Entrance to a Shared Space street. The sign is the standard.

Entrance to a 'Spielstrasse', with sign.

Here’s an experiment for anyone who drives a German car: on a level road, put it into first gear and take your foot off the accelerator. It should drive along at exactly 7km/h. (oh yeah: turn it on first)

This is because German towns have a network of ‘Spielstrassen’; equivalent of a ‘Woonerf’ in the Netherlands. On a Spielstrasse, everyone has the same rights to the space, cars going through must  give way to people and to other cars coming from the right, and drive at walking speed: 7km/h.  If you’re wondering where I got this useless information, I learned to drive in Germany and was informed many times of the dire consequences of speeding or running into a child (If you’re lucky the police catch you before the mob does) .

It’s a great system. Germans are usually pretty good drivers and most people drive at a maximum of around 10-15km/h, take care, don’t bully you and wait for pedestrians. On the other hand, because it’s a road, people tend to be aware of bikes and things so there’s very little conflict.  They are great to cycle along because the boys don’t have to watch out for cars: we can ride three abreast, or practice learn about road cycling. We’re looking for a new apartment and one of the criteria is that is should be on a Spielstrasse if possible.

Junction on a Spielstrasse in our village.

Unfortunately, no matter how scientifically designers design a street, however many bumps they make or trees they plant, however much street furniture they artully arrange to make chicanes, or cobbles they lay to encourage people to drive slowly, someone is going to try and drive fast, and stuff anyone who gets in the way.  The notion that their two-ton metal monster could probably do serious -possibly terminal- damage to a child who runs out of their home onto the street doesn’t seem to compute. It’s rare, but it happens, and when it does, the system falls down.

I guess this is on my mind because a town to the north of here has recently announced it is starting a ‘shared space‘ scheme instead of building a bypass.  This is different to a Spielstrasse because it’s on the main road: there will be no speed limit, but everyone has equal rights to the road, so trucks must give way to pedestrians, and drive slowly enough to stop if they need to (and in Germany the blame is squarely on the driver if they drive into a pedestrian).  I really want to see ‘shared space’ work because it bucks the trend of sacrificing land, houses, children’s health, and anything else that gets in the way of speeding motor vehicles: it makes drivers slow down which driving less convenient, which is good for all of us because then less people drive.  If it works, it could be a way of allowing pedestrians and cyclists back onto constricted village roads where motor vehicles currently rule, but looking at the way many drivers behave on our local roads, I wonder if the lack of barriers will make them negotiate or get more aggresive. Or am I being unduly pessimistic?

I’ll try and visit this scheme as it comes online, and post what I find.

[Since I posted this, Velochick has gone to visit the shared space scheme in Ashford, UK. She wasn’t that impressed, although from her description the scheme isn’t really true ‘Shared space’.]