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Friday, November 23, 2007


I would describe the hot new trend in civil engineering sweeping across Europe as ““The Chaos Traffic Circle of Life”. These libertarians of the highways begin by dividing the world in two; “high speed” zones between cities and “slow speed” zones within communities. The Interstates, Autobahns and other divided highways will stay the same, with speed limits and limited access. But inside city limits the Neo-commuter approach is that dangerous is better. Rules, they say, make you feel safer but they don’t actually make you safer. So they are urging city planners to dump traffic lights and signs, speed limits and painted lane dividers and cross walks, “yield” and “caution” signs, parking zones and separated pedestrian walks and bike lanes, all of the safety regulations we think of as necessary, because, say these lunatics of the lanes, these are the tractor trailer jackknifed across our road home. Roads are not for cars, they are for people, some of whom are driving cars. Drivers and cyclists and pedestrians should depend upon the kindness of each other and always suspect each others’ intentions.
This insanity began in the little Dutch village of Drachten and with a civil engineer named Hans Monderman. Drachten is a community of 1,000 directly astride a major commuter route that funnels 22,000 drivers a day right through the center of town. The residents were desperate enough to try anything. Step one was to “calm” the traffic, but not with speed limits which drivers could simply ignore. Monderman narrowed the streets, removed the painted lane dividers, added traffic circles, planted trees and flowers right up against the roadway, lowered curbs to bring pedestrians and drivers closer and added brick and cobblestone rumble strips. Drachten now has just one traffic sign, and it reads “Verkeesbrodvri” – “Free Of Traffic Signs”. A single rule rules on these roads; yield to the right, meaning merging traffic always has the right of way. But, of course, there are no signs to that effect.
Hans does seem to have a phobic relationship with traffic lights. “…I haven’t found anywhere where they are useful yet,” he says. The town of Drachten once had 15 intersections controlled by traffic lights and he has removed 13 of them. Injuries at just one such intersection dropped from 9 a year (on average) with the lights to just one without. The clutter of traffic signs is gone. The signs detailing parking restrictions are gone. Traffic jams are also gone, and horn-honking frustrated drivers are gone too. Travel times have gone down while the speed on city streets has dropped by 50%. And a town with a traffic fatality every three years on average has now gone seven years without a death. In fact there has never been a fatality on a road system designed by Hans Monderman.
Hans says of his system, “It works because it is dangerous…it shifts the emphasis…to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk,” and, “We want small accidents, in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt”. He says that about 15% of drivers will speed no matter how high or low you set the limit, change lanes no matter how many yellow lines you paint on the road. So, he asks, why try to control the 15% of drivers who will always refuse to obey the rules, whatever they are, by regulating the 85% of drivers who are perfectly capable of making their own “risk compensation” assessments? Good drivers should not be reading signs when they could be looking out for the bad drivers.
In this brave new “shared traffic space” human behavior follows the design of the road, traffic lights are “…a retrospective cure for a government made problem”, and auto insurance is based on “risk liability”, where all persons involved in an accident are assumed to be responsible to some degree. Could it actually work? German traffic is governed by 648 valid traffic symbols with some 1,800 combinations on their 20 million traffic signs, and German drivers ignore 70 % of them. But on the outskirts of the little suburb of Bohmte (13,500 residents) there is now just one brand new, red and white road sign with a large black exclamation point on it, and beneath it are the words, “Priority Changed". As of February this year they have joined Mr. Monderman’s neighborhood. All asphalt and concrete have been replaced, and sidewalks and bike lanes will be separated from the road proper only by the color painted on their new cobblestones.
According to the magazine “Der Speigel” the cars in Bohmte now seem to be, “…driven by swivel-headed paranoiacs with rubber vertebrae. They crawl along at little more than 15mph, their occupants constantly craning their necks to make doubly sure that they are not going to hit anything, be it a pedestrian, cyclist or even another car.” This is the new world order utopia, or what the British tabloids have dubbed the “Naked Streets”. And although no English village has yet worked up the courage to take it all off, Ipswich is considering it, and London has eliminated signs, barriers and the zebra pedestrian crossings along Kennington High Street, where, over a two year period, pedestrian injuries dropped 44%. In Wiltshire authorities removed the painted center divider line from a highway and reduced automobile speeds without an increase in accidents.
In West Palm Beach, Florida a limited program of “shared space” along Clematos Street has more than doubled property values and brought the occupancy rate for commercial spaces to 80%, while also achieving slower traffic, fewer accidents and shorter drive times. It all sounds almost as perfect as the descriptions offered for the civic plans introduced in Europe and America after World War Two, the very system which Herr Modernman is urging should be replaced with his new version of perfection.
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