Cambridge, Massachusetts designated part of Winthrop Street in Harvard Square as a “shared street” where pedestrians have right of way and the unposted speed limit is 10 mph.
Since this little street functions like an alley, the designation wouldn’t cause trouble if it really existed. But it doesn’t really exist. Right of way and speed limits are controlled by state statutes, which say vehicles have right of way and the speed limit is 30.
In America pedestrian access to public streets comes in two categories: permissive, where pedestrians yield to vehicles except when crossing in a crosswalk, and prohibited, like on freeways.
Why can’t we add a third tier of public road, the shared use street, the kind where you can cross from dinner to a concert without going out of your way to find a crosswalk and without being legally considered a target?
My city’s former traffic engineer used to say, “people drive the road as they see it.”
Winthrop Street is built like an alley and functions like one. But some on the Cambridge City Council wanted to designate the whole area one giant crosswalk.
You can’t change a highway into an alley that way.
We need laws that make streets work more like they look, descriptive instead of prescriptive.
We have a sort of definition of what a “busy” street is. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices requires yellow centerline markings and white edge lines based on traffic volume and width. Stop signs also have numeric “warrants“.
We could have one set of rules apply if the road has pavement markings and stop signs, and another set if it does not. Say European-style “naked street” in the first case and a traditional American style road in the second case.
This would eliminate a lot of harmless lawbreaking, “rolling stops” by vehicles and jaywalking by pedestrians, by making it legal. Naked streets are about respecting right of way, not designating stop and go locations. Relax and wait your turn.
But before going that route, think of the incentives. Can we trust cities to classify streets correctly?
Maybe if the Highway Department and Attorney General started doing their job and enforcing the law, but that’s not likely. And there’s an even better way.
Fix the rules and make cities liable for accidents on streets where they bend the rules.
Money talks. Maybe we can make it speak for us.
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