[Paleopsych] NYT: A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 22 15:15:51 UTC 2005

The Saturday Profile: A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts
NYT 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

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

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."


More information about the paleopsych mailing list