Iceland takes pride in robust and modern street infrastructure techniques. To anyone who has been to Europe or elsewhere abroad, much of this will seem quite familiar. However, during my recent trip to the country, I was taken aback by just how serious Icelanders were about road safety; prioritization of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit; and making life for the disabled better. While Iceland trails the United States in per capita car ownership, the country has an astoundingly high rate of 745 vehicles per 1,000 people–putting the nation in the top five globally. For perspective, the United States has a rate of 809 vehicles per 1,000 people. Meanwhile, the United States also has nearly 3 times as many traffic-related deaths per capita than Iceland. So, maybe–just maybe–we have something to learn from the Land of Fire and Ice when it comes to doing streets right.

1. The Chicane
Chicane in Reykjavik

A chicane in the foreground; woonerf with divergent lane in the background.

 2. The Plaza Woonerf

Woonerf street with a median street furniture, doubles as an extended plaza.

A woonerf street with median street furniture. The street also serves as an extended plaza space to a theatre.

3. The Pedestrian-Oriented Parking Lot

Parking lot with elevated pedestrian pathway that doubles as speed control ramp device.

A parking lot with an elevated pedestrian pathway doubling as a speed control ramp device.

4. The Textured Street

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A textured street that has a modest and well marked crosswalk.

5. The Separated Bike Lane

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 A new separated bike lane headed eastbound in Reykjavík. The bike lane trimmed the street width down, but also took some sidewalk width to implement. Large bricks and pavers separate the road from the bike lane and sidewalk. Asphalt is used to keep the pavement soft for bicyclists. Speeds are reduced to 30 kph (~20 mph).

6. The Bus-Only Lane

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A bus-only lane marked with a red advisory strip.

7. The Elevated Crosswalk

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An elevated crosswalk/ramp that contains advisory strips for approaching vehicles. Signs are well posted to the approach to notify drivers. Pavers are colored to differentiate zones for pedestrians and warn them that they are about to cross vehicle travel lanes.

8. The Queue Jump

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A queue jump light exclusively for buses to keep them moving ahead of regular car traffic through Reykjavík.

9. The Woonerf

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A full-on woonerf with some bollards and differently colored pavers.

10. The Safe Community

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A sign reminding drivers that they need to keep it slow in villages, towns, and cities for all the right reasons: people live, pray, work, and play here (50 kph = 30 mph).

11. The Tabletop Intersection

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The tabletop intersection slows drivers down and draws their attention to pedestrians and cyclists. Meanwhile, this intersection type makes it easy for pedestrians to cross at any point with minimal grade change, especially for those with accessibility issues.

12. The Low Curb

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The low curb makes crossing intersections easy for pedestrians and those with accessibility issues. To provide enhanced safety, the crossing is well marked with eye-catching colors and designs on pavers with some separation features. Advisory pavers strips with special textures let pedestrians know they are crossing a bike lane and vehicle lanes.
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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent suggestions. Thankfully, SDOT is beginning to build on what works elsewhere to make our streets safer for all. Question: should we change downtown street speeds to 25 mph and disallow right turns on red?

    –Sally Bagshaw

    • It’s great to see you on here! 🙂

      > should we change downtown street speeds to 25 mph

      Yes, absolutely. Or even 20 mph. Studies have repeatedly shown that if a vehicle traveling at 40 mph hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian has only a 15% chance of surviving. But if the vehicle is traveling at 20 mph, the pedestrian’s odds are 95%. The closer we can get to 20 mph, the more lives we will save.

      > and disallow right turns on red

      Yes. (And also, left turns on red, which many people don’t realize are legal.) Pedestrian crashes involving right turns at signalized intersections went up by an astonishing 79% in urban areas after traffic laws were changed to allow right turns at red lights.

      The root of the problem is that traffic lights encourage drivers to look at the light, and not at the road. So when an intersection shows a walk sign for pedestrians and a right-turn-permitting light to drivers at the same time, is it any wonder that crashes result?

      [1] http://humantransport.org/sidewalks/SpeedKills.htm

      [2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001457582900331

      • > should we change downtown street speeds to 25 mph

        I agree. What many don’t realize is that a speed limit between 20-25 mph would actually increase the capacity of the streets and move more cars. This is possible because the following distance between cars is smaller at lower speeds. There is a point at which the gain from the lower following distance is balanced with the loss from the lower speed.

        Helsinki had slowly moved their speed limit from ~35 mph to 20 mph and found that somewhere between 20 and 25 mph yields the highest throughput:

        https://dnproulx.wordpress.com/2014/12/03/slowing-down-traffic-can-actually-move-more-people/

        So with one shot safety is improved and throughput is increased.

    • Thanks for the question, Sally. I agree with Aleksandra. Reducing speeds, especially Downtown should happen. It greatly enhances the safety for pedestrians. But it also has many other positive benefits:
      -Safer streets for bikes;
      -Fewer collisions with cars and buses;
      -Easier maneouvering for vehicles (re-)entering travel lanes; and
      -Quieter streets–just to name a few.

      Turn-on red should be prohibited everywhere in Seattle. It reduces collisions for all users by leaps and bounds meaning significant cost savings and fewer injuries and deaths.

      Perhaps these are topics that Council could explore with SDOT and the Mayor as part of enhanced safety and efficiency of our streets.

    • Lowering speed limits on surface streets throughout Seattle should be a priority. 20 mph would be best because it would hardly change travel times while have the largest impact on pedestrian safety. We have to stop prioritizing car conveniences over pedestrian safety. Furthermore, it would increase the capacity of downtown streets, possibly freeing up space for alternative uses, like dedicated bus lanes or bike lanes.

      Yes, we should also eliminate turning on red, both left and right turns simply because it would save lives. Opponents might suggest that this is an inconvenience for drivers but protecting pedestrians is more important. Additionally, there is not evidence this impacts travel times.

      Most importantly though, we need to work on street designs that produce these outcomes. The laws are important but they are only useful insofar as people follow the rules. At many busy intersections we can simply prevent right and left turns on red by instituting all way walks. Additionally, red light cameras have a proven record of saving lives. Other improvements might include, narrowing travel lanes, eliminating one way streets and raising pedestrian crosswalks.

      All of these improvements could easily be summarized in a campaign for zero traffic deaths.

  2. Just wanted to point out this minor error: It’s Iceland, so they don’t have “ADA” (Americans with Disabilities Act) there.

    • That was not an error; it was shorthand to describe an equivalent standard for accessible facilities that readers are familiar with. But noted for future articles that cover non-US examples. I’ve updated the post to clarify this. Thanks!

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