An American Woonerf

What life was like when streets were shared.

Sure it’s from 1906, but its a fascinating reminder: American streets have not always been the exclusive province of automobiles, where all other uses are forbidden on pain of death.

It’s an early film taken from the perspective of a San Francisco cable car. I’m fascinated by the functional chaos of the city: you’ve got pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles all mixing it up. (In particular, I love the fat truncheon-wielding cop who wanders by at about 30 seconds.) Personally, I’ve not seen anything quite like this is real life, except perhaps in a few locations in the developing world. But there’s a movement afoot to replicate the better parts of this experience—the “woonerf” or shared street — in a modern way.

And it does look like it could benefit from some 21st century improvements. I flinch seeing the cyclists ride parallel to the streetcar tracks, and I worry for the pedestrians scurrying out of the way just in time. (The 1908 Barcelona version is even hairier.) Yet there’s growing evidence that shared streets are actually safer than the segregated versions we use exclusively today.

For more on that, check out Linda Baker’s excellent 2004 piece in Salon:

“But as soon as you emphasize separation of functions, you have a more dangerous environment,” says Hamilton-Baillie. “Because then the driver sees that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment and chases a ball across the street is a child in the wrong place.”

When it comes to reconfiguring streets as community spaces, ground zero is once again Holland and Denmark, where planners are removing traffic lights in some towns and cities, as well as white divider lines, sidewalks and speed limits. Research has shown that fatality rates at busy intersections, where two or three people were being killed every year, dropped to zero when controls and boundaries were taken away.

Food for thought anyway.

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  1. Cascadian says:

    The bicycle wheels were wider, so the chance of slipping into the rail track was a lot smaller, if it existed at all.I do think that with so many people living in the suburbs a rail system interacting this closely with pedestrians and cars would never work—it’s too slow to get people from far-flung areas to their destinations. We might sacrifice some safety with separation of uses, but we gain in speed.Now, for streets other than arterials and streetcar lines, this kind of mixed use, updated for what’s good in modern standards, could be helpful. That’s where woonerfs come in.

  2. joshuadf says:

    To be fair, paved roads at all were a rarity back then, and grade-separated rail was the measure of speed, faster than a horse can run. Raised macadam roads with storm sewers for runoff required big public investment. Remember the Good Roads movement? The Lincoln Highway wasn’t even built until 1913. It would have been unthinkable to pave your neighborhood street, let alone a private driveway for a few cars of your own! Maybe it’s a measure of how incredibly wealthy we’ve become relative to our ancestors.The puzzling thing to me today is that so many anti-tax groups seem to be in denial that roads and supporting infrastructure cost massive amounts of money.Of course, there are also big advantages to segregated streets or trails for certain purposes as Cascadian points out.

  3. sra says:

    writing from DC—we recently had a massive snowstorm here and it was so lovely having no cars on the road—everyone was just a little nicer when you can share the streets.

  4. Anne says:

    Granville Island in Vancouver has shared streets. It’s great for pedestrians and cyclists but kind of hellish for cars. When I am going there in a car I try to find parking “off-island” and walk in. But lots of people aren’t daunted by it, they just have to drive a little slower.Having pedestrians in the road is a great “traffic calming” technique!

  5. Sea Wolf says:

    This is a fantastic clip! Thanks for sharing it. A few random thoughts. If I’m not mistaken, the film takes us down Market Street, east toward the Ferry Building. This is a very wide boulevard on level ground, an important but also a-typical SF street, even to this day. I don’t think this makes the film less instructive, but it is worth noting that this is a special street. What struck me, even more than the mix of people, cars, horses, bikes, and streetcars (which is wonderful), is the sheer number of streetcars passing by. We probably need just this kind of frequency of public transportation for it to work in our downtowns today. If you think about it, the taxis in Manhattan function this way in aggregate. They’re so consistent on the major avenues they’re like the endless belt of dishes at a sushi bar, always another one coming along. It all breaks down when you’re left at a streetcar/bus/taxi (whatever) stop longer than it takes to walk to your destination.

  6. Matt the Engineer says:

    Great video. I notice one nice thing about cablecars is that they all move at a constant speed, so they’re wonderfully predictable and easy to avoid. I’d love to see a woonerf district in one of our cities. Change the look of the street to make it clear you’re playing under different rules, then level everything out – no curbs, no stripes, no sidewalks, no stoplights. Tell bus drivers (or, much preferrably, streetcar drivers) to keep at a very constant speed – say 7 mph, and they’ll still probably be just as fast overall since they won’t have to stop at intersections.[Wolf] In Seattle, 3rd is like this with buses most of the day.

