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Turning eight decades of traditional traffic thinking on its head

This is a fascinating article from Wired about a guy from Holland who’s rethinking traffic flow. 

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Read the Full Article @Wired

As mentioned in the comments, if you like this you’ll like Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us.

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