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A road sign in the small town of Makkinga in the Netherlands says ‘Verkeersbordvrij’: ‘free of traffic signs.’ Motorists are meant to be kinder to soft and squishy urbanites such as pedestrians and cyclists when there’s no white lines, speed bumps, slow down signs or road markings of any sort.
And the idea is catching on, with trials taking place all over Europe, including in Kensington, London.
Such a civilised approach to traffic calming tends to work best when there’s a healthy number of soft and squishy urbanites wandering about.
It’s the critical mass concept taken to the extreme: if there are more and more cyclists using the roads, drivers have to slow down.
Here are two videos showing opposite ends of the concept. The first is a video of an unmarked traffic junction in Saigon, but it could be almost anywhere in Asia. It’s mesmerising to watch the cyclists, pedestrians and scooter riders successfully negotiating the junction at speed. Cars and buses also use the junction successfully but are forced to go slow.
The second video is of an unmarked road junction in Russia. It’s not part of any traffic calming experiment, it’s just a crossroads with a lack of traffic lights. But without pedestrians or cyclists, motorists feel they can speed through the junction, with predictable results.
The no-traffic-signs experience is currently being evaluated in seven European regions, including cities such as Ejby, in Denmark, Ipswich in England and Ostende in Belgium.
Psychologists say 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. Motorists get tunnel vision, ignoring signs in order to weave their way through cities. Pedestrians and cyclists are often on the receiving end of their lack of attention and sheer bad manners.
Removing the street signs, digging up the humps, removing all white lines, making road and sidewalks as one, forces drivers to think. They slow down because nothing is regulated. A German traffic conference held last year was entitled ‘Unsafe is safe’.
The chief proponent of the new, naked approach is Hans Monderman, a traffic engineer from the Netherlands.
According to a piece on Wired.com, 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.”
We drive on to another project Monderman designed, this one in the nearby village of Oosterwolde. What was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. About 5,000 cars pass through the square each day, with no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999. “To my mind, there is one crucial test of a design such as this,” Monderman says. “Here, I will show you.”
With that, Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square - backward - straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions.