Roads Gone Wild

by Tom McNichol

Wired Magazine, 12.12 December 2004

 

 

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.”

Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer – equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.

Monderman and I are tooling around the rural two-lane roads of northern Holland, where he works as a road designer. He wants to show me a favorite intersection he designed. It’s a busy junction that doesn’t contain a single traffic signal, road sign, or directional marker, an approach that turns eight decades of traditional traffic thinking on its head.

Wearing a striped tie and crisp blue blazer with shiny gold buttons, Monderman looks like the sort of stout, reliable fellow you’d see on a package of pipe tobacco. He’s worked as a civil engineer and traffic specialist for more than 30 years and, for a time, ran his own driving school. Droll and reserved, he’s easy to underestimate – but his ideas on road design, safety, and city planning are being adopted from Scandinavia to the Sunshine State.

Riding 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.”

It’s no surprise that the Dutch, a people renowned for social experimentation in practically every facet of life, have embraced new ideas in traffic management. But variations of Monderman’s less-is-more approach to traffic engineering are spreading around the globe, showing up in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US.

In Denmark, the town of Christianfield stripped the traffic signs and signals from its major intersection and cut the number of serious or fatal accidents a year from three to zero. In England, towns in Suffolk and Wiltshire have removed lane lines from secondary roads in an effort to slow traffic – experts call it “psychological traffic calming.” A dozen other towns in the UK are looking to do the same. A study of center-line removal in Wiltshire, conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory, a UK transportation consultancy, found that drivers with no center line to guide them drove more safely and had a 35 percent decrease in the number of accidents.

In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times. “I think the future of transportation in our cities is slowing down the roads,” says Ian Lockwood, the transportation manager for West Palm Beach during the project and now a transportation and design consultant. “When you try to speed things up, the system tends to fail, and then you’re stuck with a design that moves traffic inefficiently and is hostile to pedestrians and human exchange.”

The common thread in the new approach to traffic engineering is a recognition that the way you build a road affects far more than the movement of vehicles. It determines how drivers behave on it, whether pedestrians feel safe to walk alongside it, what kinds of businesses and housing spring up along it. “A wide road with a lot of signs is telling a story,” Monderman says. “It’s saying, go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.”

We drive on to another project Monderman designed, this one in the nearby village of Oosterwolde. What was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. About 5,000 cars pass through the square each day, with no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999. “To my mind, there is one crucial test of a design such as this,” Monderman says. “Here, I will show you.”

With that, Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square – backward – straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions.

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 planned suburban community of Radburn, New Jersey, founded in 1929 as “a town for the motor age,” took the segregation principle to its logical extreme. Radburn’s key design element was the strict separation of vehicles and people; cars were afforded their own generously proportioned network, while pedestrians were tucked safely away in residential “super blocks,” which often terminated in quiet cul de sacs. Parents could let kids walk to the local school without fearing that they might be mowed down in the street. Radburn quickly became a template for other communities in the US and Britain, and many of its underlying assumptions were written directly into traffic codes.

The psychology of driver behavior was largely unknown. Traffic engineers viewed vehicle movement the same way a hydraulics engineer approaches water moving through a pipe – to increase the flow, all you have to do is make the pipe fatter. Roads became wider and more “forgiving” – roadside trees were cut down and other landscape elements removed in an effort to decrease fatalities. Road signs, rather than road architecture, became the chief way to enforce behavior. Pedestrians, meanwhile, were kept out of the traffic network entirely or limited to defined crossing points.

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.”

Back in Holland, Monderman is fighting his own battle against the folly of traditional traffic engineering, one sign at a time. “Every road tells a story,” Monderman says. “It’s just that so many of our roads tell the story poorly, or tell the wrong story.”

As the new approach to traffic begins to take hold in the US, the road ahead is unmarked and ambiguous. Hans Monderman couldn’t be happier.

How to Build a Better Intersection: Chaos = Cooperation

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: Cafés 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.

 

A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts

By SARAH LYALL

 

New York Times, January 22, 2005

DRACHTEN, The Netherlands

“I WANT to take you on a walk,” said Hans Monderman, abruptly stopping his car and striding – hatless, and nearly hairless – into the freezing rain.

