Streets Without Footpaths, Markings or Signs?

Below is a recent article from Time magazine.  It describes recent experiments in road design which I found interesting.

Signal Failure

 Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008 By MICHAEL BRUNTON

ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY DAVID POHL

For decades, traffic engineer Hans Monderman had a hair-raising way of showing off his handiwork to anyone who took the trouble to visit his native northern Dutch province of Friesland. He would walk backward, arms folded, into the flow of traffic, and without horn-honking or expletives, drivers would slow or stop to let him safely cross to the other side. Monderman’s stunt was an act of faith in the concept of “shared space,” a radical street-design principle he quietly pioneered in more than 120 projects across Friesland. By the time he died of cancer last month, Monderman’s local lessons had gone global: his notion of shared space has become a buzzword for urban designers all over the world. Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British traffic and urban-design consultant, says Monderman’s legacy goes beyond even that: “Hans took a very mundane profession and made it explore much wider political and social questions about what public space and public life are all about.”

 For Monderman, that inquiry began with the more prosaic challenge of getting cars to slow down. Like every transport planner faced with the relentless proliferation of motor vehicles, he had started out by assiduously putting up signs, painting lines and devising new traffic-calming projects. One of his early specialties was to place giant flowerpots in the road to make drivers hit the brakes. But in 1982, Monderman risked a bolder approach, redesigning the street layout of car-clogged Frisian towns and villages. He began by removing the road signs, traffic lights and surface markings, then set about eliminating the curb between the sidewalk and the highway. “My theory,” said Monderman, at a Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) summit in London last November, “was if you want people to behave in a village, maybe you have to make it feel like a village.” Monderman’s flowerpots reduced average traffic speed by 10%; using shared space cut it in half.

It took another 15 years before Monderman could fully articulate his new concept. His key insight was that all the street signs, traffic lights and other paraphernalia intended to keep pedestrians and motorists safely apart actually discourage both groups from engaging with each other. In an interview with TIME several weeks before his death, Monderman explained that removing signs forces you “to look each other in the eye, to judge body language and learn to take responsibility — to function as normal human beings.”

At the CNU summit, a streaming video showed cars, cyclists and pedestrians passing in a polite quadrille of nods and hand gestures through a Monderman-designed intersection in the Dutch town of Drachten. Since this “naked” junction was created in 2004, speeds through the town have slowed dramatically. Yet because there are no enforced waits at traffic lights, the crossing time has dropped from 50 to 30 seconds, while accidents have fallen from an average of nine a year to just one.

Town planners, civil architects and traffic engineers from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Australia increasingly see shared space as a starting point for solving a wider problem: that towns and cities they have painstakingly designed to function smoothly too often turn out to be ugly, alienating and dangerous.

For Hank Dittmar, chairman of the Chicago-based CNU and CEO of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for the Built Environment, shared space is the nub of what Prince Charles had in mind in 1987 when he founded the experimental village of Poundbury on land that he owns in the English countryside. Architecturally, the village is often panned as a nostalgic exercise in faux-bucolic Englishness. But in prioritizing people over cars, says Dittmar, the winding streets and discreet signs used in Poundbury make it a model for high-density urban design. The bigger challenge, he says, is “retrofitting places that were built before the automobile. The old idea for traffic was to separate pedestrians and motor vehicles, but what it has devolved to is guardrails that fence people in.”

For most of his career, Monderman’s ideas inspired more admiration than emulation, but that’s started to change. In 2004, the European Union set up a four-year funding project to foster the shared-space ethic in seven towns across Europe, including Oostende in Belgium and Ipswich in England. Last September, work finally began on the transformation of Bohmte, a town in northwestern Germany. Although its mayor, Klaus Goedejohann, says he expects “an aesthetic improvement, a higher quality of life and a better traffic situation” when the signs come down, so far all he has to show are some large piles of sand. If it takes this long to implement such a small project — Bohmte’s main street handles just 12,600 cars a day — can shared space really offer relief for the world’s gridlocked megacities?

Monderman was convinced it could — and that one day it would. By his reckoning, a single-lane, shared-space junction could handle up to 25,000 vehicles a day. That’s only a fraction of the 100,000-plus load of, say, the Champs Elysées in Paris or Barcelona’s Diagonal, but it’s still enough to rescue most streets in our biggest urbs from the hegemony of the car.

Proof of the principle may lie with Daniel Moylan, deputy council leader for the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, whose controversial $30 million project to remake the busy Exhibition Road using shared-space principles begins in mid-2008. As well as being home to three major museums, the road will have to accommodate a subway station, bus routes, streams of traffic and the footfall of 10 million visitors a year. For Moylan, stripping out the jungle of street furniture will be a riposte to some decades-old assumptions about road use and the nature of risk. “Pavements were not designed to keep pedestrians safe,” he says, “but so you could walk the street without getting your feet covered in horse dung.”

Monderman long argued that the overuse of signage was due to a misguided culture of risk avoidance among town planners. “Each time someone complains,” he told TIME, “something gets added to the system. And no one asks if it’s effective.” But for the shared-space faithful, bigger prizes are at stake than mere road safety. For Moylan, the promise is “civilization and dancing in the streets.” Likewise, Monderman rhapsodized that, “Eye contact and the consultation between civilians in public space is the highest quality you can get in a free country.” His enduring vision echoes that of a poetic pedestrian from an earlier era — Oscar Wilde, who once mused: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Thanks to Monderman, we can now pause to wonder whether we need the gutter at all.

With reporting by Laura Laabs/Berlin

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