A Tale of Two Cities: Sharing the Road in Amsterdam and Istanbul


While the idea of an official “Shared Street” may be new and somewhat unsettling to Chicagoans today, the idea is anything but new or untested.  We only need to look back to the pre-car dominated city to see how the streets used to be much more public territory than they are today.  The image below of street-car era Elston Ave shows how thoroughly used a street here in the city once was.

old chicago street

That streetscape is a little intimidatingly crowded and chaotic.  People at the time certainly thought so.  As the car became increasingly prominent on the street (and began to travel faster than people could walk) it began to be dangerous to allow people the freedom to cross streets as they pleased.   Cities began to regulate where and when people could cross traffic, prioritizing cars over pedestrians as the easiest way to prevent major injury.   Check out this Gizmodo article on the history of Jaywalking for more.

Do Our Streets Need to Be Separated for Safety?

Gradually our urban streets became rigidly divided into places for people and places for people-in-cars.  Most of our concepts of pleasant and safe urban planning incorporate ways to further separate people and cars – pedestrian boulevards or wide sidewalks guarded by decorative bollards, street trees and parked cars.  But that is far from the only modern solution to the problem of how cars and people can use the same street system.  As Paolo Ikezoe of the Regional Plan Association points out, traveling home to his native Tokyo from New York made it clear to him that an urban pedestrian environment could thrive under un-segregated conditions as long as all the people involved (in cars and out of them) were prepared to negotiate the streets safely.

My own experience with traveling and living in cities outside America leads me to the same conclusion.  There are many ways to create (or grow) a walkable city and sometimes those methods seem to be completely at odds with each other.   The examples to follow are two of my favorite cities – Amsterdam and Istanbul – and the represent polar opposites in terms of urban planning but both manage to feel completely active, vibrant and safe.

the NETHERLANDS: Planning and Order

Since the Dutch literally created their country by reclaiming land from the ocean, its hardly surprising that their approach to urban planning is to plan the heck out of it.  Dutch cities in general are highly organized with well-thought-out traffic arrangements that support car, pedestrian and bike traffic equitably.  City streets are also made safer by a general culture of multi-modal transit.  Since every driver is also a biker and a walker, cars tend to move through the cities in a more thoughtful manner.

One street you can’t cross: the canal 

Although the STREETS of amsterdam are very evenly shared between pedestrians, trams, bikes and cars, there is one mode of transportation which doesn’t share: the canal.  You can’t jaywalk across one of these without immersion – there’s no choice but to walk – or drive – down to the nearest bridge.  In central Amsterdam (the oldest part of the city and the tourist zone) there is a fairly fluid pattern of movement between car and people spaces.  Distinctions are as minimal as a row of posts.


Planning, Planning, Planning

That’s not to say that the Dutch system isn’t pretty rigidly organized.  We’re talking about a culture where people stand back and wait for everyone to exit a train car before stepping forward to enter.  Cross walk signals are promoted and traffic lanes are either VERY thoroughly painted on the street or marked out in different patterns (red brick or paint means bike) sometimes with separating grass between them.

netherlands2 netherlands3

TURKEY: Not-So-Organized Chaos

Its not easy to impose urban planning on a city as ancient as Constantinople (now Istanbul) where streets wind between Roman city walls and Ottoman palaces and the city spans across rivers and continents.  The urban planning efforts in Istanbul are decidedly piecemeal and often informal and none of it seems like it ought to work … but it does.  A network of ferries, light rail lines, street cars and subway lines all connect to provide an amazingly effective public transit system, cars and people share the road in relative peace and people cross the street anywhere they darn well please in near-perfect safety.  I have never felt safer as a pedestrian in any other city.

Pedestrian Only: By Law or Logic

Some streets ARE almost entirely pedestrian either by city plan like the Istiklal Caddesi (left) which has a tram line and 3 million pedestrians per day (as well as the occasional embassy car) or because they are physically too narrow, steep or stepped to allow car traffic like this area adjacent to the Galata tower (right).  Note: a street has to be VERY narrow, steep or stepped to actually prevent a turkish car from driving on it.


Sharing the Road

Most of the urban streets support both cars and people in relative harmony.  Everyone walks in the street because the sidewalks are invariably blocked either by the wares of an adjacent shop or by parked cars.  Curbs in Istanbul are often 8″ high with the street and sidewalks on each side of equal hight to try to prevent drivers from pulling over them for parking … but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.


Car Only … mostly

Only a few roads in the city are actively intended for cars only.  They function, much like Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, to zip cars rapidly from one area of the city to another.  Major roads run along the waters edge or outside the ancient city walls (right) and connect over the major water bodies with long span bridges or ferry routes.  Even so, if you look in the lower corner of the right image, you’ll see a guy hopping the barriers and crossing the offramp lanes.


Both Amsterdam and Istanbul can present a model for forward movement in America but the common denominator between the two isn’t design – it’s good citizenship.  Only when the people inside cars are prepared to share the road with the people outside of them are we going to have safe streets.  Won’t it be wonderful when we can achieve that!