Vratislav Filler: Do we need Shared Spaces or a rewriting of the Road Traffic Act?

Publikováno: 21. prosince. 2023, 15 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 19. prosince. 2023
Úvodní foto: DeFacto, CC BY-SA 2.5
Publikováno: 21. prosince. 2023, 15 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 19. prosince. 2023
Úvodní foto: DeFacto, CC BY-SA 2.5

Supplementing the rules of road traffic with Shared Spaces is certainly welcomed by architects and other experts. It provides them with an additional tool to address traffic-calmed areas in city centers. Personally, I am not as enthusiastic about the resulting modification. The way this traffic regime is introduced points to deeper flaws in the conception of the road traffic act.

I admit from the start that I have never been a supporter of a traffic regime where all participants are formally equal and mutually dangerously interact. I shared the concerns of David Hembrow that in practice, shared space means the law of the stronger, especially when more than just a minimum number of cars are present in a given area. A recent British reflection on the resulting shared spaces also sounds equally skeptical.

New Rules for Shared Zones

§ 39b

(1) A shared zone is a built-up area whose beginning is marked by the traffic sign „Shared Zone,“ and the end is marked by the traffic sign „End of Shared Zone,“ and it is intended for use by all road traffic participants.

(2) In the shared zone, road traffic participants must exercise increased consideration towards other traffic participants whom they must not endanger. Other road traffic participants must not impede tram drivers, and the tram always has the right of way.

(3) In the shared zone, pedestrians and cyclists are allowed to use the road in its entire width. Sections 53 and 54 do not apply to pedestrians, and sections 57 (2) and (3) do not apply to cyclists (riding at the right edge of the road and only individually in single file, note by the editor). If a vehicle with the right of way approaches, pedestrians must promptly clear the space for the vehicle to pass.

(4) In the shared zone, drivers are allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 20 km/h. Parking of motor vehicles is only permitted in designated parking areas. Parking of bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles is only allowed in designated areas.

(Source: Law No. 361/2000 Coll.)

Therefore, I have always considered a residential zone as the best „shared space,“ which balances motorized and non-motorized traffic more appropriately. In essence, I should be satisfied with the new legal regulation, which ultimately defines the regime of shared space the same way as a residential zone. The differences lie not in the requirements for mutual relationships but practically only in the fact that in a residential zone, the municipality can restrict the entry of trucks by decree, and in a shared space, children are not allowed to play on the roadway.

However, if the differences between a shared space and a residential zone are so marginal, the understandable question arises: Why did we need a new traffic regime in the law at all?

There are reasons: existing technical regulations for establishing residential zones are so restrictive that, for example, a tranquil square in the city center cannot be certified as a residential zone. Architects rejoice, as they have long called for a technical tool to address such places. And, of course, the rules are indeed different in small details.

But the result is that to cover this „minor detail,“ three additional paragraphs and a bundle of internal references to paragraphs of other laws have been added to Act No. 361/2000 Coll. – making an already challenging-to-read law a bit less digestible. However, the rules of road traffic are not just any law that only specialists in the field and lawyers need to fully understand. At the very least, three-quarters of the adult population with a driver’s license should be well-versed in Act No. 361/2000 Coll., and to a lesser extent, cyclists and pedestrians as well.

Four regimes for almost the same thing

Looking at the actual implementation of the legal regulation, we now have four traffic regimes for tranquilized areas: pedestrian zones, residential zones, shared spaces, and sidewalks with permitted bicycle riding. Regarding the mutual behavior, they – quite understandably – practically say the same thing. Essentially, they only differ in the vehicles allowed to enter a given area and how the restriction can be adjusted by the respective traffic sign. Which is actually correct. It just somehow doesn’t belong in the law, where it is currently written in a desperately unintelligible way, as argued earlier by Tomáš Cach for „Městem na kole.“

Allow me to suggest how a simplification of this part might look:

Movement in traffic-calmed areas is defined collectively: pedestrians move everywhere, speed limit 20 km/h. If there is a clear sidewalk, vehicles move only on the roadway, park only in designated areas, and the municipality can restrict the entry of selected vehicles by decree. Pedestrians have the right of way over everything except trams; children can play on the road; cyclists can ride two abreast and in all directions, with priority given to exiting the zone. All written in one place. Additionally, specify that only vehicles indicated on the traffic sign are allowed to enter pedestrian zones, and on the sidewalk, riding can be permitted by a traffic sign, and we are done with the legal regulation. The difference between a residential zone and a shared space has disappeared in the law, and we can fine-tune it in standards and technical conditions.

By the way, the cycle zone does not belong to this group. It was never intended to be a zonal adjustment. The principle comes from the Dutch idea of a cycling street, essentially a communication route for cyclists with permitted traffic services.

Incomprehensible right-of-way regulations

Similarly incomprehensible sections, regulating many specific provisions that are essentially the embodiment of a simple principle, are found in Act No. 361/2000 Coll. There is, for instance, the considerably complex regulation of the right of way when turning. Yet, the principles here are utterly primitive and just three:

  1. Everything exiting a dedicated lane (including the tram lane) has the right of way over everything moving in the same direction.
  2. Everything turning gives way to everything going against or continuing straight, whether it’s a car, tram, pedestrian, or bicycle, whether in a traffic lane, at a crossing, or at a junction, even if there is no crossing or junction at the location.
  3. Where it is necessary to regulate the right of way differently, it is determined by local regulation.

