The Shared Path. Let’s talk about that.

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As one who has never worked an honest day in his life, the routes I choose for everyday trips tend to be ones built with an eye to the leisure cyclist, dog walker, pram pusher etc.. Even in cities that have them, I don’t naturally go to that boring A-to-B shit they paint terracotta in Holland, Facebook blue in Copenhagen, or mini-ten green most everywhere else.

lili-blanc-m1I would rather contend with the Lorna Jane alpha-girls out for their power walks or those early retirees floating smugly in their raw linen. They are, on the whole, still less revolting than cars—which after all have the same stupid twats driving.

These proclivities have made me something of an expert in the etiquette, design, and relative merits of the shared path. A few that loom large in my mind are the waterfronts of Chicago and the West side of Manhattan, three more in Australia (the shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Australia’s Capital Canberra, Brisbane’s South Bank, and the harbour of my own city of Newcastle) and finally the convivial streets of a city I travel to yearly, Ravenna, just this side of Venice.


So let’s talk about the shared path.

As much as we complain about pedestrian/bike conflict, one thing is worth keeping in mind and that is that bike traffic tends to be heaviest before 9 and after 5 on a weekday. There aren’t really so many pedestrians on shared paths at that time, and of the few you might see, most will be walking in a straight line to work.

The 2km dog leads, SUV prams and gatherings of clans spanning 5 generations who walk with the same haptic madness of five pinballs released all at once, are a product of the weekend. But this is when most of us cyclists have nowhere to be in a hurry, except maybe a bike race, but then bike races are things we can reach with our bunch rides, totally relaxed, because when we’re with our bothers we own the whole road.


(If you will take a moment to watch the whole of the next video you will see what I mean about family groups walking like pinballs):

Welcome back, and after ten hours of pinball, what do you think? Am I right about the shared path being a dynamic and self-regulating space, dominated by commuters on Monday, zombies on Sunday, and turning into a place for drunken brawls of a Saturday evening? I’m always right.

So how should it look?

The 1970s fashion was to paint a broken white line down the middle as though the shared path were some kind of traffic garden. Cyclists and pedestrians could use it to learn basic skills, like keeping left unless overtaking. Eventually they would graduate to driving like the big people, leaving the shared path to the next generation of babies.


CNKYJQ5UEAEOfkUIt is an approach that is still common on trails through the suburbs, and is appropriate on one proviso: a separate pedestrian path should always be included on one or both sides. The path pictured on the right (of course it’s in the Netherlands, where brains are for thinking) has a curb alerting pedestrians that they could be stepping into the path of a rider.

Moving from paths to what Kevin Lynch would call districts (places people where people are as likely to go to and through) the current thinking is to build the shared path using sandstone coloured concrete, as though we might be tricked into gracious behaviour by the luxurious surface beneath us. Here’s an artist’s impression of quite a monumental shared path currently under construction in my own city of Newcastle, that follows the beach. Unsure as to whether they’ve designed a destination or thoroughfare (a district or node) the designer has shown the cyclist dismounted and pushing their bike. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when my taxes pay the wages of bald faced lying bastards, or so-called urban designers who slept through their lecture on Lynch.


So what really works?

Out of shear laziness the Italians have emerged the world leaders in naked streets and shared space design. They didn’t have to undress them of signs; they had never gotten around to erecting signs in the first place and will never get around to pulling down any of the ones their ancestors left to them.

The Italians have two kinds of streets, “auto puo impazzire” and “auto puo farsi fottere”, which crudely translated means “cars yes” and “cars no”. If it’s “cars yes” then allora, forget it, motorists and cyclists alike are taking their lives in their hands. But if it’s “cars no” then allora, you can go there and witness gracious interaction between people on bikes and people whose bikes may be chained up nearby. I say that because virtually everyone cycles to town, sometimes.


You can see how it works from that photo. More roughly paved edges give cyclists a shuddering ride, so they tend to ride in the middle, while pedestrians realise pretty quickly that they are less likely to have a bell rang behind them if they keep off the smooth white pavers that run down the middle. Even though there are no signs or laws, locals will tell you the custom is ride down the middle and walk down the edge. And as surely as mountain men mate with their cousins while those of us who choose to dwell near traversable oceans and flats lands would rather marry someone from a long way away, culture is environmentally determined. People behave as instructed by their environments, never mind sign or awareness campaigns. This is why designers have to get this shit right and stop lying with artist’s impressions.

Summary: for linear paths moving people from one place to the next, refer to the example above from the Netherlands. For paths throughout districts (places people go to and stop) subtly indicate how the space can be shared.


  1. mdonnellan63 says:

    I’d like to hear your opinions about our local shared paths when you’re in Melbourne next. They’re evolving from pseudo-roads to park paths, but still miles away from the Italians–for that we’ll need a revolution (or velorution).
    Keep putting grit in those oysters.

  2. James says:

    The main shopping mall in Maitland has a ban on bicycles, at least did last I was there. It is paved with bricks in a similar fashion to the Italian “cars no” space, only missing the rough/smooth distinction. Perhaps you could educate the council to make the Mall suitable for my Brother’s family to go shopping by bicycle, Steven?

    • Steven says:

      I don’t provide free education and they haven’t called me 🙂
      Managers of the pedestrian mall in Rotterdam were just as bike phobic, until recently I believe. Italians just have a knack for letting things be; with regards to every other matter that’s probably bad.

    • Uraok says:

      They let cars through there now so one would presume bikes are allowed now too. But following the logic of the post why would you ride in the mall when 50 metres away is a much nicer ride along the river.

    • James says:

      Uraok, when shopping is the reason and a bicycle is the means of transport. BTW, it is a retrograde step to let cars through that Mall. It was a nice car free zone.

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