Can naked streets make pedestrians sexy?

The surprising media coverage of the Walk21 conference continued after it was over, with a series of wrap-up pieces over the weekend and in the weeklies.

What was striking was that all of these pieces were oriented to some extent around the idea of “shared streets,” also known as “naked streets” in their more radical form.

The concept is based on removing most of the signs, signals and curbs that direct traffic (both vehicles and pedestrians), leaving just street furniture, the texture of the environment, and the other people who occupy the space to shape people’s traffic behaviour. It was pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who bases it on the principle that people will take less risks if their environment is more uncertain (and will move more slowly if their environment is attractive). In person, he is very eloquent about the ideas behind the concept — Dan Egan, the City’s manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, describes him as a “philosopher-engineer.”

Part of the appeal of shared streets is that, rather than setting various modes of travel (pedestrians, cyclist, cars) against each other in a struggle for limited space, it integrates them together and benefits all of them. Pedestrians are less marginalized and suffer fewer accidents. Studies have shown that, although cars have to drive much more slowly, their travel time often actually decreases because they do not have to stop as much. I imagine cyclists might benefit from a similar drop in stops that interfere with momentum, not to mention the benefits of slower cars.

In the Saturday papers, the Star‘s Tess Kalinowski wrapped up her week of conference coverage with a good summary of some of the conference’s key ideas, including shared streets, and how they relate to Toronto (Some modest proposals to liberate city streets” — see also the video). The Globe and Mail ran a big story by Erin Anderssen in its Focus section that featured Monderman extensively but focused primarily on the effect of shared streets on car traffic (“A radical road map” – Globe subscribers only). In the weekly NOW, Mike Smith wrote a great summary of some of Walk21’s main themes (“Walk this way“), opening with a Swiss variation on the naked streets concept, while I too talked about Monderman and naked streets in a supplementary article (note that I didn’t write the article’s title!).

I’m guessing we all picked up on this concept for the same reasons — it grabs people’s imaginations. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s controversial, it brings pedestrian planning up to the sphere of philosophy. Other forms of transport have their sex appeal — cars are flashy and fast, cyclists are lithe and individualistic, even transit has big, powerful machines. But pedestrians have always been treated as kind of prosaic. Now naked streets have come along to get pedestrian blood pumping (Wired called their article about it “Roads gone wild“).

The naked street has the best kind of European appeal — not the patronising, we’re-more-refined-than-you kind of European ethos, but rather the innovative, daring, on-the-edge yet grounded in technique European design aesthetic you get in Italian fashion, British architecture, French food, German engineering. It’s unexpected, it’s philosophical, it’s hard to be sure if it really works or if you really like it. Kind of like Alsop’s OCAD tabletop — is it brilliant or ridiculous? Does it really belong here? — it gets people stimulated and talking.

We don’t know if the naked streets idea would work in Toronto, and if it does, how we would have to adapt it to our local circumstances. But it’s worth pursuing if it gets people excited and thinking about how to change the city for pedestrians.


  1. One thing every article on naked streets appears to have missed to date is the reduction in visual distractions for all parties concerned. Has this principle been effective with the backdrop of billboards, vinyl fascia and animated streetside screens Torontonians are presently plagued with?
    If not, can we use this to leverage the elimination of these? Can the plug on Dundas Square be pulled and this public space be returned to the public rather than be monopolised by corporate propogandists?
    Can North American motorists be educated to accept cyclists and pedestrians as entitled road users rather than targets to vent their conception of inconvenience on?

  2. There are all kinds of interesting concepts, other then removing street signs. Removing street signs, makes an assumption, that the street user, is smart enough, and aware of their surroundings enough, and polite enough to let it work. When drivers go blasting through a 40km/h school zone at 80km/h at 8:30 in the morning, when kids are heading to school, and there is a 60km/h arterial (where drivers regularly go 80km/h)a block away, one must wonder if those drivers are smart enough or aware enough for smart streets to work. We all know that Toronto drivers are not polite enough….

