The Car As a Guest

the proposal for a "woonerf" on Thorp Drive

by: Trevor Kupfer

A real woonerf in the Netherlands

    Imagine walking into someone’s house. As you enter you see pairs of shoes lined up on the rug. What do you do?

    “You take yours off, right?” Public Works Director Brian Amundson said. “It’s the same philosophy of what we did here. Take a street that is meant for cars and currently tells bicycles and pedestrians ‘It’s OK if you’re here, but you’re the guest.’” He went on, “Now you change it to ‘You know what, car? Now you’re the guest. The street is not just for you.’ So it’s a shared space and the vehicle is not dominant anymore.”

    The city has been working on a plan for Thorp Drive for eight years. Recently Amundson held a series of meetings with the divided groups to solve the issue.

    “They want to accommodate traffic, emergency vehicles still need access, and there’s a much higher need for pedestrians and bicycles. Solve that problem. Ummm ... OK,” he said sarcastically.

    The situation forced Amundson away from the norm, and he instead looked to street concepts that the Dutch have been implementing. In this case, a woonerf.

    “It’s scary; it’s risky; it’s different,” he prefaced. “The concept is to create a common public space – not a road. … The environment needs to change the motorist’s behavior.

    In areas where cars need to feel like “guests,” Amundson said you have to throw in a bit of uncertainty. People zone out when they drive, as evidenced by speeding and accidents occurring most within just a few blocks of an offender’s home. And people also don’t drive based on road signs, but on the environment, he said.

    “Children at play” signs are particularly ineffective, he said, citing the false sense of security it gives kids and the fact that regular motorists there will zone out if the environment allows. “If I saw kids out there playing every night, then I’ll slow down,” he said.

    “The Dutch have cities with no signs at all, and are among the safest in the country. … They even have a sign outside of town that says ‘We have no signs in this town,’” he added with a laugh.

    The environment of a street and physical barriers are effective ways to create uncertainty, as the “woonerf” employs features known as “mental speed bumps” to naturally slow traffic. These include a raised “gateway,” no curbs, a curved roadway, textured cement work, and lots of bike and pedestrian traffic.

    Conceptually, the majority of the residents believe in the project, and though it took several hours of convincing, the city council just approved the progressive proposal – even though it costs more money. Maybe our leaders are ready to start changing the city landscape and make it known that cars aren’t the only ones using our streets.

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