A powerful design tool from Helsinki: Square street corners

June 29, 2016

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

We’re home from Copenhagen but sharing some remaining thoughts from this month’s study tour.

If modern Scandinavia prides itself on having spread any single set of ideas around the world, it’s design — specifically the line of thinking known as human-centered design.

The premise is, essentially, that people tend to use things in ways they’re not intended to. But since we aren’t going to change this, we shouldn’t try to. Instead, we should redesign the thing that’s being misused.

This concept is behind everything from IKEA furniture to Vision Zero, the Swedish principle that safety should be the top priority in road design. You can even see it at work in Scandinavian cities’ startling lack of signage. Where North Americans tend to respond to dangerous behavior by plastering the area with text or icons, the Scandinavian ideal (sometimes adhered to, though not always) is to change the area.

You can also see this concept at work in a tiny, useful way at the street corner pictured above, a point where a center-running walking path and bike lane cross a small perpendicular road in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Here’s the same corner again, facing the opposite direction:

As you can see, this is a pretty large street in a residential area, with two lanes in each direction, and auto traffic is moving quite fast. If someone in a car happened to turn right or left to cross here or make a U-turn at anything close to their general travel speed, they could kill someone crossing the street.

But the people pictured here didn’t even have to slow down or look over a shoulder as they crossed the little street. Why not?

Because of the square corners. In the unusual event that someone traveling on the large street would have to turn left, the square corners (and narrow width of the crossing street) would force the person driving to slow down to nonlethal speeds — slow enough to notice and yield to anyone crossing.

Wide, curved intersections are necessary in some corners to allow truck or bus traffic. But in many situations, their only effect is to encourage people to take corners quickly, a move that can be fatal.

This little detail of Finnish street design solves that problem. It helps the car user intuitively understand the proper way to use this little street.

The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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