Chaos By Design

The definition of irony is a legal column that discuses proposed lawlessness. That’s right; this edition’s legal column will discuss a New York City initiative that, if successful, is touted by some to revolutionize urban planning and community construction worldwide, forever. While this sounds hyperbolic, the idea that spawns this boasts is even more extreme.

New York's Flatiron Plazas in 2016. Photo via NYC DOT.
New York’s Flatiron Plazas in 2016. Photo via NYC DOT.

Consider the problem. Traffic congestion and vehicular-pedestrian accidents are on the rise with the continued densification of urban areas. The problem is chronic and universal and needs little by way of description. Anyone who drives understands. Now, consider the cure, at least the one being proposed in Manhattan: suspend traffic laws; take down all traffic signs and signals; remove all curbs and allow pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles to co-mingle — in effect, introduce vehicular-pedestrian anarchy to the streets of the Big Apple. The idea, as absolutely bizarre as it sounds, is slated for piloting in the Flatiron Plazas neighbourhood of Manhattan (at the intersection of Broadway and 5th Avenue, near New York City’s famous Flatiron Building) in 2018. The New York City Department of Transport calls it “Shared Space.” In a commentary in British GQ, Alice Rawsthorne calls it “Naked Streets.” We can just call in “implausible,” at least as a paradigm-shifting, revolutionary game-changer in urban design.

The theory is that drivers have become inured to the constant visual stimuli of traffic signs and traffic signals, and pedestrians have grown unafraid of the vehicles that constantly whiz by them. By removing all traffic signs and traffic signals and essentially forcing the comingling of pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists, the theory is that pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists will become more mindful and aware of their surroundings, their route selection, and their relative position to one another — so much so that the net result will be safer streets, with lower numbers of collisions and reduced severity of collisions.

The original concept has, perhaps not surprisingly, Dutch roots. Rawsthorne attributes the concept to Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer who designed various similar neighbourhoods across the Netherlands. Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English urban planner who is attributed with coining the phrase “Shared Space” after adapting Monderman’s ideas in Bristol, England, describes the concept as “… moving away from regulated, legislated traffic toward space which, by the way it’s designed and configured, makes it clear what sort of behavior is anticipated.”

The theory is definitely sexy — an urban environment which is devoid of rules, which perversely works because the resulting traffic anarchy forces all stakeholders to revert to sheer survival mode — safety out of chaos. Urban planners are looking to the Flatiron Plaza Project as a sort of litmus test on Monderman’s theories: if it is good enough for Manhattan, well, it must be good enough for any traffic-challenged city in the world. While the thought of a world without the Highway Traffic Act may be attractive, these authors feel that, even if the Flatiron Plaza experiment succeeds, it will not translate into world domination of naked streets.

Alas, like many urban design concepts, the problem is an issue of scale. The Flatiron Plaza Project is very small: two blocks long by maybe one block in width. That is small. In Manhattan, that is barely a postage stamp. In fact, all of the applications of Monderman’s ideas have been small in scope, at most typically a few square blocks. The propensity for heightened alertness in the face of a no-rules environment dissipates when extrapolated over a greater area. While everybody may be extra-careful for a few condensed blocks, the same extended alertness cannot be sustained over several miles or entire cities.

Furthermore, although the implication is that these Shared Space projects are devoid of all rules, there are in fact very strict speed restrictions on vehicles in all of these sorts of experiments, often buttressed by incessant speed bumps and other traffic calming technologies. New York City, for instance, is proposing a mere five miles per hour speed limit for the Flatiron Plaza project. Indeed, true skeptics might suggest that a five mile per hour speed limit, in and of itself, accounts for almost all of the benefits attributed to the Shared Spaces concept. While perhaps a cool option for certain individual streets or groups of streets, the need for low speeds effectively limits the broader application of Monderman’s ideas. After all, people still need to get places.

Finally, the Shared Space concept seems to only really work in environments of narrow streets, naturally low traffic, and relatively high pedestrian density. To date, Monderman’s ideas have been applied largely in Europe, where this trifecta of conditions comes up far more frequently than here in North America. The NYC Department of Transport is already considering replicating Flatiron Plaza, but only in “narrow, low-traffic streets of the Financial District.” These pre-conditions for success naturally limit the areas suitable for the application of Monderman’s ideas.

These authors know the Flatiron Plaza and its surrounds. This experiment will work. Commuter traffic will naturally divert to avoid the area. Even commuting cyclists will divert (there is actually an official diversion bike route built into the Flatiron Plaza plan). Pedestrians will be attracted to the neighbourhood because the Flatiron Building is beautiful and traffic has been limited to five miles per hour. Manhattan will have yet another really cool place for a stroll and a coffee, and the world will unfold as it should. That said, our prognostication is that Monderman’s ideas will never be practical for most neighbourhoods in North America. Time will tell.


Megan J. Lem is a corporate lawyer in the Toronto Office of Oslers LLP. This article reflects the personal views of the authors alone.
Megan J. Lem is a corporate lawyer in the Toronto Office of Oslers LLP. This article reflects the personal views of the authors alone.
Jeffrey W. Lem is Editor-in-Chief of the Real Property Reports and the Director of Titles for the Province of Ontario. The opinions expressed in this article are personal to the author and not attributable or referable to the government of the Province of Ontario.
Jeffrey W. Lem is Editor-in-Chief of the Real Property Reports and the Director of Titles for the Province of Ontario. The opinions expressed in this article are personal to the author and not attributable or referable to the government of the Province of Ontario.
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