Less signs, less accidents Jason 31 Jan 2006

71 comments Latest by Ron

Roads Gone Wild is a piece in Wired from December 2004 that a reader just brought to my attention. I love it. Here’s why:

Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign - literally - that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

The piece goes on to talk about how roundabouts (a.k.a. traffic circles) are safer than intersections with carefully controlled signage and permission patterns.

Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior - traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings - and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous - and that’s the point.
Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

Beautiful. The solution isn’t more rules, it’s fewer rules. The only rule is: pay attention. Nothing like less to solve a problem.

71 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Stridey 31 Jan 06

Gaah! *Fewer* signs, *fewer* accidents!

That said, it’s an interesting point, but what if people really aren’t smart enough to know what to do without a sign telling them?

JF 31 Jan 06

I only say LESS to piss people off because it bothers them so much. Get over it already.

if people really aren�t smart enough to know what to do without a sign telling them?

People seem to be. The numbers so far have shown it’s safer. I also think the presumption that everyone else is stupid is equally dangerous. I hear that all the time (usually in politics). One side is smart and the other is stupid. Or, yeah, *I* get it, but will they? Sure they will.

Stridey 31 Jan 06

Sorry, it’s impulsive. Getting over it.

I guess you’re right about the signs, it’s just that the idea of an “unregulated” road triggers little frightened buttons in my brain. But I guess that sort of thinking is what gets us roads full of useless signs that just confuse people.

Ryan 31 Jan 06

Have you ever driven in Germany? I did. For almost two years. They have freaking cryptic signs everywhere. Try it some time.

alexander sandström 31 Jan 06

This reminds me of an article in TIME a few months ago, about a smaller town in Netherlands. They had done what the engineer suggests, but on a larger scale. In the central parts of town every sign and trafficlight had been removed, sidewalks and roads had no distinct borders. And the result was, as in this article, alot less accidents, smother traffic flow and happier people. I think there is alot to learn from this.

Could also be implemented on webdesign; if you need 3 infoboxes for a user to understand what to do, maybe there is something wrong with the design.

Splashman 31 Jan 06

I think most people “background” most of the road signs they see, because there are so many — that’s what’s ironic. At a certain level, they become self-defeating. Just like keeping your lights on during the day, it works great unless everyone is doing it, in which case you’re part of the background noise again.

I encourage everyone to really pay attention the next time you’re driving — unless you’re on a country highway, you can’t drive 50 feet without a road sign of one sort or another: yellow signs, blue signs, white signs, green signs, red signs … signs on the right, signs on the left, signs overhead, signs on the pavement … In 20 years, the signs will be projected on a heads-up display in our cars. Animated GIFs, of course.

What really kills me are the “speed zone ahead” signs. Probably originated with people complaining about tickets, but geez! What next? “Speed zone warning sign ahead”? “No signs for next 50 feet”?

Rabbit 31 Jan 06

Hey, this actually reminds me a lot about that interview JF had with… Don’t remember whom, but in it he said something like…

“People want computers to solve too many problems. I think computers should be used to solve half of people’s problems (or problems computers are good at) and people should be responsible for the other half.”

I know I mangled the hell out of that. Sorry JF.

Anyway, my point is, with less signage, people are forced to rely on their intuition about what the road looks and feels like, as well as soak up more information about other things going on around them (e.g. cars, people, defenseless rabbits…). :)

Rabbit 31 Jan 06

Could also be implemented on webdesign; if you need 3 infoboxes for a user to understand what to do, maybe there is something wrong with the design.

Oh, oh! Or that the goal is too complicated. If you absolutely can’t reduce the number of elements, then maybe you’re trying to get people to do the wrong thing.

Of course, that’s in line with my philosophy that life is too complicated in general…

Des Paroz 31 Jan 06

I love your line at the end - “The solution isn’t more rules, it’s fewer rules”.

Can’t remember who it was that said something like “complex rules give rise to simple behaviour, whereas simple rules allow for complex behaviour”.

Rules should be a framework, and people should have to think about how best to apply them.

But this doesn’t always work when we live in a sue-ist culture, where people always want to get someone else to take the blame. And avoid thinking for themselves and taking personal responsibility.

Bring on less rules.