Like a naturalist conducting a tour of the jungle, he led the way to a busy intersection in the center of town, where several odd things immediately became clear. Not only was it virtually naked, stripped of all lights, signs and road markings, but there was no division between road and sidewalk. It was, basically, a bare brick square.

But in spite of the apparently anarchical layout, the traffic, a steady stream of trucks, cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, moved along fluidly and easily, as if directed by an invisible conductor. When Mr. Monderman, a traffic engineer and the intersection’s proud designer, deliberately failed to check for oncoming traffic before crossing the street, the drivers slowed for him. No one honked or shouted rude words out of the window.

“Who has the right of way?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Used by some 20,000 drivers a day, the intersection is part of a road-design revolution pioneered by the 59-year-old Mr. Monderman. His work in Friesland, the district in northern Holland that takes in Drachten, is increasingly seen as the way of the future in Europe.

His philosophy is simple, if counterintuitive.

To make communities safer and more appealing, Mr. Monderman argues, you should first remove the traditional paraphernalia of their roads – the traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from one another; even the speed bumps, speed-limit signs, bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.

“All those signs are saying to cars, ‘This is your space, and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you,’ ” Mr. Monderman said. “That is the wrong story.”

The Drachten intersection is an example of the concept of “shared space,” a street where cars and pedestrians are equal, and the design tells the driver what to do.

“It’s a moving away from regulated, legislated traffic toward space which, by the way it’s designed and configured, makes it clear what sort of behavior is anticipated,” said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British specialist in urban design and movement and a proponent of many of the same concepts.

Highways, where the car is naturally king, are part of the “traffic world” and another matter altogether. In Mr. Monderman’s view, shared-space schemes thrive only in conjunction with well-organized, well-regulated highway systems.

Variations on the shared-space theme are being tried in Spain, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Britain, among other places. The European Union has appointed a committee of experts, including Mr. Monderman, for a Europe-wide study.

MR. MONDERMAN is a man on a mission. On a daylong automotive tour of Friesland, he pointed out places he had improved, including a town where he ripped out the sidewalks, signs and crossings and put in brick paving on the central shopping street. An elderly woman crossed slowly in front of him.

“This is social space, so when Grandma is coming, you stop, because that’s what normal, courteous human beings do,” he said.

Planners and curious journalists are increasingly making pilgrimages to meet Mr. Monderman, considered one of the field’s great innovators, although until a few years ago he was virtually unknown outside Holland. Mr. Hamilton-Baillie, whose writings have helped bring Mr. Monderman’s work to wider attention, remembers with fondness his own first visit.

Mr. Monderman drove him to a small country road with cows in every direction. Their presence was unnecessarily reinforced by a large, standard-issue European traffic sign with a picture of a cow on it.

“He said: ‘What do you expect to find here? Wallabies?’ ” Mr. Hamilton-Baillie recalled. ” ‘They’re treating you like you’re a complete idiot, and if people treat you like a complete idiot, you’ll act like one.’

“Here was someone who had rethought a lot of issues from complete scratch. Essentially, what it means is a transfer of power and responsibility from the state to the individual and the community.”

Dressed in a beige jacket and patterned shirt, with scruffy facial hair and a stocky build, Mr. Monderman has the appearance of a football hooligan but the temperament of an engineer, which indeed he trained to be. His father was the headmaster of the primary school in their small village; Hans liked to fiddle with machines. “I was always the guy who repaired the TV sets in our village,” he said.

He was working as a civil engineer building highways in the 1970’s when the Dutch government, alarmed at a sharp increase in traffic accidents, set up a network of traffic-safety offices. Mr. Monderman was appointed Friesland’s traffic safety officer.

In residential communities, Mr. Monderman began narrowing the roads and putting in design features like trees and flowers, red brick paving stones and even fountains to discourage people from speeding, following the principle now known as psychological traffic calming, where behavior follows design.

He made his first nervous foray into shared space in a small village whose residents were upset at its being used as a daily thoroughfare for 6,000 speeding cars. When he took away the signs, lights and sidewalks, people drove more carefully. Within two weeks, speeds on the road had dropped by more than half.

In fact, he said, there has never been a fatal accident on any of his roads.

Several early studies bear out his contention that shared spaces are safer. In England, the district of Wiltshire found that removing the center line from a stretch of road reduced drivers’ speed without any increase in accidents.

