Of a Woonerf, Too Many Signs and Complete Streets

Now there is a real erf!
A woonerf in Maasland, the Netherlands
A woonerf in Maasland, the Netherlands

A world without signs?

We have one woonerf in Ottawa: part of Cambridge is designated as a woonerf. An ‘erf’ is a somewhat old fashioned Dutch word for the area around the farm house, where chickens roam, the dog guards and the cow explores. ‘Woon’ comes from the verb ‘wonen’, Dutch for ‘to live in a place’.

Now there is a real erf!
Now there is a real erf!

Woon-erf more or less literally translates to “living yard”. Here in Canada, we’d like to translate it with ‘complete streets’ sometimes, but typically a woonerf has few curbs; traffic calming measures are taken to the extreme with planters, coloured pavers, bike racks and curbless divisions between the different modes of traffic.

Access roads to woonerven are often virtually free of signs too. This is Maasland, the Netherlands
Access roads to woonerven are often virtually free of signs too. This is Maasland, the Netherlands
This down town Rotterdam Avenue (Weena) is a complete street, including street cars even, but not a woonerf. I wouldn't send my kid out to play soccer here, although people cycle comfortable here.
This down town Rotterdam Avenue (Weena) is a complete street, including street cars even, but it is not a woonerf. I wouldn’t send my kid out to play soccer in the street here.

Woonerf is a public space, where everyone moves around. When cars are gone, the space becomes the kids’ soccer patch. A complete street doesn’t necessarily have that. Speed is reduced to 15 k/hr (10 m/h) on a woonerf. Sounds fuzzy? Today, 20% of the Dutch houses are on woonerven (the actual plural of woonerf). It must work somehow. Extra advantage is that you use the public space more optimally.

A woonerf intersection in the small town of Bergschenhoek, near Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Also here, no signs.
A woonerf intersection in the small town of Bergschenhoek, near Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Also here, no signs.

Bold traffic engineering

Woonerf is the brain child of Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer with somewhat radical ideas 40 years ago. While here in Canada engineers appear convinced that car traffic shouldn’t really have any hindrances in order to get from A to B and therefore get their own space, Mr. Monderman already figured long ago that safety and efficiency can be improved when everyone has to negotiate their movement directly with others. In other words, neither signs nor road markings should set the tone, but eye contact and slower speeds instead. Basically he relied on common sense and responsibility. He believed that sharing and slower speeds must go hand in hand.

Give me a pole, and I give you a sign.
Give me a pole, and I give you a sign.

The mistake we make too often in Ottawa –and in North America for that matter- is that we want everyone to share the road, but don’t design the roads so that it is actually a safe shared space. It is built for fast traffic, and we expect others to adjust: a bike lane is fine, as long as it is not a nuisance for car traffic. Pedestrian crossings are fine, but it shouldn’t interfere too much with traffic flow. Kids on bicycles are welcome, but we are not slowing speeds down in our neighbourhoods.

Carling north of Commissioners Park. More signs than tulips.
Carling north of Commissioners Park. More signs than tulips.

Just pick one

In North America we don’t want to choose for both sharing and slower speed; we just pick sharing as the solution. It is the most convenient one because it doesn’t require any money or new design solutions. And that is a fundamental flaw if governments want to promote serious active transportation.

In Linkoping, Sweden, Multi use pathways and a bus stop meet. the road is narrowed to one lane, so that no one can pass when the bus (un)loads. Brilliant and simple.
In Linkoping, Sweden, Multi Use Pathways and a bus stop meet. The road is narrowed to one lane, so that no one can pass when the bus (un)loads. Brilliant and simple.

To compensate for the lack of design, we start to warn people: we bring in signs to share the road, to take the lane, to warn for elderly people crossing, or visually impaired people, how to cross a roundabout, how to use a pedestrian circle; we paint lines, sharrows, boxes and bays to guide people, but the road stays wide and fast and dangerous. We try to battle the effects with signs, rather than tackling the causes with better design.

Bilingual sign on how to cross a roundabout in Ottawa.
Bilingual sign on how to cross a roundabout in Ottawa.
And how to cross a street at a traffic light.
And how to cross a street at a traffic light.

Removing signs sounds very counter-intuitive. However, there is evidence that signs actually don’t help that much. A Dutch connection told me once that they had put out a sign at a certain location to slow traffic down, but it didn’t have the desired effect. Then they put a bigger sign out, then a well lit sign, than a one of those electronic road signs. Nothing worked.

One doesn't see the forest through the trees on Prince of Wales at Carling.
One doesn’t see the forest through the trees on Prince of Wales at Carling.

Size Matters

To stay closer to home, in Ottawa, I was discussing the intersection at Wilton Crescent in the Glebe. Neighbours complained that everyone turning right ignores the stop sign at the end of Queen Elizabeth Place. The city engineer suggested a bigger stop sign than the current one. But that doesn’t help. Why?

Prince of Wales near the Farm. Despite no parking signs, the shoulder/bike lane was full of parked cars on Easter sunday.
Prince of Wales near the Farm. Despite no parking signs, the shoulder/bike lane was full of parked cars on Easter Sunday. The biggest sign wins.

Drivers adjust their speeds depending on the design of the road and the situation. Bronson is a perfect example. Speeding is rampant, because 50k/h on Bronson “feels wrong”. I am guilty of it myself I think too once in a while.

Let's average out on 35 km/h in Fisher Heights.
Let’s average out on 35 km/h in Fisher Heights.
Around the corner, a new stop sign was put in place recently, that virtually every one reads as a yield sign. Rarely does someone come to a complete stop here.
Around the corner, a new stop sign was put in place recently, that virtually every one conveniently considers a yield sign. Rarely does someone come to a complete stop here.