  7. Wendell Fitzgerald says:

    Definitely a libertarian’s dream. No rules, everybody must take full responsibility for themselves and get out of the way in time. Definitely no spaced out dope smokers walking around in the middle of the street in those days. Reminds me of current day Panama City and Chenai, India where there are few stop signs or stop lights. You had to watch out but that made everyone more conscious of each other and what was happening. Yet the streets were more alive as suggested in the commentary. I realized in those places that Americans are way out of balance with safety precautions up the wazoo and lawyers all over the place to take on your case or get on your case. I notice that when people in developing countries talk about professionals they never include “lawyers”. Engineers and doctors maybe but never lawyers. I am a recovering lawyer myself so I can appreciate that.Thank you for this beautiful walk through my old home town.

  8. Branko Collin says: : Leidsestraat, Amsterdam, 2007. Note that only pedestrians and trams are allowed there, but you see the same sort of interaction between the two. This is a very popular street with tourists, as it leads to the watered down beer of the Leidseplein.

  9. Amsterdamize says:

    It’s quite alarming how the ‘woonerf’ concept is equated to ‘shared space’ in this context. These two couldn’t be farther apart. ‘Woonerf’ is about intensive traffic calming in neighborhoods to enable livable streets for families, disconnecting them from commuter traffic.And about ‘shared space': Monderman’s concept has been tested and implemented in several towns in the Netherlands and abroad, but it needs a lot of precision engineering and comprehensive approach for it to work. And the history of traffic (re: grid, density, modes & behavior) in Europe differs greatly from that in the US, which is important to note as a point of reference.Via Fietsberaad (Dutch Bicycle Research Institute):- Sense And Nonsense of Shared Space“Shared Space makes sense, if urban upgrading of sensitive street and open space is a primary objective of the plan. With prudent application and limitation to short sections and intersections of small-town high streets, shopping streets or main shopping streets, the advantagesof the concept can be properly exploited. It can be further observed that the application of the mixed-modality principle in cases of heavy traffic volumes requires the arrangement of outstanding visibility conditions that can only be assured by consistently banning of stationary vehicles and, as far as possible, cutting back on signing to the level of necessity. These street spaces appear “clean”, attractive and safe.It is nonsensical to believe that Shared Space is a cure-all for the prevention of accidents, conflicts and, not to be forgotten, protests by residents. Views about the results of the conversion measures are divergent and, given the small number of examples and findings, difficult to objectify. Shared Space has its limits, primarily concerning traffic volumes and the length of potential sections. Moreover, it is hard to deal with all the requirements of a particularsituation and Shared Space projects struggle with such difficulties just like all other design principles aimed at creating streets for connections, access and accommodation.”- Headway for Shared SpaceSomeone who has experience living with Shared Space and thinks it can only work in small (and certain sections of) towns with low volume of motorized traffic and dominance by pedestrians and cyclists. But even there people are moving away from Shared Space. The number of accidents hasn’t gone up, but there are plenty of testimonies to suggest that people feel less safe.”I live in Haren where Mr Monderman has convinced the local government that his philosophy is best. Now, many residents of Haren find the situation has become less safe. It is true that more accidents have not resulted, but the subjective safety has got worse. People feel less safe in the new situation. I think that many more near-accidents occur.””According to Monderman, pedestrians and drivers have to be friendlier and to look out for one another, and then zebra crossings and suchlike are not needed. It doesn’t work in practice. At the insistence of many organisations (parents organisations, Fietsersbond (the cyclists union), several zebra crossings have been laid.””It should be noted that while there are more Shared Space areas here than elsewhere, they are still comparatively rare in this country. There are around 100 areas designed in this way, mostly just single junctions in the centres of villages and small towns. Segregated cycle paths continue to join these places together, and in most cases the majority of the infrastructure is still designed on traditional, successful, Dutch lines with a high degree of segregation of cyclists. If you’ve heard of Dutch infrastructure increasing the number of cyclists, that is where to look as that is what 99% of the infrastructure looks like.To me, Shared Space is at its most successful in small villages of just a couple of hundred homes which already had little traffic and where there is really not much of a problem to start with. In bigger places, it can be quite unpleasant.One of the reasons why the Dutch have had such success with controlling traffic is that they try things out. Shared space is but one of a series of brave experiments. I am sure that the better aspects of it will continue to appear in new infrastructure, but the less successful aspects will be left behind. I note that a recent road layout change in Assen right next to a “shared space” style junction from a few years ago did not expand on the shared space but represents a return to more traditional Dutch design with segregated cycle paths.I am glad about this. It would be foolish to abandon the high level of subjective safety that has lead to such a high degree of cycling. It would take years to build enough cycle unfriendly infrastructure to really impact on the level of cycling, but once the decline started it would carry on for decades.”

  10. Steve Hoyt-McBeth says:

    My bureacratic ancestors did a similar set of films in Portland in the late 1930’s. You need to scroll down the screen to get to the films:

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