WHILE something of a libertarian, Mr. Monderman concedes that road design can do only so much. It does not change the behavior, for instance, of the 15 percent of drivers who will behave badly no matter what the rules are. Nor are shared-space designs appropriate everywhere, like major urban centers, but only in neighborhoods that meet particular criteria.

Recently a group of well-to-do parents asked him to widen the two-lane road leading to their children’s school, saying it was too small to accommodate what he derisively calls “their huge cars.”

He refused, saying the fault was not with the road, but with the cars. “They can’t wait for each other to pass?” he asked. “I wouldn’t interfere with the right of people to buy the car they want, but nor should the government have to solve the problems they make with their choices.”

Mr. Monderman’s obsessions can cause friction at home. His wife hates talking about road design. But work is his passion and his focus for as many as 70 hours a week, despite quixotic promises to curtail his projects and stay home on Fridays.

The current plan, instigated by Mrs. Monderman, is for him to retire in a few years. But it is unclear what a man who begins crawling the walls after three days at the beach (“If you want to go to a place without any cultural aspect, go to the Grand Canaries,” he grumbled) will do with all that free time.

“The most important thing is being master of my own time, and then doing things that we both enjoy,” he said. “What are they? I don’t know.”

 

Green Streets are Naked Streets

Removing ‘clutter’ can help to reclaim our streets and make them safer.

By Philip Booth. Resurgence. March 2006

INITIALLY I WAS far from enthusiastic about helping Green Party Stroud District Councillor Sarah Lunnon research traffic engineering. The world of traffic and traffic management seemed cold, unfriendly, uniform, predictable and vehicle-orientated. Answers to reducing dangers on our roads, beyond cutting car use, appeared to lie only in further segregating vehicles and pedestrians by adding more signs, barriers, signals and road paint. Indeed, encouraged by a reduction in casualty figures for such an approach, I was one of those who had previously supported more road humps, bumps, chicanes, warning signs, protective guard rails, and so on.

My interest in the research was sparked when Sarah pointed out that a closer look at the statistics shows that this approach has come at a cost: the UK’s record for child safety is one of the worst in Europe and we have discouraged cyclists and pedestrians from using our streets. She went on to outline a new approach to traffic engineering that turned upside down much that I held true.

This new ‘shared spaces’ approach has been dubbed ‘naked streets’ by some, because it includes removing highway signage, traffic lights, speed bumps, centre lines and even pedestrian crossings – but there is much more to it than that.

It started some twenty years ago with Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who was one of the first to challenge the prevailing view that traffic and pedestrians should be segregated. He found, in his hugely successful experiments, that by emphasising context and integrating drivers into the cultural and social world of the village or town, he could significantly improve safety, reduce speeds and enhance the built environment without adversely affecting traffic flows. In fact, in many areas congestion was reduced.

Recalling his first project, Monderman said, “When we do traditional traffic calming with speed bumps we typically expect about a 10% drop in speed. But with no disincentives, the speed was down by almost 50% – down from 57 km/h to under 30 km/h. I could not believe my eyes. All we had done was make a village look more like a village.”

Monderman’s work showed that it was essential to make explicit the transition between the traffic zone and the shared spaces of the public realm in our towns and villages. The work of behavioural psychologists has since supported this: high-speed roads demand different cognitive skills from those of shared public spaces. The traffic zone requires standardised, simple, repetitive signs and signals, but if these are present in shared spaces then people are less responsive to normal human behaviour. Hence cycle lanes can bring benefits in a traffic zone but help less in shared spaces.

In other words, it is only when the road is made less predictable and less certain that drivers will stop looking at signs and start looking at other people. Urban design specialist Ben Hamilton-Baillie observes, “Instead of relying on the street system for security, drivers are forced to use their reactions.”

David Engwicht, author of the excellent Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic, notes that a child playing on the pavement can be more effective at slowing traffic than a speed hump. The speed of traffic on residential streets is governed, to a large extent, by the degree to which residents have psychologically retreated from their street. By reversing this retreat we create ‘mental speed bumps’ in the street.

 

Here at last is a Greener approach to traffic engineering: a more diverse, unpredictable, voluntary, personal and people-orientated approach. An approach that has parallels in the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, which are about striking a balance and living everything better in our hectic modern world – about recognising the benefits of doing things in a more human, less frenetic manner.

