In June, members of parliament could discuss a proposal for the introduction of a so-called shared zone. Architect and transportation urbanist Tomáš Cach, who has been intensively involved in related legislative and technical literature changes for over 15 years, explains in his text the challenges of the proposed draft. He tries to outline why, from his perspective, this proposal in its current form would create more problems rather than clarify and improve traffic regulations. In conclusion, he suggests alternative and better ways to address traffic calming regimes in the law.
The principle of the urban transportation concept of a shared space does not need to be introduced. Simplified, it is a solution for public spaces at a single level, with minimal use of traffic signs and regulations or traffic control, allowing everyone to move safely and naturally (by walking, cycling, riding a moped, driving a car, using public transportation, or otherwise). Users interact with each other intuitively, and both traffic and non-traffic (particularly recreational) activities are in harmony.
It is not necessary to look abroad for good examples. Spaces based on this principle are being created and function in our country as well. Very often, they are significant representative areas, usually within squares or streets, which can be found in most of our cities. In Prague, for example, we can mention Náměstí Republiky or Anděl, more recently the lower part of Wenceslas Square or the inner space of the Museum Oasis, and so on. The main complication in the preparation and discussion of modifications to these spaces is determining the suitable traffic regime from the current legislative options. Each has its partial advantages, but overcoming their limitations requires the goodwill of all parties involved: allowing all vehicles into a pedestrian zone is not ideal, intensive motorized traffic corridors are not suitable for children playing in residential areas, and simply reducing vehicle speed does not adequately balance non-motorized movement with vehicles, and so on.
In many cases, a partial amendment to the law would help designate a shared space area with a traffic regime that does not suffer from the aforementioned limitations. However, it is important to note that in many places, shared spaces function naturally, even though they may not strictly comply with the formalistic interpretation of existing legislation in some aspects. This includes not only parking areas in front of supermarkets but also raised intersection spaces in calm urban streets, pedestrian-free quiet roads, and more. In most cases, it is not desirable to install additional traffic signs. It is more appropriate to adjust the related general legal framework in such a way that natural human behavior (taking the shortest path, walking beside each other, in the center, etc.) is not in conflict with the existing legal provisions in these common and problem-free situations.
In previous years, various institutions, such as the Transport Research Centre, v.v.i., or the City of Prague, have addressed the topic of shared space in different ways, in connection with the preparation of their sustainable mobility plans. Guides for the correction and revision of relevant topics, such as cycling streets (or zones) or vehicle access to paths, have been developed and regularly updated. However, a broad expert discussion (ideally moderated by the Ministry of Transport) on the actual concept and the most suitable wording of the paragraphs for all the mentioned measures did not take place or was indefinitely postponed. Unfortunately, this led to the lack of a conceptual incorporation of the optimal form of the relevant legislative amendments into the government amendment of Act No. 361/2000 Coll., on Road Traffic, which could and should have been included from the beginning.
The result is a growing pressure for change, which, among other things, led to the submission of a parliamentary amendment proposal in the form of an „addendum“ with another newly created sign with a special traffic regime. There is a certain parallel and repetition of the earlier problematic implementation of the „added through an addendum“ cycling zone. A positive aspect is the well-developed PR for the proposed changes. However, the actual wording of the paragraphs causes difficulties in orientation within the issue, even among the expert community, let alone ordinary users.
Let’s start with what is currently proposed in the legislative process and in what form. Then, we will summarize the preceding development and form of this version and what it means for any future direction.
The current parliamentary amendment proposal addresses the simple addition of a new traffic regime for shared zones to the current provisions of Act No. 361/2000 Coll., on Road Traffic (as amended by later regulations) or to the government’s proposed amendment to the act, which is currently being discussed in the Chamber of Deputies. Formally and substantively, it takes the path of least resistance, meaning it is introduced as a new addendum (§ 39b) to the previous addendum for cycling zones from 2016 (§ 39a), with only the necessary modifications to the current paragraphs (particularly § 39 and § 40). Substantively, the proposal does not address other interconnected matters that could and should have been addressed. Formally, it further complicates an already confusing patchwork of descriptions of traffic regimes instead of simplifying them as a whole. In specific cases, the question arises as to why certain provisions should apply only and specifically to shared spaces and not elsewhere, where users would logically expect them as well. The whole situation resembles a „search for ten differences“ that had to be invented to justify the creation of a new traffic regime. Let’s go through the specific amendments and the questions and problems that arise from them.
Ten questions regarding the current draft of the paragraph while searching for ten differences – first regarding the new § 39b itself (including its connection to the „old“ § 39), and then regarding § 39 as a whole and other paragraphs:
Undoubtedly, many more questions can be raised, and even better answers can be provided. However, considering the above, it is clear that the proposal was developed hastily and without broader open discussion. Let us therefore examine the reasons that led to this and how the proposal could have looked fundamentally different.
The original paragraph proposal was based on background material that the City of Prague (HMP) had externally commissioned and paid for in previous years. As part of this work, extensive and relatively high-quality research of legal and technical regulations for shared spaces abroad was first conducted. This was followed by the development of a conceptual proposal, which unfortunately did not undergo a broader professional and legislative debate, and despite early warnings, it failed to address interconnected related issues (such as repairing a cycling street and establishing rules for motor vehicle entry onto the cycle/pedestrian paths).
