Traffic Safety: Regulation vs. Self-Organization

Drachten picture from spiegel nov 2006 European traffic planners are moving away from signs and regulations to increase traffic safety. Rather than legislating space for cars they are requiring drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to think about what they are doing rather than obeying signs. This approach appears to fit many resilience principles – for example – allowing many small disturbances makes the overall system more resilient.

In a Nov 2006, Spiegel magazine article Controlled Chaos: European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs:

“We reject every form of legislation,” the Russian aristocrat and “father of anarchism” Mikhail Bakunin once thundered. The czar banished him to Siberia. But now it seems his ideas are being rediscovered.

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.

A project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting their forest of traffic signs. Ejby, in Denmark, is participating in the experiment, as are Ipswich in England and the Belgian town of Ostende.

The utopia has already become a reality in Makkinga, in the Dutch province of Western Frisia. A sign by the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads “Verkeersbordvrij” — “free of traffic signs.” Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren’t even any lines painted on the streets.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

In 2004 Wired Magazine had an article about Hans Monderman:

Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign – literally – that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

iding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

From the beginning, a central premise guiding American road design was that driving and walking were utterly incompatible modes of transport, and that the two should be segregated as much as possible.

…The strict segregation of cars and people turned out to have unintended consequences on towns and cities. Wide roads sliced through residential areas, dividing neighborhoods, discouraging pedestrian activity, and destroying the human scale of the urban environment.

The old ways of traffic engineering – build it bigger, wider, faster – aren’t going to disappear overnight. But one look at West Palm Beach suggests an evolution is under way. When the city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town’s main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured. “In West Palm, people were just fed up with the way things were, and sometimes, that’s what it takes,” says Lockwood, the town’s former transportation manager. “What we really need is a complete paradigm shift in traffic engineering and city planning to break away from the conventional ideas that have got us in this mess. There’s still this notion that we should build big roads everywhere because the car represents personal freedom. Well, that’s bullshit. The truth is that most people are prisoners of their cars.”

Today some of the most car-oriented areas in the US are rethinking their approaches to traffic, mainly because they have little choice. “The old way doesn’t work anymore,” says Gary Toth, director of project planning and development for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The 2004 Urban Mobility Report, published by the respected Texas Transportation Institute, shows that traffic congestion is growing across the nation in towns and cities of all sizes. The study’s conclusion: It’s only going to get worse.

Instead of widening congested highways, New Jersey’s DOT is urging neighboring or contiguous towns to connect their secondary streets and add smaller centers of development, creating a series of linked minivillages with narrow roads, rather than wide, car-choked highways strewn with malls. “The cities that continue on their conventional path with traffic and land use will harm themselves, because people with a choice will leave,” says Lockwood. “They’ll go to places where the quality of life is better, where there’s more human exchange, where the city isn’t just designed for cars. The economy is going to follow the creative class, and they want to live in areas that have a sense of place. That’s why these new ideas have to catch on. The folly of traditional traffic engineering is all around us.”

Modernman’s design principles:

1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road – not signs and signals – dictates traffic flow.

2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.

3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.

4. Do it in the road: Caf�s extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.

5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.

6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

In 2005, the New York Times also had a profile of Monderman.

5 thoughts on “Traffic Safety: Regulation vs. Self-Organization”

  1. The Getting Things Done – A functional self-organization methodology by Stephen Collins, unless otherwise expressly stated. Nice approach to traffic regulation.

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