In Drachten, Holland, a busy intersection with over 22,000 vehicles a day has been redesigned without signs as a more attractive integral part of the town’s public realm; as a result, congestion and safety have improved. It is even claimed that you can safely walk backwards across the intersection with your eyes closed.

SUCCESSES LIKE DRACHTEN have led to schemes in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden and Spain. The UK has been slower, but it is starting to explore these ideas. In a pioneering scheme in Kensington High Street, London, guard rails were taken down, resulting in a significant drop in injuries, while the busy shopping area of Shrewsbury High Street has been much improved by removing the usual signs and signals. Other schemes are planned around the country, including an ambitious project for London’s Exhibition Road.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Women’s Institute and English Heritage are all pressing for changes of this kind to the look of our streets. Nottingham City Council has even appointed a ‘Clutter Buster’ to remove redundant signage and street furniture, including over 10,000 ‘No Waiting at Any Time’ plates.

To me it is astonishing that it has taken us so long to wake up to the visual impact of our roads. Public involvement in architectural decisions is rightly taken for granted, but such debate about what happens to our streets is virtually non-existent. Too readily we have accepted the ugliness of standardised traffic engineering as an inconvenient necessity for safe and efficient traffic flows.

Some 30-40% of public space lies in the realm of the traffic engineer. If we wish to make our cities, towns and villages more coherent and more liveable then we need to give more consideration to this. Bill Bryson, English Heritage Commissioner, has said, “Nothing says more, nor more immediately, of how a nation feels about itself, than the way it dresses its streets.”

We have seen too many of our communities destroyed by some of our traditional approaches to traffic. This new approach is a breath of fresh air and it shows us how we can rebuild communities, reduce personal injuries and collisions, encourage more pedestrians and cyclists, improve our built environments and bring benefits to our local economies. And with the added bonus of cuts to congestion, no-one can dismiss it as a Green anti-car campaign. Indeed, it is gaining cross-party support in many councils.

Here in Stroud, Sarah easily persuaded me to research and co-write a report on these ideas, and this is now available online. Publication of the report led to a conference for local councillors, police, traffic engineers, contractors and others. As a result, there are moves to explore possible schemes locally.

A growing number of us across the country see that a traffic engineering revolution is on its way – a revolution that brings the benefits mentioned but is also about restoring respect. Shared spaces give people back responsibility – a responsibility they will know how to use.

 

‘Naked streets’: Sounds crazy but might just work

Entire towns in Europe have no traffic lights or signs, and they’ve never been safer

Jan. 16, 2005. By CHRISTOPHER HUTSUL

Toronto Star

Imagine, for a moment, a busy downtown intersection with no traffic lights, signs or sidewalks.

There are no markers on the ground, no speed bumps, no police officer conducting the flow of vehicles. There’s not even a curb. Every element of traffic — pedestrians, bikers and drivers — is left to fend for itself.

Sounds like a recipe for chaos, right?

Wrong.

The implementation in a number of European communities of what some have dubbed “naked streets” has been hugely successful.

Urban planners in Holland, Germany and Denmark have experimented with this free-for-all approach to traffic management and have found it is safer than the traditional model, lowers trip times for drivers and is a boost for the businesses lining the roadway.

The idea is that by removing traffic lights, signage and sidewalks, drivers and pedestrians are forced to interact, make eye contact and adapt to the traffic instead of relying blindly on whether that little dot on the horizon is red or green.

Planners have found that without the conventional rules and regulations of the road in place, drivers tend to slow down, open their eyes to their environment and develop a “feel” for their surroundings.

In effect, every person using the street, be it an SUV owner or a kid with a wagon, becomes equal.

“You think this must be chaos, this must be dangerous, but then you watch it and use it for a while and realize that no, it’s not,” says traffic engineer Ben Hamilton-Baillie over the phone from London, England. “People are perfectly capable of manoeuvring around each other in the same way they are when they walk down the street.”

Hamilton-Baillie has been working with the Borough of Kensington-Chelsea in London to develop a plan whereby the naked-street approach to traffic will be applied to Exhibition Rd., a busy stretch that features some of the city’s most notable museums. Hamilton-Baillie says Kensington-Chelsea is just one of 20 districts in England that are seriously considering implementing the plan.

It makes sense, considering how well the plan has worked in other communities. About a year and a half ago, politicians in Drachten, Holland, a city of 55,000, stripped a crowded intersection to its pavement.

