Out of Traffic Chaos Safety and Sanity

What’s the best way to make a dangerous intersection safer for cars, bicycles and pedestrians alike and still maintain traffic flow?

In the U.S.A. it traditionally means traffic engineers laying on more traffic signals and turn lanes, posting more road signs and painting even more lane markings and directional arrows.

But in socialist Europe they’re using a radical, less regulatory and shockingly counterintuitive way to make their roads and intersections safer — they make them even more dangerous.

More than a dozen towns have switched to “Shared Space,” a traffic-management technique that reduces accidents and eases congestion by stripping streets and crossroads of all government traffic controls.

Shared Space sounds scary and suspiciously anti-automobile to most red-blooded Americans and, at first blush, it seems to reinforce the notion that all Europeans are totally nuts.

But for the Dutch town of Drachten — which sought a way to make its roadways equally friendly to those in cars, on bicycles or on foot — Shared Space has been a success.

Several years ago the busy burg of 40,000 removed all of its traffic controls. Today a major intersection that handles 20,000 cars and thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians a day has no traffic lights, no speed limit signs, no directional markers, no curbs and no sidewalks.

The intersection has been redesigned into a big, open, traffic circle. Within that circle’s seemingly chaotic flow, it’s almost impossible to tell where cars and people belong — which is exactly what Shared Space inventor Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman intended.

Monderman made the intersection seem as confusing, ambiguous and dangerous as possible, so that users would be forced to slow down, gauge each other’s intentions, treat one another as equals and use eye contact to sort themselves out as they negotiated the traffic roundabout.

By all news accounts, traffic flows smoothly, safely and politely in the self-regulated anarchy Monderman has created. Accidents and traffic deaths have declined dramatically in Drachten, according to town officials.

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone: We see this atomistic spirit of cooperation create order and safety out of chaos and danger — spontaneously and immediately — whenever power outages knock out traffic signals at complicated U.S. intersections. It’s no accident traffic usually flows more efficiently than when the traffic lights are working.

Monderman hates traffic signs not because they are annoying or stupid but because he thinks they are dangerous. He believes that the way you build a road affects how safely it’s used — and by whom.

If you make a road real wide and put up lots of 55-mph speed-limit signs, he told Wired magazine a few years ago, it effectively tells motorists: “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.”

Various tricks employed by Shared Space — eliminating turn lanes, narrowing roadways and erasing the center lane lines on secondary roads to slow down traffic and thereby reduce accidents — are being used across Europe and even in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla.

But don’t worry. Shared Space won’t be coming to a tangled intersection near you anytime soon.

It’s still pretty much a Euro-thing. But its deregulatory spirit ought to appeal to every American who’s noticed that our traffic is micromanaged by government to the point of absurdity. And noticed that half of the 500 federally approved traffic signs we must obey are unnecessary and that we have 10 times the red lights we really need.