On a public thoroughfare in Ossterwolde, Northern Holland, Hans 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”.
Who is this crazed man? What happens next?
Monderman survives. He’s confident, because he’s the traffic engineer who designed this square. And because he’s the man who invented the idea of ‘shared space‘, he made it different.
Shared space is a radical idea. Start by taking out the traffic lights. Then take down all the stop signs, give ways, speed signs and warning signs. Demolish all the bollards, kerbs, and speed bumps, and finally, repave so you can’t distinguish the footpath from the road.
Shared space started out as a wildly left-wing idea that had been applied in a few German villages. Now it’s being espoused by Britain’s Tories for Kensington, in Central London, and applied in West Palm Beach, Florida. Yep, Florida, USA.
I had a glimpse of how this kind of anarchy might work this year, on the hottest day of summer. Catastrophic black-outs hit Melbourne at around five in the afternoon. I took a car ride to Port Melbourne beach with a few friends. We drove through busy intersections without any of the patronising assistance normally provided by traffic lights. The intersections worked, because everyone approached them with caution. And since human judgment beats machine judgment any day there was no idling just because the red light said so.
But the forest of signs and signals is there to make us safer! Surely all those road-makers and traffic gurus couldn’t have been so wrong for so long?
Turns out that all those signs just conspired to make us feel safer. And making the road feel dangerous actually makes it safer. A study conducted by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory, found that drivers with no center line to guide them drove more safely and had a 35 percent decrease in the number of accidents. The motto of a recent transport conference in Frankfurt was Unsafe is Safe.
An Australian traffic engineer called Dave Engwicht refers to ‘mental speed bumps‘. He’s famous for once holding a press conference in the middle of a busy intersection to demonstrate the way an intriguing, or mentally engaging streetscape slows the traffic without making anyone angry. He says if he’d put up a sign saying “WARNING: Australian author deliberately slowng traffic ahead” the effect would be lost. Hans Monderman also wants drivers to be engaged: he says “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”
Is this just utopian thinking? I see pedestrian behaviour as a good proxy for what lawless traffic would be like. On foot, we’re fairly considerate, until a traffic jam occurs. Think about people trying to manouevre on to a crowded train. It could get ugly.
And yet. In Drachten, Germany, taking out traffic lights cut accidents at one intersection from 36 to about 4. In West Palm beach property prices in Clematis Street – recently reconfigured according to shared space principles – have more than doubled. And in many ways, the idea is not unique. Segregated footpaths and complex roadsigns are a recent invention. You won’t find them in the walled cities of Europe, or in the backstreet areas of Japan.
Could we do this in Melbourne? In the backstreets? On Swanston Street? Sydney Road? What about on Punt Road? Check out this website for inspiration!