Planners built a grassy roundabout in the centre of the intersection for traffic to flow around and eliminated all signage and traffic lighting. The height of the curb separating the sidewalk and the road was reduced to an inch, becoming hardly perceptible.

Since then, only one collision has been recorded at the intersection: a light fender-bender.

“The traffic flow became much more fluent, and there are fewer queues,” says Hans Monderman, a leading traffic engineer who helped draw up the plan. “The behaviour is negotiated through eye contact; traffic flows smoothly, and it looks nicer. And there have been no injuries yet at all.”

Four years ago, a similar approach was taken in Christiansfeld, Denmark, at a high-traffic intersection that was plagued with traffic jams and pedestrian-related accidents. Since then, the number of fatal accidents has dropped from 3 per year to zero.

Positive reports have also emerged from a district in West Palm Beach, Fla., which recently adopted a similar plan.

The timing is good for this new way of thinking. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently projected that traffic incidents will become the third-leading cause of injury and disease globally by 2020 if the traditional approach to road safety goes unchanged.

Part of the thinking behind the new approach is that it encourages drivers to focus not on lights and signage but on what’s happening around them, and to adjust their driving style accordingly. If the driver can clearly see that he or she is in a food market or club district, then it makes sense to slow down.

To that extent, Hamilton-Baillie says a road passing by an elementary school could incorporate some of the playground’s surfaces and colours so that drivers clearly understand what kind of environment they are in.

They’ll instinctively slow down because, as Hamilton-Baillie says, “nobody wants to kill a child.”

Hamilton-Baillie and Monderman both believe that a conventional traffic system like Toronto’s underestimates the ability of drivers and pedestrians to get by on their common sense. Hamilton-Baillie has observed that when a driver is plucked from his or her typical driving environment, or when there is some kind of traffic anomaly, they do an excellent job of adapting and behaving safely.

“People adapt to their circumstances with remarkable ease,” he says. “If you ever come to a place where the traffic light has broken down, or if some unusual event is happening, like football fans pouring out of a stadium, drivers understand the rules have changed.”

Hamilton-Baillie compares it to driving through a campsite.

“There are no signs, but it works fine,” he says. “The reason is that there are no rules and you have to rely on your own faculties. As soon as there’s human interest and human interaction, our speeds drop. We don’t need traffic calming and cameras and enforcement of police and all that stuff…”

In many developing countries, this kind of thinking is a way of life. At junctions in hectic places like Bali, Indonesia, buses, trucks, cyclists and scooter drivers tend to ignore the scant traffic signage and co-exist safely by behaving as though they are part of a traffic ecosystem.

What’s more, there’s been a positive spin-off for the businesses and cultural entities that line the areas. By encouraging drivers to slow down, traffic planners give streets a marketplace or town square feel.

This works in that, as a rule, places with slower moving traffic tend to exist on a more human scale and are more comfortable and inviting for pedestrians and cyclists.

Though we have no such district in Toronto, the phenomenon can be observed in places like Little Italy, Queen St. West and Kensington Market, where traffic flows more gently.

The City of Toronto, for its part, has no plans to undertake anything like London’s Exhibition Rd. project.

“Here, when people have concerns about traffic, we add four-way stop signs, crossing routes and speed humps,” says Les Kelman, the city’s general manager of transportation. “We have a heavily regulated approach.”

Kelman points out that we do, in fact, use some of the newer ideas, for example in our point-and-cross crosswalks.

“The idea of that is that by pointing, you bring the attention of the driver to you, establish eye contact, and the driver stops not because he sees a blinking red light or a mechanical flashing amber but because he has identified the presence of a person wanting to cross the road. It’s the same principle.”

Kelman says he is aware of Europe’s shifting philosophies on traffic management. But, for now, he’s waiting to see some long-term results.

Still, he wouldn’t be opposed to such a proposition.

“We’re always looking out for what other people are doing, but there’s no guarantee that something like this would be applicable to the Toronto environment. I can’t see it working on an arterial route, but certainly the principles are sound.

“If there were circumstances where we could define something like that, and the community was interested in some kind of pilot project, we wouldn’t rule that out.”

In the meantime, Torontonians will have to keep their eyes on the road, signs and traffic lights, and not on each other.

 

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