Reflections on Shared Streets from Japan

September 17, 2016 at 2:26 pm

I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Japan, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. For now, I’ll restrain from spilling ink over what you already know – Japan has fast, clean trains that run mostly on-time, with incredibly polite and helpful staff, and riding the Shinkansen is a part of the experience. I loved that Tokyo was just a ¥340 ($3.30) one-hour train ride from scenic mountain beauty and I never once consulted a timetable to make a day excursion, et cetera. If you’re curious, you can find photos on my Flickr album.

I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect on the numerous shared streets I encountered in Japan and their own strengths, while also comparing them to a recent “shared street” project that debuted in Chicago, the Argyle Shared Street (other coverage from Streetsblog).

A shared street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

A shared street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Let me preface the forthcoming critique by stating that the Argyle Shared Street is a bold step forward (by Chicago standards) in redesigning a street and represents an acknowledgement that streets should be adapted for people, not just cars. In execution, however, the result has been confusing (as we would expect it to initially be) and suffers from a bit of over-engineering.

Argyle Shared Street on 17 September.

Argyle Shared Street on 17 September.

In my opinion, the Argyle Shared Street should not have permitted two-way traffic and has too much on-street car parking. Paid on-street car parking in Chicago has been leased to a private company until the year 2074, so we were unlikely to see any of it reduced; even if the meters belonged to Chicago, business owners would likely have stopped the entire project had car parking been reduced. If you compare the above picture to the one below, though, you’ll see that the car parking really acts as a barrier to the fluidity that a shared street can provide – people walking can waft between sides of the street, going between different shops (and vending machines!) and so on.

Cat Street (キャットストリート) in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Cat Street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

In the end, retaining all of the car parking means that large physical barriers not only prevent that sort of flâneur fluidity, but in some cases also prevent people from seeing what is across the street. Perhaps this would also be an issue since the street is so wide to begin with: Argyle is about 62′ (~19m) between buildings, while Cat Street is about 35′ (~10.5m) wide and a bit more vertical, creating an eye-pleasing streetscape where the buildings nicely frame the street.

While on Argyle, every few minutes I did see some people crossing the street between cars where there was not normally a crosswalk. However, this is the sort of behavior (legally jaywalking) that we in Chicago are accustomed to seeing anyway, shared street or not, so I don’t believe that the shared street has had much of an impact on this behavior.

Aside from car parking, Argyle’s other flaw is two-way traffic and the wide street that provides a visual cue that excessive speed is not necessarily impossible to achieve. On Cat Street, vehicle traffic was light – a taxi would come through every few minutes, and people moved out of its way for a brief moment. Drivers would instead use parallel streets designed to move traffic. Other shared streets in Tokyo mandated the same behavior.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

The same street near Asakusa, Tokyo, when a truck needed to pass through.

The same street near Asakusa, Tokyo, when a truck needed to pass through.

Argyle St in Chicago does not connect to Lake Shore Drive to the east, and to the west it is a residential street through Andersonville, so it is not truly a “connector” street that should warrant high thru traffic. There are plenty of wide streets in Tokyo that are designed to move traffic quickly, but there are plenty of streets that are designed with the human in mind. Do you ever get the feeling that most streets in North American cities, from alleys to residential streets to four-lane roads, are designed primarily with car traffic in mind?

Omotesando (表参道) in Tokyo, perpendicular to Cat Street, taken from a pedestrian overpass.

Finally, I’ve heard that the Argyle Shared Street will improve once landscaping (i.e. trees) are installed. I don’t truly believe that shared streets require trees; they are nice to have, though, and can help make the street appear narrower and provide much-needed shade. However, there were plenty of streets in Tokyo where the buildings provided shade and I didn’t really miss the trees, per se. On Argyle, trees would be better placed between each one or two parking spaces, creating more opportunity for people to cross the street wherever they want. Instead, there are bays of several parking spaces with trees next to the parking spaces, which can create another barrier to crossing the street anywhere.

A flyer from CDOT regarding how to park on Argyle. Note the location of the tree grates. Via John Greenfield/Streetsblog Chicago.

Two-way traffic on the street, combined with the parking lining the street, prevents the Argyle Shared Street from achieving its full potential. Being Chicago’s first (and hopefully not last) shared street, we should strive to make future shared street projects more ambitious than the last until we can achieve the proper definition of a shared street.

Until then, I’ll let you enjoy some more photos and commentary of shared streets across some Japanese cities.

A mostly residential street in Osaka.

A mostly residential street in Osaka.

In more residential neighborhoods I didn’t see a lot of formal sidewalks like we have in North America. Instead, a shared street was implicit. Car traffic was light (probably thanks to some laws like Tokyo’s, which require car owners to prove they have a dedicated parking space, and overnight street parking is illegal) and slow-moving.

A street in Osaka.

A street in Osaka.

A street in Tokyo.

A street in Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street in Shibuya, Tokyo.

A street in Shibuya, Tokyo.

A street in Kyoto.

A street in Kyoto.

A street with lots of room for walking in Nara.

A street with lots of room for walking in Nara.

A shared street in Nara.

A shared street in Nara.

Some streets in Japan are covered in an arcade fashion, possibly to prevent rain? This was in Osaka.

Some streets in Japan are covered in an arcade fashion, possibly to prevent rain? This was in Osaka.

A shopping district in Ueno, Tokyo.

Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

And just because I miss them a lot, here’s some train pictures from Japan :-)

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The JR Yamanote Line was the circular spine of my trip in Tokyo.

Interior of a Yamanote Line train.

The Shinkansen bullet trains came more frequently than some subway lines back in North America. Shin-Osaka station.

The Shinkansen bullet trains came more frequently than some subway trains in North America. 3-minute headways to Tokyo around 8:30pm, Shin-Osaka station.

The interior of a newer Shinkansen train is spacious, clean, and well-lit.

Some JR stations were well-lit and enhanced with artwork. Ueno station, Tokyo.