Someone from Carleton U. told me recently that a law is expensive to uphold. Roundabouts are a good example of places where you can barely break a law even if you want. You can’t speed through an intersection, you can’t drive through red and you can’t swerve into another lane. Woonerven are good examples too. Few signs required, few laws to write; it all organises itself.

Over the top on Booth.
Over the top on Booth.
Downtown: "Memories of Signapore"
Down town Ottawa: “Memories of Singapore”
I give you ten seconds to figure out if you can stop on the right at 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon.
I give you ten seconds to figure out if you can stop on the right at 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon.
Parkdale off ramp driving north towards the hospital.
Parkdale off ramp driving north towards the hospital.

Therefore people believe that proper design to slow traffic saves lives and money and law enforcement, not an ever increasing amount of signs. Isn’t that what we all like? Ultimately, signs are ignored or a mere distraction.

Coincidentally, when I was writing this blog post, an article by Sarah Goodyear on a public space based on Hans Monderman’s ideas appeared in the Atlantic Cities about a British town that just implemented a sign free intersection. It is worth reading: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/04/lots-cars-and-trucks-no-traffic-signs-or-lights-chaos-or-calm/5152/

Another article you may want to read is: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/distracting-miss-daisy/306873/

Ottawa pics by me, Dutch pics from Google Streetview and Google Images.

15 Comments

  1. It would be wonderful if the whole market area in Ottawa was turned into a Woonerf. We could turn all the roads, including the stretch of Rideau between Dalhousie and Sussex. With the transitway being moved to an underground LRT there would be far fewer buses on that road.

  2. When the London Olympics were held there was a new road design that was also being exhibited on Exhibition Road. A stretch of road that used to be a nightmare for pedestrians because the road is home to many museums, galleries, and exhibit halls. Pedestrians were constantly trying to cross the road from one building to another and cars were driving way to fast. For the Olympics, the city redesigned the road as a Woonerf. It’s now a smooth uninhibited expanse of black and grey granite in a crisscross pattern to encourage pedestrian crossing wherever. The road is now shared with everyone, including cars. The speeds cars travel on that road has been dramatically reduced, simply by the design. There are no signs.

  3. We live smack dab in the middle of the Cambride St Woonerf and LOVE it! So do the neighbourhood kids, the patients and caretakers at the Saint-Vincent hospital when they go for a stroll, bikers heading to the Laurier bike lane, and everyone in between. Has all the desired effects mentioned above.

  4. There is a new roundabout in the Bridlewood area of Kanata with a sign telling pedestrians they don’t have the right of way. Yet, any other roundabout cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians. Confusing things like this are also fairly common in North America. Not that a huge amount of people walk in Bridlewood anyways, its a sprawled out mess of high speed streets and crescents. Even if you do want to walk, there is the sign as described above politely saying “you’re not welcome here, get in your car and drive”.

    There is also a sign I scoff at when heading east towards Elgin on Waverley before the park. The apartment building has a sign at the parking garage exit that says “PEDESTRIANS BE AWARE OF MOVING VEHICLES”. Seriously. As if being outside with a full 360 view of our surroundings we need to be the ones who are aware?

    • Interesting. The City of Ottawa’s page on roundabouts doesn’t say whether or not pedestrians have the right of way. (You think they’d mention one way or the other)

      The “be aware of moving vehicles” tends to be used on high-rises built up to the sidewalk in the ’60s with a steep parking garage ramp that some cars would stall if they lose momentum. (Or, say, at Hartman’s 2004 reno). But I think those are all private signs.

      There’s a street sign in the Glebe (I think on Patterson approaching O’Connor about halfway back on the block) that says something like “traffic in the other direction doesn’t have a stop sign”. Ottawans are so habituated to 4-way stops!

  5. I completely agree! If you have to put a sign up to tell people how to use it, then your design is a failure.

    Here in Kitchener they just completed spending millions to redesign King Street downtown Kitchener. Then this year they are patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves that they’re spending more to make it safer for bikes by painting sharrows and putting up signs to remind drivers to share the road.

    I wish they’d see it as a failure in design and call downtown Kitchener for what it is, a nightmare for cyclists. They are doing the improvements due to complaints too many cyclists are riding on the expanded sidewalks as a lane was removed but now it’s too narrow for a cyclist to share the road with a car and the city staff expect all cyclists to be comfortable taking the lane.

    If an eight-year old can’t ride on it, it’s not bicycle friendly and signs just mean you didn’t get it right the first time.

  6. I know one reason traffic engineers cite for installing signs, like indicating the presence of a speed hump, is that when everything’s covered in snow you can’t see what’s underneath the snow. That’s not so much of a problem in London or New York, where they also have the benefit of only one language, so they can write stuff in big letters on the road, like “BUS LANE”.

    How does that translate in Dutch examples?

    • The Netherlands has a more temperate climate, so markings are more efficient. I checked on google street view, and it looks liek their are no signs to warn people for humps (the Dutch word for speed hump is ‘verkeersdrempel’)

      Speed humps are another colour pavers usually, a winter climate needs other solutions. Perhaps making roads narrower in certain spaces (like the bus stop in Sweden) might give a similar effect. I find, when driving in the Netherlands or Sweden, the narrower pavement design automatically makes you drive slower.

  7. The Cambridge example really works – I see kids playing often when I’m passing through. Even safe enough for a cat to sit out in a sunny patch. Cat-friendly.

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