Feb 27, 2012

Madrid: Different Ways to Share Space

Madrid has spent a great deal of effort over the past few decades improving the quality of its public realm. Famous for it's street life (on any given weekend, thousands of people spill into the streets), establishing more vibrant public space in this city is clearly warranted. In its center, the historically narrow streets are simply insufficient for the multitude of people walking to share with high volumes of motorized traffic. City officials have accordingly used various methods to limit vehicular traffic in an effort to manage this congestion and make the city a more inviting place to mingle – an essential piece of Mediterranean culture.

While it's easy to spit out a term like "car-free", the truth is cities will always require some (if limited) motor vehicle access, even in downtown districts. Deliveries need to be made, public transport must move through, hotels and taxis require certain access, and residents need to be able to reach their homes. In San Francisco, we are or will soon be dealing with these sort of competing demands as we consider limiting vehicular access in certain areas.

To satisfy everyone's claims to access, what Madrid has done is limit vehicular access in different ways depending on the circumstances and constraints of the street. Though the city's reality is far from this simple, I've organized Madrid's traffic-lite streets into three unique zones: (1) Pedestrian Zones – entirely car-free spaces, (2) Shared Zones – motorized traffic is heavily restricted with pedestrians given priority, and (3) Blurry Zones – motorized traffic retains priority over pedestrians but design promotes enhanced walkability.

With many ideas floating around to somehow restrict vehicular traffic on Jefferson St in Fisherman's Wharf, Grant Ave in Chinatown, and Valencia St in the Mission, as well as in other locations, it would be smart for us to consider the approaches of other cities as we move forward. After the jump, I parse apart these three zones from Madrid in more detail.

(1) Pedestrain Zones

These should sound pretty familiar. A pedestrian zone is for all intents and purposes an entirely car-free space. You may see a police car or city maintenance vehicle roll by every so often, but these areas are designed for people to walk, sit, mingle, and (commonly also) bicycle without being disturbed by traffic. Everybody moves at walking speed and the focus is on place as opposed to movement. You can see pedestrian zones in many cities across the world – there's the famous Strøget in Copenhagen, Marienplatz in Munich, Váci Street in Budapest, Takeshita Street in Tokyo, and of course the new Times Square in New York City.

In Madrid, the areas surrounding Puerta del Sol clearly fit this designation. Sol, as it's commonly abbreviated, fulfills many purposes for Madridians – it's a popular meeting point for friends to begin their adventures in the city, a bustling shopping district, a great place to people-watch, and most generally a true hub of vibrant urban life. It's really amazing how people fill the streets!

(2) Shared Zones

This type of space is the next level down from a pedestrian zone. The difference is some limited motorized traffic is allowed. These streets are curb-less and there is little or no delineation of space on the pavement – people are free to venture about as they please. As such, the notions of there being different sides of the street and of crossing from one side to another are entirely absent. Every so often a vehicle will pass through – people slowly provide space and the driver squeezes through at an uncomfortable walking speed. Foot traffic has a clear priority here.

These zones typically allow only emergency vehicles, public transport, residents, and those making deliveries. Motorcycles are additionally permitted during certain hours. Special signs and flashing orange lights alert people that they are entering one of these areas. The signal turns red and a bollard pops up if officials want to close the street off entirely to vehicles. I've think this design works well on narrow streets with lots of activity and few magnet destinations (e.g., hotels, museums, transit stations). They remind me most of the woonerf.

People clearly feel comfortable venturing all across the street with this sort of design. There really is no notion of the street having distinct "sides" and people are free to cross back and forth as they please.

Here you can see a driver inching her way down the street. People slowly move out of the way, but it' s clear who has priority here.

These signs are placed at entrances. Translation: "Restricted Access" except – residents, public transport, emergency services (additionally deliveries and motorcycles during certain hours).

(3) Blurry Zones

This type of space is used when more vehicular access is necessary (e.g., there are many hotels nearby), but the street's use still calls for allocating significant room for people to walk. These streets are usually curbless, but bollards parse the protected walking space from the motorized traffic right-of-way. People are free to cross wherever they please (i.e., they are not restricted to crosswalks), but there definitely is a sense of there being two separate sides of the street. People will venture into the roadway, especially during crowded periods, but they quickly move to the sides if a car appears.

I found it particularly interesting that when a car approaches a group of people walking in the street, the driver will toot the horn, as if to indicate that motorized traffic has right-of-way on these streets. In general, people drive slowly, but still much higher than walking speed – and taxis will often zip through faster. More types of traffic can use these areas: taxis and those accessing hotels join emergency vehicles, public transport, residents, and those making deliveries as sanctioned users. These spaces remind me most of the planned redesign for Jefferson Street in Fisherman's Wharf (but without curbs as with the original design).

People feel quite comfortable walking in the street and crossing mid-block is no problem at all. When a car approaches, people move out of the way but return if it's crowded.

As you can see, people do try their best to stay out of the street. Nevertheless, high levels of foot traffic will regularly force people into the street to pass each other.

These signs are placed at entrances. Translation: "Residential Priority Area", "Restricted Access" except – residents, public transport, hotel access (additionally deliveries and motorcycles during certain hours). On the bottom, the sign notes that these traffic restrictions are enforced by camera.

I'm really looking forward to us getting to the point where we realize that cars do not belong on all streets at all times. We've seen locally that calmed traffic dramatically benefits a neighborhood's qualify of life and can even lead to a boost in business. The efforts of cities like Madrid show that limiting motor vehicle access need not be a zero-sum game – we should manage vehicular access based on the particular circumstances of the street. How do you see us implementing some of these ideas in San Francisco?

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