Roads Gone Wild
No street signs. No crosswalks. No accidents. Surprise: Making driving seem more dangerous could make it safer.
By Tom McNichol
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[/size]
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.