For practical purposes, you need nothing more. Perhaps an provision stating that the right of way for vehicles going straight does not apply if turning on a left turn signal or clearance arrow. But it’s almost unnecessary: nobody should enter or cross an intersection on red anyway.

Comprehensible rules or a decision tree for fault attribution in accidents?

And there are numerous places in Act No. 361/2000 Coll. calling for consolidation. However, the verbosity of the entire formulation is further influenced by another aspect—the need to unequivocally determine fault attribution in accidents. For a large number of traffic accidents that occur, it is essentially necessary to make fault a binary variable (either one party or the other), and each provision must carefully address who violated the law.

Our legal tradition and the way fault in accidents is assessed here do not allow for formulations in traffic rules that directly recommend. For example, the British legislative regulation of traffic rules is entirely based on differences in wording: „Must“ signifies an offense and is punishable by a fine. „Should“ means that the rule is considered only at the time of the accident to determine the guilty party. When reading the law, you immediately know which rule is binding and which is advisory. In domestic practice, we have addressed this by defining only selected violations of the traffic law as offenses. However, you won’t discern this from paragraphs formulating rights and obligations, thus reducing the clarity of legal regulation for laypeople.

Is Act No. 361/2000 Coll. outdated?

What is the actual purpose of the Road Traffic Act? One public interest is evidently safety for all traffic participants and the minimization of damages from traffic accidents. However, I do not believe that the smooth flow of automobile traffic is a direct public interest. Smooth traffic flow is more of a means to enhance transportation efficiency and partially reduce negative impacts on the environment—though only if it is not fundamentally conflicting with the safety requirements for non-motorized traffic participants and does not lead to a long-term increase in traffic intensity to the extent that transportation becomes completely dysfunctional.

Public interest also generally involves the need to ensure transportation services for an area with minimal impact on public space or air pollution. It even includes the requirement to minimize the climate impact of transportation. Another aspect is providing safe and comfortable mobility for individuals with reduced mobility and orientation capabilities. Furthermore, ensuring a sense of security for pedestrians and cyclists to foster active mobility and allow them to claim a substantial portion of the „traffic cake.“ Public interest also lies in enabling independent movement on streets for children under the age of ten or providing local authorities with sufficient means to regulate excessive automobile traffic.

The Road Traffic Act must reflect all these public interests and do so in a manner understandable to all street users. It is indeed a challenging task, and I am not convinced that the current wording of the law fulfills it well. The evolution of Act No. 361/2000 Coll. came from a different perspective—it essentially stemmed from the regulation of automobile traffic, for which space needs to be secured regardless of others and where, in the last twenty years, provisions for pedestrians and cyclists have been added gradually without intervening in the overall concept.

Traffic rules are, therefore, overly complicated in matters related to non-motorized transportation, without adequately considering that the transportation space in urban areas is also public space. The law is essentially outdated even in terms of safety principles. It does not adhere to the principles of sustainable safety and does not sufficiently reflect the primary cause of severe consequences in traffic accidents, which is speed and the kinetic energy of moving vehicles.

In Britain, the principle of a hierarchy of responsibility was recently introduced. This places higher demands and a level of responsibility on those whose vehicles can cause more significant harm, without excessively relieving „weaker“ traffic participants of responsibility for safe behavior. While this was only done by adding a new preamble to the existing law and making small adjustments, it was a significant step forward in the concept of traffic rules to consider not only safety but also other public interests. For our domestic environment, this is an immensely interesting inspiration.

Let's consider a new legal regulation

Act No. 361/2000 Coll. is now over twenty years old and conceptually outdated. A new legal regulation should reflect at least the following principles:

  • Hierarchy of responsibility,
  • Principles of sustainable safety,
  • Public interest in supporting public and non-motorized transportation,
  • Urban traffic space as public space.

Formal changes:

  • Regulation understandable to laypeople, conciseness,
  • Clearer differentiation between undesirable and punishable behavior,
  • Transfer of maximum details to regulations,
  • Relocation of elements not directly related to traffic movement (e.g., driver records, offense registries, etc.) to special norms.

I won’t list all the specific changes that such a law would have compared to the current regulation. However, just from the simplification of the entire concept, logical outcomes could include the unification of right-of-way rules when turning, harmonization of rights and obligations on calmed streets, and clearer rules for various types of micromobility.

a law on fair traffic coexistence in public space

It is understandable that drafting a new law would impose higher demands on the Ministry of Transport than repeatedly patching up the existing one. An even greater challenge than formulating a quality concept would probably be its discussion. Fully opening up this legislation would mean revisiting discussions on various controversial topics, such as segways, safe lateral spacing from cyclists, mandatory helmet wearing, and more. At the same time, the law’s revision would provide an opportunity to address new topics, such as the basic thirty-kilometer speed limit in towns, crossing outside of crosswalks, cycling side by side, penalties for improper parking, and facilitating rules for toll charges.

It is clear that preparing a new law would undoubtedly face strong pressures from those demanding maximum freedom for motorists or building their business on gaps in the current regulation. Especially if the Ministry of Transport takes inspiration from the unfortunate approach of the Ministry of Local Development in amending the building law, essentially leaving the preparation to building lobbyists. The British example of the preparation process, which included a clear change intention and transparent public consultations with all stakeholders, shows that a good outcome is achievable.

Either way, I believe it is time to start thinking about the principles of a new legal regulation. After all, the Road Traffic Act will undoubtedly be rewritten at some point. I would be quite pleased if, afterward, it could proudly be referred to as the law on fair traffic coexistence in public space.

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