This article was originally published at Makervillage
There’s a notion of “shared space” that’s really different from what we commonly associate with the term. Best conceived and articulated by Hans Monderman, an innovative European road traffic engineer, a shared space is the methodical reduction of roadway guidelines as a way to increase safety and vitality of a city street. An engineered shared space may lack curbs, traffic signs, road markings, and speed limits altogether.
Vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians just simply begin to converge through the same passageway or around the same square or circle. Eliminating hierarchical rules and forcing negotiation between different road users reduces the dominance of motor vehicles and enables all users to, well, share the space.
While this may seem a rather paradoxical design approach, researchers have studied the approach and found that “the introduction of such schemes have had positive effect on road safety, traffic volume, economic vitality, and community cohesion where a user’s behaviour becomes influenced and controlled by natural human interactions rather than by artificial regulation” (EU Shared Space Study).
The UK Department for Transport MVA has explored a few explanations for the success of such “traffic bazaars”, noting that “shared space is successful because the perception of risk may be a means or even a prerequisite for increasing objective safety. Because when a situation feels unsafe, people are more alert and there are fewer accidents.”
Think about it for a minute. You are driving. Then all of a sudden, you are merging with two other roads into a route around the downtown square, but there are no traffic lights, stop signs, sidewalks, or dashed lines. You stop driving on autopilot, and you have to start looking directly into the eyes of other drivers to attempt to understand their intention to speed up or slow down. You naturally reduce your speed. You see every cyclist and mom pushing a stroller. You become aware of the bustle of life around you. You are in the thick of it.
While this image might inspire fear, imagine you are the pedestrian! And it’s that fear of the unknown that causes every participant in the street, including drivers, walkers and bikers, to become socially responsible. Monderman called this the “risk compensation effect” where the increased shared risk necessarily increases the participation of all involved.
This notion is inspiring to me as I work to build and foster a startup maker community and seek to bring maker principles to bear on building a city economy. Using the road as a metaphor, it seems the traditional economic development groups are like the semi-trucks and motorized vehicles – they look to bring large loads of inventory requiring labor in and out of the community. They recruit industrial employers to move their operations, support the expansion of existing industry, and look to create incentives for both. They assume that because of their size, they have the right of way in issues relating to infrastructure, legislation, or resources. And usually they are right.
Bicyclers and walkers are like the small businesses, retail shops, solopreneurs, and start-ups. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll stick to the small streets and stay off the highway. They move slower it seems, and can’t transport as much. They simply don’t have as much power. And generally, everyone follows their prescribed paths trying not to get in each other’s way.
This is not as negative as it sounds. Certainly a path is more enjoyable than a highway on a bicycle. And no one wants to walk in front of a bus. A shared space by Mondermon’s definition is riskier. But it’s that risk, that uncertainty that actually protects each participant and promotes real interaction between human beings.
Perhaps, like Monderman found with traffic, there are benefits to intentionally creating places where there aren’t prescribed rules and roles within a community development plan. Perhaps there are community-wide benefits to letting the bicycles and the cars of busines ride the same road with no restrictions.
And this, in a way, is what I’m after with Makervillage. I want to give artists, individuals, and small groups who have passion and plans the resources they need to share the street. This means giving them ways to enter the marketplace without onerous restriction, like subsidized rent and utilities. It means giving them access to the tools to prototype, produce, and distribute, like machinery, materials, abundant connectivity to the rest of the world, and crowdfunded finance platforms.
And then stepping back and seeing what happens.
Our one bicycle here and one bicycle there may not seem to represent as much force as a semi-truck on the road of economic development. But mathematically, ten employers of ten is equal to one employer of a hundred. I envision swarms of bicycles – dozens of individuals creating companies around new products and ideas and services. And I see them sharing the road with the semi-trucks of industry and making a mighty impact on the path we travel together as a community.