Mark 31 Jan 06

“…The only rule is: pay attention…”

That’s just the stickler though. We as a people generally don’t pay good attention on the roadways and we’re additionally stupid and lazy. When we miss the roadsign, we’re now lost and doing 60 — not a good combination. We’re now looking at everything else, from exits to another sign to mile markers and visual clues, trying to get our bearings rather than paying attention to the road. So by reducing the pollution of signs and making things simpler, we’ve also compounded the problem of attention lack.

The other problem is a matter of residency. Sure, it’s cool to suggest we limit the number of signs for folks who travel an area’s roads all the time, but what about those who are in this area for the first time? There’s apparently no standard to the construction and design of roadways, given that entrance and exit ramps can be all kind of different ways depending on where in the country one is.

Nate 31 Jan 06

Not to nitpick, but wouldn’t it be “Fewer signs, fewer accidents” ?

Neil Caithness 31 Jan 06

Jeremy,

That shot of the magic roundabout, or fairy rings, is misleading: no traffic. I’ve driven through that during rush hour. I know it’s hard to believe that Swindon has a rush hour, but considering that the UK is full, believe me… anyway, I was in a hurry, and it worked. I don’t know *how* it worked but it did. Somehow I came out in the right place, going in the right direction, and I hardly had to pause.

LESS signs works for me. Experiments with speed restrictions have shown that without them people take a more active role in assessing risk and even end up driving slower in places.

Gary 31 Jan 06

The great commonwealth of Massachusetts seems to hate roadsigns on the principle that if you need to know where a road leads that you shouldn’t really be there. I get the feeling there’s some works planner there saying “why, every child of three knows that’s the road to Peabody!” Signs indicating destinations are afterthoughts at best and just try following a numbered highway that isn’t an interstate for any distance. It’s a nightmare and my least favorite aspect of this state.

Alison 31 Jan 06

During a three-week trip to Isla Margarita in Venezuela last year, I realized that there were virtually no road signs anywhere, including at intersections. At a couple of major intersections, there were traffic lights, but things such as stop signs were nonexistent. Traffic rules were somewhat ad hoc — lots of passing on two lane roads, etc. But along with that, people were more attentive to what other drivers were doing. It was simply the only way it would work, and it did work. It was a nice change from where I live, Land-of-the-All-Way-Stop, NY.

Michal Migurski 31 Jan 06

I really got a kick out of this when I first read it last year.

The reason (I think) this approach is successful for driving is that gauging physical interactions with fast-moving objects is something people have been doing since we were fish - we have sympathetic nervous systems that practically let us interact with the world around us on autopilot, so I can see how ditching signs could help. Computers and UI’s are another story, though - we don’t have a lot of built-up genetic knowledge and modeling real-feeling systems isn’t a cakewalk. I do think that this is why I love a well-design operating system, though - sometimes software feels like it’s doing exactly what you would expect it to do, whether it’s a modern GUI or a command shell.

Tony 31 Jan 06

Gaah! *Fewer* signs, *fewer* accidents!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but “less” is a bit of a refrain in the posts on this site. It may go against prescriptive grammar guidelines, but it works for the sake of the effect.

Not a Steve 31 Jan 06

“Less” may be a refrain, but it really grates on the nerves. I hear too many people casting aside proper structure, subjunctive, and so on. Feel free to use colloquial language, but this just makes the writer sound uneducated. Uneducated equals less ethos.

Ed Fladung 31 Jan 06

Guadalajara, MX is traffic circle heaven. There are literally hundreds of traffic circles throughout the city. with one sign going into the circle, asking the motorist to slow down and pay attention. It took me two or three trips there before I felt comfortable enough to drive. When I finally started paying more attention to the road, driving became much easier. in GDL people literally avoid the traffic light avenues for the off-avenue roads that weave from traffic circle to traffic circle. It’s a much faster form of navigation.

Mathew Patterson 31 Jan 06

Here in Sydney there is a lot of roundabouts (traffic circles). One of the biggest was called, in Australian fashion, “the 5 ways”, and it was a huge accident blackspot. In the last few years it has been replaced with much more successful slipways and traditional traffic lights.

So they are not always the answer. Milton Keynes in the UK is basically loads of roundabouts strung together, but it seems to work there.

Matt Todd 31 Jan 06

Wow, I nearly glossed over this: thankfully I didn’t. I wasn’t prepared for just how impactful these revelations are. It’s really quite beautiful. I’m still half in shock.

Awesome.

M.T.

Geoffrey 31 Jan 06

I love the idea of fewer rules and more personal responsibility. I lived in Thailand for a while and it was refreshing to see all disputes—traffic or otherwise—handled right there on the spot. Everyday activities like getting from point A to point B seemed to have so much more flow.

I’m guessing the problem with the “fewer signs” concept in this country is that eventually someone will get hit by a car and then the lawyers will show up and start suing the city and then the city will have no choice but to put more signs on the road to merely cover their asses.

rob 31 Jan 06

Oh I get it - you meant smaller signs, and smaller accidents.

rob 31 Jan 06

PS. Actually, Geoffrey has his head up his âss.

My father lived in Thailand for 16 years, and I visited on numerous occasions.

The “sorting out” of incidents “on the spot” by corrupt, inept, stupid and poor policemen is one of the worst examples of “enforcement” that exist.

PPS. I love the idea of fewer rules and more personal responsibility (just to be clear!).

Mark 31 Jan 06

Hey Jason,

In theory Traffic circles are a good idea, by controlling the flow of traffic and minimizing the signage it takes to navigate through the traffic pattern.

In reality (ask anyone from Massachusetts) the traffic circle is the single worse engineering idea of the 21st century (excluding the Big Dig).

Most people are considerate enought and intelligent enough to manuever an automobile in a circle, you would be surprised how many have no idea what to do without a traffic light.

So I think basically what I am trying to say is, although I am all for less is more…. on the web you can control the amount of damage someone can do. Not so for driving ;)

Lata!!

George 31 Jan 06

Having just come back from Australia, I got to enjoy the view of roundabouts from the air as well as from the road (as my driver drove). A bit scary at first, kinda like Backpack/Basecamp/Tadalists, but once familiar, quite nice. It solves half of the problems (the mechanical flow of traffic), while the humans pay attention and solve the other half (gauging speed and position).

When I was part of a volunteer emergency management group years ago, we had all sorts of silly rules about how to reroute traffic. I would always get in trouble for arguing that the best traffic management was minimal traffic management (eg, just close the road in case of trouble). Glad to see that I’m not alone any more.

Epaminondas Pantulis 01 Feb 06

Roundabouts any better? I think this is more of a cultural issue. Take a trip to Spain and try Madrid’s wild roundabouts.

Spike 01 Feb 06

Same goes for speed cameras in the UK. The safest stretch of road in the UK, statistically, is in Durham, one of the few places not to have any speed cameras.

Tom 01 Feb 06

Uh, maybe it doesn’t have any speed cameras because it’s a safe road? They’re only allowed to put them in places which are (demonstrably) road accident blackspots.

Mike Rundle 01 Feb 06

All these grammar nazis need to spend LESS time criticizing grammar and MORE time on getting laid or something.

Tom 01 Feb 06

JF needs to spend less time saying things just “to piss people off” and more time paying attention to how arrogant, uneducated and ignorant that makes him sound (and the corresponding effect it has on the credibility of his message).

Javed 01 Feb 06

yes roundabouts do serve better than traffic signals and i’ve noticed that in Sharjah, UAE where there are roundabouts at almost all the major intersections. It definitely is much better when you’re relying on your “road-sense”.

Mark 01 Feb 06

That Magic Roundabout is genius. Never seen that before.

bigeoino 01 Feb 06

Looking on the wikipedia for pictures of the other British magic roundabout - at hemel.
I came across a great quote that apparently
“When it opened in June 1973 a policeman had to be stationed at each of the mini roundabouts to prevent chaos.”!

brad 01 Feb 06

In reality (ask anyone from Massachusetts) the traffic circle is the single worse engineering idea of the 21st century (excluding the Big Dig).

Massachusetts is an exception. In the 10 years I lived there I noticed that each rotary (the Massachusetts term for a traffic circle) had its own culture: in Concord on Route 2, people entering the rotary gave way to traffic in the rotary. In Cambridge at the Fresh Pond rotary, people in the rotary gave way to traffic entering it. So the problem was that you had to learn and remember the “culture” of each rotary as you approached it. If you stopped to let rotary traffic go by in a rotary that followed the opposite culture, you risked getting rear-ended or at least horn-blasted by the impatient drivers behind you. If you manhandled your way into the rotary where people in the rotary were used to getting the right of way, you risked getting sideswiped or roadraged.

Mike 01 Feb 06

“the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other”

Sounds good but sorry, that is not the American streets I know.

Jason G 01 Feb 06

Traffic circles are like communism, on paper the idea is great, but once real people are involved the whole system falls apart.

gwg 01 Feb 06

If you began a new generation of drivers using traffic circles as their primary mode of intersection navigation, the problems that many here raise - “you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know what to do without a light…” - would be complete non-issues.

In the short term, current drivers who have been weaned on dozens of signs and signals would have problems. In the long term things could be much better.

Speed Limit signs serve as the government’s safest determined maximum speed. Unfortunately, on some roads, this maximum speed is inappropriate for some drivers: “If the sign says I can go 40, then surely I can go 45 without a problem.” *bang* Maybe that driver should have driven 35 instead?

What would happen in the *long term* if we changed some fundamental rules of traffic?

Arne Gleason 01 Feb 06

Now I’ve got that “sign, sign, everywhere a sign” song stuck in head — have to go read another blog.

Justin Ashworth 01 Feb 06

The terms roundabout and traffic circle which have been used interchangeably are actually slightly different. The main difference is that roundabouts give priority to traffic in the circle, whereas traffic circles give priority to entering traffic.

I live in New Jersey where they are systematically removing all of their traffic circles because they have found them to not work as well as complex signalized intersections. I live in a small town with a traffic circle, and I just saw plans for its replacement last Thursday. The planned signalized intersection looks terribly complex compared to the simple little circle, but for such a busy intersection of two major highways, I think it will help the flow considerably and reduce the number of accidents (a guy took off my driver’s side mirror and sped off last Friday…). However, I think that no matter what you do, if there’s somebody in the intersection, circle, roundabout, etc. that has never been there before, they will be the ones to munge things up.

engelgrafik 01 Feb 06

Sorry, I have to agree with Gary, a fellow New Englander. I drive all over the Greater Boston area and there aren’t enough signs. I’ve been here 5 years now and I still get lost at various intersections and take the wrong turns within rotaries, etc.

The problem with signage is relative. My guess is you guys (37 Signals) are somewhat influenced in your statement by the fact that you guys are based around Chicago and west… Chicago being a midwestern town that burned down and got rebuilt. Nice grid system, numbered streets, etc. WIDE streets. Plenty of time to see where you need to go, etc.

Not so in towns like Boston. You see, here in Boston, you might be driving on a street that has 2 lanes swerving from NW to NE for several miles. When you come to an intersection, you don’t know that the left lane is a “left turn ONLY” lane until you get about 50 feet from the intersection. Not only that, but oftentimes the signs are screened ON the road itself. So during traffic times, you never even see that big left-angled arrow on the ground until the car in front of you stops and puts on his left-turn signal.

This is the COMMON experience in Boston.

Also, let’s clear something up about rotaries. Brad (I think) mentioned that rotaries have their own “culture” in Massachusetts. That may be true, but the law says that you always yield when entering a rotary, and those in the rotary always have the right of way.

The problem about the rotaries is that, once again, when you’re in the rotary, you’re not quite sure WHAT LANE YOU NEED TO BE IN to prepare for your exit. Sometimes there will be exits from the rotary within 20 feet from each other, such as is the case west of Concord. If you get in the right lane too fast, you’re stuck with the first exit and then you’re going off into lost land again… or New Hampshire possibly. So you got people driving pretty eratically through these rotaries, and that may give the impression that nobody has a clear right-of-way in certain ones, especially during rush hour.

Lastly, do I need to mention the fact that most of the streets in Massachusetts actually don’t even HAVE street name signs telling you what street you’re on?? This is no joke! I’ve driven for miles and miles in the dark, passing intersection after intersection with not a SINGLE STREET NAME to tell me where the hell I am. And this extends to highway markers. I’ll be driving on a small highway which leads to a Y, and you’ll have to guess which direction is your highway. OK, sure, the one to the left looks smaller and more residential… but you can’t assume that’s not the highway. There are highways that weave through residential areas all over New England. I’ve made that assumption before and ended up several miles off course on another different highway.

Basically, what I’m saying, is that this signage issue is relative. While I agree that the bare minimum should be used, there needs to be better overall “usability” testing when it comes to road signs. It’s quite possible that some places 100 or 200 years older than Chicago or San Francisco simply require more signs so people don’t get lost or go crazy and crash into a Dunkin Donuts.

Anonymous Coward 01 Feb 06

JF needs to spend less time saying things just “to piss people off” and more time paying attention to how arrogant, uneducated and ignorant that makes him sound (and the corresponding effect it has on the credibility of his message).

Tom man, you need to chill out. The questionable usage of one word does not make someone “arrogant, uneducated, and ignorant.”

Kyle Scholz 01 Feb 06

I suspect that a reason that this works is that people are less concerned with the rights granted to them and more concerned about the task.

brad 01 Feb 06

That may be true, but the law says that you always yield when entering a rotary, and those in the rotary always have the right of way.

Yes, but as a New Englander you know as well as I do that most people in Massachusetts consider traffic laws optional, at best. I remember when I would drive down from New Hampshire, where the highway speed limit was 65, and enter Massachusetts where the speed limit was 55, and yet everyone around me sped up to 75 or 80 mph as soon as they crossed the line into Massachusetts!

Geoffrey 01 Feb 06

Rob:
I just pulled my head out of my ass for you. My point was that often people solve their own disputes *before* police (and lawyers) get involved. More personal responsibility, less hand-holding.

You seem like a nice fellow though.

George 01 Feb 06

I live in a country where street signs are a rarity, not because some clever guy said it should be that way or there has been some gaigantic experiment going on. It’s just the way it is because some criminals steal the signs and give them in scrap recycling plants for money and the state doesn’t have money to replace the stolen signs. There are also no lane markers etc.

It doesn’t work. Believe me. People are getting killed every day because of this. People are used to the fact that there are no signs and instead of driving slowly and cautiously all the time they drive at the limit, pedestrians cross the roads at the most unusual places. It’s awful.

Darrel 01 Feb 06

“I only say LESS to piss people off because it bothers them so much. Get over it already.”

Why would you want them to get over it if you do it just to see how bothered they get?

Anyways, interesting article, but methinks the benefit was from the roundabout itself moreso than any apparent lack of signage.

The signs I dislike the most are the ones that say ‘bump’ or ‘dip’. Instead of driving out that that point, and fixing the road, they drove out to that point and spent time errecting a sign.

Michael Murphy 01 Feb 06

I remember reading this in Wired a while ago and being intrigued by it.

I guess removing street signs has the same effect on people in Drachten as using a computer does on my mother, she proceeds with caution afraid of causing some serious incident.

It sort of makes sense that removing any kind of direction or rules should make people more aware of what they’re doing but unfortunately as far as operating heavy machinery is concerned, I wouldn’t have absolute faith in it.

I hate to say it but I’m not sure America is ready for that. Look at an example from our current traffic system. When the power is out and traffic lights aren’t working, every intersection with a light is *supposed* to become a four way stop. I’m guestimating but I’d say the majority of people who notice the light is out slow down and stop s everybody figures out who is supposed to go. Its the person who never notices the light at all that I’d be worried about. Although I suppose this is a bad example because at anytime someone could not notice the light (working or not) and cause an accident.

Ok, so I think it’s a great concept but I’m not sure I’d trust it in production.

Paul Mansour 01 Feb 06

A proliferation of signs indicating a failure of design is even more true in architecture, where Modernism and the International style are the biggest offenders. Think about buildings that need “exit” and “entrance” signs. It’s abit strange that you all have a “love for Mies”. Or maybe you view his work as art rather than archticture.

jonathan 01 Feb 06


well…anyone who thinks round-a-bouts are a good idea has never been to Fiji.

nightmare, people…nightmare.

RyanA 01 Feb 06

I can’t agree more. When you’re driving at 80km/h and you’re trying to asimilate all the signage in an unfamiliar area, I’m more likely to miss the turn off or take the wrong turn because I haven’t had enough time to work out which way to go or which lane I need to be in.

Gah!

Rams 01 Feb 06

I am a big fan of Hans Monderman - actually I disovered that traffic in some areas flows smoothly if there are no signals and then decided to google for similar ideas and hit Hans Monderman. But I am not sure how much this is applicable to software. Alertness also implies that you understand the software well and know where to look - that’s not always the case with really complicated software; One the software itself it typically too huge even for the most clued in user to track everything and two, the users tend to be average, with typically no interest in learning about the software.

Tomato Joe 01 Feb 06

I once did a terrible accident which would have been nothing bad if there wasn’t a sign on the side of the road. I was leaving the road, ok, but the sign made my car turn 180 degrees and go back on the highway, which was worse than going in that empty field on the side. It’s a miracle nobody died.
Conclusion: add more solid steel-made objects on the side of the road and you increase the chance of an accident to be fatal on that road.

Chuck 01 Feb 06

I read this post before leaving from work.

I actually tried to visualze no road signs on the exit ramp while driving and I felt like I was in one of those BMW commercials - kinda cool and free!

Great read.

scarr 02 Feb 06

The problem with roundabouts here in South Africa is that there is this unspoken rule which states that you yield to trafffic to the right, at least in the province where I live.

For some reason this ‘rule’ rarely gets enforced by an actual sign instructing drivers how to use the circle.

So… some people will always just assume right of way and charge through the circle. Others will stop when its their turn etc. etc.

Some drivers from a particular province in the country treat traffic circles as N-way stops (where N denotes the number of entry-points into the circle)!

This might actually work better than the yield to right rule since the yield to right rule is biased towards heavy traffic flow from the right. Ie. if I am stuck at the entry point where bucketloads of cars approach from the right I will be stuck there for quite a long time…

oij 02 Feb 06

What’s the deal with there being no clear delineation between sidewalk and road? It’s just mentioned in an offhand way, never explained, as if no big deal and somehow obviously relevant to getting rid of signs.

Seems to me like a recipe for disaster.

Bob Maguire 02 Feb 06

Somewhere, Darwin is just beaming with pride.

Niels Reedijk 02 Feb 06

I see a few things confused. What Hans Monderman is promoting is equality in small towns and to minor out of town roads. He’s not arguing for turning highways into ungoverned roads. He is specifically thinking about problems that happen when multiple types of traffic come in touch with each other. There’s a limit to the amount of cars that can participate in such designs.

Living in a small town (in the Netherlands) that recently decided to apply the ideas by this kind of designers, I can claim it is for he best, and works in places where bikes, people and cars get together. Even though we did not copy the design, we still got ‘high’ curbs, I think that the idea in general works.

Before the street revision, the roads were mostly regulated, where major routes all had right of way to sideways. This created a reasonable fast traffic flow, and it gave a sense of safety, because there were a lot of crossings where there was a dangerous branch (where you could see too little). But at the same time it made traffic unsafe for weaker participants, such as bikers (often children), since the speed of the cars was quite high - around 50 km/h. This led to the fact that there was a lot of wild braking whenever there was someone at the other side of the street so cars couldn’t overtake the bikers. It also meant that crossings had to be evaluated twice: once to see what type it was - an unregulated crossing or a ‘voorrangs’crossing - recalling what kind of rules apply, and once to actually evaluate the situation at the crossing. Whereas (what’s the term) guided crossings were supposed to make traffic easier, it made it more complex.

When the reconstruction was done, a lot of things changed. There was an infamous 30 km/h zone instated, which led to a lot of protest. Also many people were unhappy with the ‘unsafer’ situation at many crossings. But when using it, the fact that the local authority had made all the crossings equal crossings, it ‘forced’ the cars to adapt their speed. Equal crossings* made sure that everyone has the same simple consistent rules to follow. The speed difference between cars and bikes is smaller, which prevents nervous braking when a bike can’t be overtaken. Traffic flow feels better. It made the traffic so much better, you’d be able to send a young child on a bike alone to school.

So I see what he means. It shouldn’t be applied to major roads - heaven forbid - but in normal urban areas it will make traffic a lot calmer, and it will make the street a place where everyone can participate at the same level.