As a result, the output legislative proposal suggested attaching a similarly unsuitable addendum to the faulty paragraph addendum of the cycling zone from 2016. The recommended approach was to start by amending the law in the proposed form and then address the technical aspect of the matter. Thus, the order of actions was precisely the opposite of what would be necessary, i.e., abstracting the appropriate form of paragraph wording from the agreed-upon substantive principles and, after the approval of legislative changes, making any necessary corrections and approving technical documents.
The originally proposed wording of the „meeting zone“ consisted of copied and merged selected paragraphs from the residential and cycling zones into a new „appended“ paragraph. This is effectively in line with the more appealing name „meeting zone.“ However, in its tone and fundamental essence, it corresponds much more to the rejected scenario of a foreign model with a simple revision of the existing residential zone, rather than creating another new measure. At this point, it makes sense to only mention the most significant problems of the original proposal:
The well-prepared promotion of the proposal and the effort to expedite the inclusion of the new measure into the law were prioritized over the substantive quality of the proposal. In light of the current government proposal for an amendment to Act No. 361/2000 Coll., which is being discussed in the Chamber of Deputies, it was a logical endeavor to procedurally utilize the form of a parliamentary amendment proposal. This intention was presented to the subcommittee for transport on January 11, 2023, and the preparation of the amendment proposal was subsequently set in motion.
Considering the strength of political will (from both MPs and the Minister of Transport) to promptly incorporate the adjustment of shared space into the law, there was only a few weeks available to prepare the substantive wording of the parliamentary amendment proposal, in order to leverage the ongoing discussion of the government’s proposed amendment to Act No. 361/2000 in the Chamber of Deputies. After years of postponing the necessary comprehensive expert discussion on the relevant paragraphs, the almost traditional situation arose where suddenly it is no longer too early (as it will eventually be „opened“ someday), but it is too late.
I have been in intensive communication with the majority of key stakeholders, attempting to address multiple problems at once and in a clear manner. The working versions of the conceptual wording of the paragraphs and justifications were prepared based on existing materials, developed in previous years through professional discussions (particularly within the working group at the Ministry of Transport [MoT] or technical editorial boards at the Road and Motorway Directorate [RMD]). Subsequently, I further refined them based on feedback from consultations, primarily with representatives of the Police of the Czech Republic (PCR), MoT, and the City of Prague (CoP). Below, I summarize the most essential aspects of the working proposal, which served as a basis for further discussion in formulating the legislative change proposal.
When addressing the related paragraph of Act No. 361/2000, all three interconnected topics, which are „like connected vessels“ and whose current legislative (non)solutions maintain a problematic and inappropriate state, were considered:
After examining and discussing several possible variations in substance and form, it became evident that it is more appropriate not to follow the path of adding a new attachment to an old attachment. In order for the general user, not just an expert after repeated reading and searching for differences, to understand these regimes and the related rights and obligations, it was recommended to revise the paragraph wording of all relevant regimes as follows:
Due to time constraints, the working materials were prepared very quickly. Only after a broader expert discussion and further corrections would it be possible to consider the final material as fully functional. Nevertheless, even in this working form, it addresses several problems better than the current or originally proposed wording of the amendment proposal. In any case, the materials were timely provided to all involved stakeholders for the preparation of a new legislative proposal and could be included in the parliamentary proposal in this or a similar form.
Currently, it can be assumed that the parliamentary proposal for „shared zone“ in its current form will successfully pass the legislative process and be approved. The next step should be the inclusion of relevant signage in the implementing decree (the exact form of which remains a question).
Considering the ongoing preparation of technical conditions by the Ministry of Transport (MD) for traffic calming measures, it is likely that the final form of the legal regulation will be incorporated into these conditions even before their completion. Therefore, in the coming year (2024), both legislation and technical literature will encompass the concept of the shared zone.
The positive aspect of the whole matter is that despite all the mentioned problems, the revised wording of the paragraphs actually makes sense for the newly introduced traffic regime. Moreover, it will be possible to create shared spaces more easily in practice than before. The implemented outcome will be similar to existing structures, but the endless debates about which traffic regime to use, which often occur during project discussions, will be eliminated because each regime has its own partial „buts.“
Overall, the revised legislative framework provides a meaningful basis for the newly introduced traffic regime, and the practical implementation of shared spaces will be facilitated in many locations.
The negative aspect of this outcome is that the law has become slightly more confusing and less comprehensible, and in the future, an even greater scope of necessary changes will be required for its correction. Particularly disheartening is the fact that even after eight years, the „cyklistická zóna“ (cycling zone) will not be rectified to „cyklistická ulice“ (cycling street), which means that we will likely have one of the worst legal regulations in Europe. It would have been meaningful to finally start implementing this measure in a sensible manner in our country.
It is also saddening that in many places, due to the need to allow the entry of multiple vehicles, there will continue to be no road configuration that significantly enhances the safety of vulnerable road users. Similarly, there will be no clear and uniform rights and obligations for drivers in cases where an exemption is granted for vehicle entry onto any path.
In conclusion, it can be said that although one partial problem (the adjustments and construction of public spaces and roadways that are more accommodating for people) has been partially and somewhat overly resolved, other long-standing issues persist unnecessarily. The remedy for all of this has been pushed further away and complicated. One of my colleagues aptly noted that „there is never enough time to do things properly, but there is always time to start over.“ Let us hope that this development at least serves as a lesson for the future, and the ultimate outcome of further amendments to this legislation is somewhat more positive. It would benefit everything and everyone involved.