Would we be better off if many intersections were redesigned, to get rid of most of the traffic signs and the traffic lights? Many traffic engineers think so, following in the example of the late Hans Monderman. From The Wilson Quarterly:
And Monderman certainly changed the landscape in the provincial city of Drachten, with the project that, in 2001, made his name. At the town center, in a crowded four-way intersection called the Laweiplein, Monderman removed not only the traffic lights but virtually every other traffic control. Instead of a space cluttered with poles, lights, “traffic islands,” and restrictive arrows, Monderman installed a radical kind of roundabout (a “squareabout,” in his words, because it really seemed more a town square than a traditional roundabout), marked only by a raised circle of grass in the middle, several fountains, and some very discreet indicators of the direction of traffic, which were required by law.
As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle (pedestrians were meant to cross at crosswalks placed a bit before the intersection), Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of a binary, mechanistic process—stop, go—the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.
A year after the change, the results of this “extreme makeover” were striking: Not only had congestion decreased in the intersection—buses spent less time waiting to get through, for example—but there were half as many accidents, even though total car traffic was up by a third. Students from a local engineering college who studied the intersection reported that both drivers and, unusually, cyclists were using signals—of the electronic or hand variety—more often. They also found, in surveys, that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he “would have changed it immediately.”
It should be noted that what Monderman advocated wasn’t simple anti-government libertarianism; despite the title of this post, it’s not just smashing the traffic lights. It’s using the tools of government to create a context in which drivers and others are cautious:
Monderman suggested to the villagers, who as it happens had hired a consultant to help improve the town’s aesthetics, that Oudehaske simply be made to seem more “villagelike.” The interventions were subtle. Signs were removed, curbs torn out, and the asphalt replaced with red paving brick, with two gray “gutters” on either side that were slightly curved but usable by cars. As Monderman noted, the road looked only five meters wide, “but had all the possibilities of six.”
The results were striking. Without bumps or flashing warning signs, drivers slowed, so much so that Monderman’s radar gun couldn’t even register their speeds. Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating. Rather than give drivers a simple behavioral mandate—say, a speed limit sign or a speed bump—he had, through the new road design, subtly suggested the proper course of action.
On the other hand, it seems that some intersections are improved by doing nothing more than turning the traffic lights off: