“Shared space” — longer video and discussion

This post is a companion to my earlier one titled “No Rules.” The video here shows my entire ride on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a forward and rearward view, while the one in “No Rules” shows only highlights in a forward view. I discuss the “shared space” phenomenon at length in this post.

Commercial Street is one lane wide and officially one-way, but it is heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists traveling in both directions, to the extent that motorists can only travel at a very low speed and often must stop. Bicyclists also must take special care, ride slowly and often stop. Some do and others do not. Pedestrians need to be alert to the hazards. Some are and others are not.

“Shared space” has become a buzzword among people who want to “return the street to the people,” meaning, in reality, make the street into a pedestrian plaza — a social space. Pedestrians, then, serve as obstacles to slow down faster modes. “Shared space” advocates regard this as a benefit, and point to a reduction in the rate of serious crashes. This reduction, however, results from the very low speeds at which travel is possible in such an environment. Even so, there are safety problems. Even cycling at a moderate speed is hazardous to pedestrians — and equally, to cyclists who collide with pedestrians. As the video shows, I had to ride slowly and cautiously to avoid colliding with several pedestrians who made sudden, unpredictable moves.

Another buzzword is “no rules”. Sure, pedestrians can bump into each other without usually causing injury. “Shared-space” advocates, however, often consider cyclists to be like pedestrians — a serious misconception. Cyclists traveling at their normal speed can socialize only with each other, and are antisocial, not social, in a pedestrian plaza. Safe sharing of “Shared space” requires cyclists to travel so slowly that there is little advantage over walking. Cyclists and motorists in “shared space” must pay strict attention to the basic speed rule, to go no faster than is safe under the conditions at the time and place. Violate this, knock a pedestrian down, and then hope that you have good insurance. Other rules apply, as well, in many “shared space” installations: yielding before entering the roadway; overtaking on the left; exclusions or limited hours for motor traffic.

The one rule that most cyclists disregard on Commercial Street is established by one-way signs. Provincetown has a special exception, a home rule petition, allowing bicyclists to travel opposite the one-way signs. There is no comparable street which allows travel in the opposite direction. Bradford Street, one block farther from the harbor, is hilly and carries regular motor traffic. Commercial Street is the location of businesses which appeal to tourists who pile off the ferries from Boston, while Bradford Street has few such businesses.

What would improve the situation here? The first thing I would suggest is to block off the west (up-Cape) end of Commercial street where it separates from Bradford Street so motor vehicles can’t enter, and to install signs directing them to use Bradford Street. I think that many of the motorists who enter Commercial street are tourists who don’t know what they are getting into. If they used Bradford Street instead, they would get where they are going sooner, and would need to travel at most one or two blocks on Commercial street to reach any destination. It might also be helpful to paint a dashed line down the middle of Commercial street to encourage keeping to the right. Moving parking off Commercial street also could help, especially in the few blocks near the center of Provincetown where traffic is heaviest. That could at the very least allow more room for pedestrians without their getting into conflict with cyclists and motorists. There is an abandoned rail line — partly on a lightly-used dead-end street, and paralleling much of Bradford Street and Commercial Street. It could carry the bicycle traffic heading in and out of town.

Beyond that, I don’t see much that can be done. Commercial Street is what it is, a quaint, narrow street like those in many European cities. Short of a horrible disaster — a huge storm or tsunami which would destroy the entire waterfront — Commercial Street isn’t going to get any wider.

6 responses to ““Shared space” — longer video and discussion

  1. Really, aren’t pedestrians the basic road users anyway? The only class of road user that have a fundamental RIGHT to travel? Certainly cyclists present much less danger to other road users than motorists, but vehicles are not at that fundamental level even if they are unmotorized and we, as cyclists, might sometimes wish pedestrians were not “in our way.”

  2. Great video!
    Anyone with experience there would say “it only took you 10 minutes to get all the way across town!”
    I grew up in Provincetown, and your vehicular cycling commentary is hilarious to me. Having lived in many cities around the country, I completely understand your viewpoint, but it is not relevent in that environment. I do not ride in New Bedford, where I live now, like I do in Provincetown. As odd as it felt to you, you didn’t have any actual close calls, and everyone got about their business safely.

    • Thanks for your comments. No, I didn’t have any actual close calls, but I rode slowly and cautiously. I like to be able to ride at my usual blazing level-ground speed around 15 mph, for exercise and to get places faster! Is it irrelevant for bicycling to be less competitive with motoring, due to low speegd enforced by the riding environment? Well, actually come to think of it, on Commercial Street, motorists can’t go even as fast as bicyclists…No rules? Pedestrians rule!

  3. I just commented on your video on YouTube but thought I should post here with some more details. I live in Provincetown and bike year-round. Commercial St is legally one-way for cars and two-way for bicycles. That was established in the ’70s when it was changed from two-way car traffic; to keep bikes off the hills on the parallel Bradford St it was voted to make Commercial St two-way for bikes.

    Since you shot this video, the street has been repaved through downtown and signs were installed to indicate that 2-way bike traffic is allowed. Here’s one of the signs: http://i1372.photobucket.com/albums/ag360/elemenohme/201412%20Bike%20Signs%20Provincetown/IceHouse-EastEnd_zps4f98c7af.jpg

    • In response to Rik A.: Yes, correct. I’ve found the home rule petition which allowed Provincetown to make up its own traffic ordinances for Commercial Street. It’s Chapter 419 of the Acts of 1977, linked in this summary: http://bikexprt.com/massfacil/session%20laws/Massachusetts%20Bicycle%20Laws.pdf . Thing is though, the photo you posted shows a warning message (Caution, 2-way bicycle traffic) on a wayfinding sign (white on a green background. A warning sign should be a yellow, diamond-shaped sign. A regulatory sign (white or red on a black background) informs of traffic law and so the sign doesn’t actually convey that the two-way traffic is legal. There should be a regulatory sign under the one-way sign, reading EXCEPT BICYCLES — but the EXCEPT BICYCLES regulatory plaque was not standard until June, 2010. See http://www.ncutcd.org/doc/Bike%20No4%20Contraflow%20Bike%20Lane.doc . Not that any of this would make much difference in the situation as it exists, other than that motorists need to know to look both ways. Are you sure that the sign is more recent than when I shot the video in 2011? It looks worn.

      • Now I’ve looked through my archives and in fact I have a photo from August, 2011, same day I shot the video, showing one of the two-way bike traffic signs. It’s opposite Perry’s Wine and Liquors at the intersection of Commercial, Tremont and Franklin Streets. Google Street View, also from August, 2011: https://goo.gl/maps/OnTCb . The “Limited Access No Trucks or Buses” warnulatory sign is very odd. A limited-access highway is one which does not provide access to abutting properties, and which may prohibit slower vehicles (bicycles, mopeds, horses and carriages). The proper sign for Franklin Street would be a regulatory sign, “Local traffic only, no buses”: trucks still have to be allowed to make local deliveries.

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