* For people in the US, if my sources are right, you don’t know what equal crossings are. Equal crossings are crossings with no (traffic) signs whatsoever. To guide traffic over those kind of crossings, there are a few basic rules (such as right has the right of way, and straight on on the same road goes first), which everybody learns. I learnt them when I was 6. So equal crossings are not about being without rules, but rather abstracting them to the most simplistic rules which are the same for every one participating on that crossing.

Elaine 02 Feb 06

Neils, thanks for expounding on your experience! We do have “equal crossings” in many places…when I lived in the north end of Tacoma, WA, where almost none of the side streets had stop signs, we used to call it “Tacoma roulette”.

Joking aside, it was always pretty slow & mellow on those streets, also because many of them were in not the best condition, weird sidewalks, brick paving, etc.

A number of towns in this area have added roundabouts. I really enjoy them, but people complain like mad, mostly because they get put in places where people usually sped along the arterial, so it slows down the whole thing.

The set I don’t like is one that ends in a stoplight, so that the street ends up being even more blocked up than it might have been.

And Bostonians: your city and its drivers are insane. East coast cities boggle my mind in general. True story: I got lost twice in 10 minutes trying to drive in Rochester, NY.

Michael Murphy 03 Feb 06

Elaine,
How strange to be reading on the great big web and see the name of your own home town.

LOTS of people get lost in Rochester as it has lots of one ways downtown and other such nonsense. The street I grew up on changes names at least 3 times depending on where you are on it and another road here flip flops back and forth between two different names depending on where you are.

My girlfriend has lived here for 3 years and still has trouble getting around.

Arnstein 03 Feb 06

I’m from Norway, where we’ve been doing roundabouts for quite some time, and they’re now an established practice for drivers, with clear rules for who gives way.
The article seems to imply that removing the rules makes people so uncertain they’ll have to be more cautious when navigating the roundabout. I’m sure that’ll be the case when implementing a roundabout in a culture where this is new - but I’m equally sure that when people get used to roundabouts they’ll discover that if there’s no set rules for who gives way the most effective means of getting your way is to show everyone you’re not paying attention in a clear and visible way. In a manner, this creates a strange situation of “the right of the strong” - or more precisely - the right of those who don’t give a d*.

Alex P 06 Feb 06

That sounds like the entire city of Rome.

Adrian 08 Feb 06

In essence, this idea gets to the root of the problem: poor traffic safety is a factor of speed, nothing else.

The traditional approach to traffic management and its common aim is to get people to move as quickly as possible. Signs need to be large and frequent because the consequences of missing them can be serious, ranging from taking a wrong route that will waste a great deal of time when you backtrack, to crashing and burning because you didn’t anticipate a hazard.

This new approach applies ambiguity and uncertainty to the problem. The hope is that people will not just think, but actually slow down and be cautious. Not only does this lead to people doing the right thing more often, but it drastically diminishes the consequences of doing the wrong thing. They say that most people survive a collision with a vehicle at 20mph but most people die at 40mph. It’s the speed that determines both the likelihood and the consequences of errors.

It also sounds similar to the differences between traditional big design up front software development and agile/iterative processes. In the agile process, you don’t need an excess of signposts (specifications) because you’re going slowly enough to feel your way and correct errors as they occur. You’re both less likely to produce the wrong product, and will have invested less and have less to throw away when you do.

So just slow down. Stewart Brand says in the Clock of the Long Now, “When you go quickly, mistakes cascade. When you go slowly, mistakes instruct.” Someone else whose name escapes me said, “Haste is the root of all lack of quality.”, or words to that effect.

Ron 14 Jun 06

In the dark rainy woods NE of Atlanta, GA there is the “Five Points U Trickum Road”, apparently the Rebs changed the signs for the Yanks.

Now in Boise, Idaho the historic “North End” has stop signs at every other street due to too many fender benders. The rule here (as elsewhere in the USA) when a traffic light is out (power outage, etc.) then it functions as a “4-way stop” and it works well except for the greedy. However, regular “4-Way” stops signed are oftened “4-way buffs”!

In Atlanta, Idaho you drive strictly Libertarian - how ever you dam well please (driving too fast greatly increases your chance of going in the river).

A sign on a Forest Service Road in the backcountry is a welcome sight when 30 miles from where?

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