns but not in big urban centers, or if removing oversight is naïve at a time when people won’t even stop texting to drive. Then there’s the general critique pointed out by Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt in a 2008 article about shared streets: «people do act like idiots.»

All fair points (especially the last). Butwoonerf supporters can point to the success of shared streets projects in Europe as well as their gradual adoption inother parts of the world—including major cities in the auto-centric United States. Construction of Chicago’s first shared street, for instance, is expected to begin this spring.

We took a closer look at six places around the world that have woonerfed and emerged better for it.

Drachten, The Netherlands

Shared streets had a great modern champion in the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman before he died in 2008. In a profile of Monderman from that year, Tom Vanderbilt described the «striking» success of a shared-space program implemented in the Dutch town of Drachten. Monderman eliminated «not only the traffic lights but virtually every other traffic control,» writes Vanderbilt, leaving behind an inviting town square. The results were less congestion, quicker buses, half as many accidents, more hand signals and communication, and smoother traffic flows.

Norrköping, Sweden

In 2004 a major intersection at the center of Norrköping, a college town near Stockholm, was totally transformed in the shared streets style. Detailing the project in the journal Built Environment a few years later, urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie wrote that the area replaced traffic lights and other traditional road indicators with a «distinctive paving pattern» that suited pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers in what had become more of a «coherent plaza.»

About 13,000 vehicles (cars as well as buses) still used the space daily, and although this traffic moved slower there was less reported congestion, as well as greater use by pedestrians and a general rise in retail activity. Again, the space isn’t perfect—the elderly and the blind voiced concerns—but early surveys found «satisfaction and confidence with the new arrangements is increasing.»

Bohmte, Germany

Inspired by Monderman’s work, Bohmte created a woonerf in 2007 in the center of town. Local officials believed a shared streets arrangement would do more than safety crossings and speed traps had done to decrease the several dozen accidents that occurred each year at the main intersection. TheWashington Post reported that Bohmte replaced its sidewalks, curbs, street markers, traffic signals, and parking spots with a reddish-brick pavement—its plan to «force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead.»

London, England

England has had a number of shared streets successes in smaller places, including the town of Poynton and Elwick Square in Ashford. But a modifiedwoonerf has also succeeded on London’s Kensington High Street, a major shopping corridor. The street changes weren’t quite as dramatic as they’ve been in other places (Kensington kept some traffic lights, for instance) but new crossings and narrower lanes did have a positive impact on the area.

A 2006 report by Transport for London found that pedestrian flows had increased 7 percent and bike flows as much as 30 percent several years later. More importantly, road collisions had been cut in half: from about 66 a year before the change to 34 after it. While TfL questioned whether or not this change could be considered a «true simplified streetscape,» there was little doubt it was an effective one:

Auckland, New Zealand

Several streets in Auckland’s central business district have been turned into shared spaces: on Elliott Street, for instance, markers of exclusive car use (such as curbs and double yellows) were replaced with stone pavement. Studies of these streets are in the early stages but have already found the much more pleasant for pedestrians on several measures. A 2014 safety review of Elliott Street found that both vehicle speeds (above) and volumes had significantly decreased.

The 2014 report did suggest taking additional traffic calming measures to ensure that car speeds remain low at night, when the presence of fewer pedestrians might encourage drivers to go faster. But on the whole it found no evidence for increased collisions:

Seattle, Washington

In April 2014, Seattle opened Bell Street Park, a woonerf that turned four blocks into a 56,000-square-foot area that, in the words of the city, «will encourage pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles to share the space.» The city took out curbs, leveled the pavement, added street furniture, and removed car lanes—»creating eddies where people can gather around food trucks, gardens, and play equipment,» writes Josh Feit of Seattle Met.*

The love isn’t universal; one critic says there’s «way too much stuff» in the shared space, and drivers feel a new enforcement push meant to ensure they turn off Bell Street after one block is really just a ticket trap. But property values in the area have reportedly gone up, and Seattle has plans for at least two more shared streets in the works.

The World’s first Solar bike path

When cities run out of space for solar panels on rooftops, one of the next places to turn could be roads—or bike paths. In the Netherlands, one of the country’s newest bike paths doubles as a solar energy generator that could eventually help power surrounding neighborhoods.

«In the Netherlands, we have about 140,000 kilometers of roads—enough to go three times around the world, and more. It’s a huge area, more than all of the rooftops combined,» explains Sten de Wit from TNO, the research organization that helped create the new bike path.

«We already put solar panels on rooftops, and this is a process that is going faster and faster,» he says. «But if we look at the goals we have for sustainable energy production we need more area than just rooftops. If we can put panels in a road which is there anyway—then we can get that function and lots of green energywithout disturbing the landscape or taking extra space.»

TNO worked with engineers and local government to develop a paving system, called SolaRoad, that could generate power while still holding up to traffic. «If you put a normal solar panel on the road, you’d have two main issues—one would be that it’s slippery especially when wet, and two, it would probably break very quickly,» de Wit says. «Those were the two main challenges we had to solve. It also had to be transparent enough that light could reach the solar cells.»

The new bike path is a pilot, and the researchers will use it to gather all kinds of information, including how much energy this type of road can generate. «Based on what we’ve done in the lab, we think the energy gain will be between 50-70 kilowatt hours per square meter per year,» de Wit explains. A typical Dutch household could be entirely powered by about 50 square meters of roadway.

The pilot path will mostly handle bike traffic, but also the occasional car, and the researchers plan to keep developing the technology for use on regular roads (in a similar way to the U.S.-based Solar Roadways project, which claims that solar roads could power the entire United States).

They also hope to take the technology beyond the Netherlands. «The Netherlands is not the most sunny country in the world,» says de Wit. «So if we go further south, it’s very likely that this product will be at least as interesting there as it is here.»

The technology isn’t cheap—the pilot bike path cost $3.75 million dollars for a narrow stretch of only 230 feet. But as the development progresses, the cost is expected to come down. And since it generates power, it can slowly start to pay for itself.