  3. Gastown (pictured, right?) is an interesting case because, despite its “aged” look, there were never bricks and bollards there until recently. It totally transformed the neighbourhood and it is definitely a nice place to visit.

  4. I worry that without proper curbs all it would take is a single person to fall asleep at the wheel, or a single drunk driver to cause significant damage to property and human life.

  5. Ryan, that’s why there are bollards in key places.

    However, cars jump curbs all the time.

    Also, this is obviously not the goal of most of this discussion, but plans like this are a gateway to total pedestrianization.

  6. I’ma huge fan of the naked street concept. As Joe Clement posted today here on this blog, it can work in North America. If NYC can do it, so can we.

    The most obvious spot is Kensington becuz it addresses a few issues: 1. it legally prioritizes pedestrian superiority, which is almost already the case in the Market, but if you get hit by a car the Law, currently, is not on your side; 2. it addresses the eventual gentrification concern that full-on pedestrianization would bring to the market — an issue that is at the top of the merchant’s worry list. Naked streets could stall this and still keep the area’s unique character intact.

    This concept is proposed out front of Union Station too, and could work there quite well.

    I also think Yorkville, Baldwin Village, Mirvish Village, and a few blocks along College Street would be ideal candidates. As someone suggested, Yonge and Dundas would be ideal too if only becuz all the video screens and techno glitz of the intersection more or less makes people slow down anyway. It would be nice to see the square blend into the street and Eatons Centre and the Metroposhit going up on the NE corner. John Street from King north to Grange is nice idea too, but there would have to BIA support and help from the new owners of CityTV to make sure they help (open up the windows in the west side instead of Queen and the area instantly becomes a buzzing ped zone).

    Naked Streets are the gateway drug to full-on pedestrianization much like streetcars are the gateway to subways.

    But I’m all about turning Yonge Street into a pedestrian mall (with a 2-lane bike lane up the middle). There is no better candidate (no parking, gentrified, commercial strip already with plans of getting trendier) and it is already a destination that many tourists flock too, even though it is still a bit low-end.

  7. There are lots of places in Toronto that could benefit from the Naked Streets idea. For example, in front of Union Station, between Bay and University. Could it get any worse for car drivers there? I think not. Eliminate the stupid planted median, put it all on a level, throw in some bollards at “curbside,” and maybe cobblestones at significant spots…

    Arguably the Danforth we all know and love (the part between Pape and Broadview, not the part east of Pape!) is already down to its underwear. The wide painted median could be cobbled instead of painted but it would have the same effect: a place where cars only drive in order to turn left, but where pedestrians have safe “standing rights” while they wait for a gap in the single lane of drizzled car traffic. I presented evidence in a Walk21 Walkshop Oct. 3rd that the Danforth is a model which should be exported all over the city (let’s start with the rest of the damn street!). Interestingly, the observers, from places including Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Boston and Washington DC, were pretty impressed with the cruddy part of the Danforth east of Pape–they were like “If only we had a street as good as this to work with where we’re from!”

  8. Montreal has a shared street in the Plateau neighbourhood on Duluth Street. The street and sidewalks are paved with stone and there is little distinction between street and sidewalk. it works quite well I think. Pedestrians often stay to the sides out of habit but easily walk in the road and cross at any place with little hesitation. Drivers seem to be aware that it isn’t your average street where they rule and are very respectful of pedestrians and drive slowly. The street, which was probably just an average Plateau side street with some commercial activity is now a very interesting public space shared peacefully amongst cars, bikes, and pedestrians.

  9. Cumberland!!!! It would essentially extend the park right up to the store fronts!!!!

  10. First, I could not agree more with the establishment of Yonge Street as a Pedestrian Mall, perhaps from Queen or King, north to Bloor (that’s the obvious bit), and maybe farther. As for Naked Streets, I would add Roncesvales Avenue to the list – it’s essentially that way already. The only trick would be the roadside parking. How does roadside parking factor into the Naked Street model? My impression is that it doesn’t, because isn’t the whole point to not have to dodge cars, moving or still?

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