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Where The Streets Have No…

signfail_zpsadb34be5Do you get fed up with the multitude of traffic signs and signals that constantly bombard you as you drive around town?  Have you ever missed a turn-off or some vital piece of information (like a speed limit sign) because it’s just another sign amid hundreds?  Or, to take another tack, do sometimes wonder if the people who put up signs think that you’re an idiot (e.g. the sign saying “Caution: Flooding” smack in the middle of a temporary lake caused by heavy rain… as if you hadn’t noticed that there was six inches of water covering the road)?

Perhaps it’s time that the authorities gave us all a bit of credit for having at least a modicum of common sense.  No driver wants to hit another driver, a cyclist or a pedestrian, after all.  This was the view taken by the authorities in the town of Bohmte, a town in western Germany that had been struggling with a bit of a traffic problem.

The traffic authorities of Bohmte had tried everything to stop motorists doing dumb things that endangered the lives of pedestrians and cyclists in the middle of the town.  Speed traps, carefully designed crossings and all the usual measures just weren’t working.  So they tried something completely different.  Instead of sticking up more signs and more signals, they ripped them all out.  They also took out the cycle lanes and the pavements (what our American friends call sidewalks).  Only three rules were in place for this special “shared zone”: (1) everybody – including pedestrians, wheelchairs, skateboards and heavy trucks – has to give way to anything coming at you from the right at an intersection, (2) don’t park your car smack in the middle of the road and (3) you had to keep to the speed limit of 30 mph. (That’s about 50 km/h and the usual urban speed limit in Germany – it’s only on the Autobahns that the no speed limit thing applies.  A German hitchhiker we once offered a sofa to tells us that the no limits rule on the Autobahn is only fun if you have a big Mercedes or Audi – if you’re puttering along in a tiny wee Fiat hatchback, you want to cringe as they all sweep past you… but I’m getting off topic.)

Bohmte traffic

The authorities were nervous.  What was going to happen?  Were motorists going to continue to barge ahead and cause at least 50 accidents a year in this particular section?

The thinking behind this “shared space” concept was that if the usual familiar signs weren’t there, motorists would get a bit nervous and would become more alert to what was going on around them.  When the traffic lights are green, you usually just surge on ahead, confident that nothing’s going to be in your way… until some idiot running the red light T-bones you.  The fact that you weren’t at fault is small compensation for a spell in hospital and a broken bone or two.  It’s even less consolation if you were a cyclist or a pedestrian.  But if there’s nothing at the intersection to give you the green light, then what would you do?  You’d slow down and check that there was nothing coming, kind of like pedestrians and cyclists have to do all the time (oh, yes you do have to check all the time if you’re a cyclist – cyclists are legitimate road users in the eyes of the law but not in the eyes of a lot of motorists.)

The idea first cropped up in the 1970s courtesy of a Dutch traffic engineer named Hans Monderman, who challenged the conventional thinking that people become safer drivers with more signs, speed humps, etc.  Instead, he took the view that road users aren’t stupid and they don’t want to crash, so if you took away the things that say “if you don’t have a motor, get out of the way,” drivers would stop taking the road and their right of way for granted. To quote Monderman, “We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour…The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

And the concept seems to be working.  What’s more, the idea is spreading.  It’s even made it all the way over here to Australia.  There’s a shared zone in Bendigo, Victoria, where there are no sidewalks/pavements for pedestrians and there’s a reduced speed limit in the city centre.  Similar designs have cropped up in towns in Sweden (where traffic lights and pedestrian crossings were replaced with fountains and park benches), the Netherlands (where they took out the lane markings), Florida, the UK and New Zealand.

shared-space-in-haren-(nl)Shared zones usually have a bit of a different look to them.  A lack of pavements and traffic lights is only the start.  Usually, there’s something a touch more decorative on the road surface – interesting patterns of brick or stone, for example.  There may be a bit more street furniture and other pretty things.  It’s all supposed to scream “space designed for human beings not just machines”.

The idea does have some downsides.  The biggest criticism comes from organisations for the blind, on the grounds that with a proper pavement, a blind person knows that he/she is safe from traffic.  A blind person can’t see the traffic they’re supposed to give way to.  The other criticism has come from a few cycling organisations, especially in the Netherlands, who have reported that some drivers have a tendency to bully cyclists, refusing to give way when they ought to yield to the cyclist on the grounds that if it came to a car-on-bike conflict, the bike always loses.  Mind you, this sort of thing happens all the time even with all the traffic lights, lanes and Give Way signs in the world, as any cyclist will tell you.

But on the whole – I think it’s a great idea!

Safe and happy driving,


One comment

  1. John says:

    I believe that we have too much signage taking away the need to think, would drivers now be texting in above photo’s, I doubt it.

    March 5th, 2015 at 4:01 pm