Unsafe is Safe?

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!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

4 thoughts on “Unsafe is Safe?”

  1. Do I detect a libertarian theme emerging?

    I think this would be great for Swanston street, flowing into city square and fed square. City square is still a waste of space, except of course when the acrobats are there. If it was all nice and open, people looking out for each other, sometimes still the odd acrobat, that’d have to be an improvement.


  2. I fear the apparent safety of these shared spaces is due to their rarity. If they become the norm they won’t be any safer than current roads. Then after a couple of accidents someone will put up a sign or bollard, then some traffic lights and pretty soon we are back where we are now.

    I remember when high brake lights were mandated because the stats showed that cars with high brake lights had less rear end collisions. Now every car has them I bet the rate of rear end collisions is back to where it was before they were mandated. Actually it should be less since ABS has become the norm since then.

    But I do agree that roads could be safer with less clutter. Even if you don’t consciously register a sign, it must add to the brain’s processing load and reduce reaction time. Let’s start with all the useless “Keep Left” signs on central road islands and roundabouts. Is anyone really going to try and go to the right of these things?


  3. Oosterwolde (that’s the correct spelling, btw) is near my home. So are several other shared space schemes. They’re not popular at all here in the Netherlands. They work OK in a small village with not much traffic, but are terrible on busy junctions. They’re especially bad for pedestrians, cyclists, elderly people and children.

    ytd is right. It works for a while due to novelty, but the novelty wears off very quickly. Shared Space schemes very quickly start to accumulate those things which they supposedly didn’t need, such as pedestrian crossings.

    Dutch roads are the safest in the world, but shared space is not the reason why. Thankfully, only in a tiny fraction of the road network has been changed like this.

    BTW, Oosterwolde is in Friesland which is a province of the Netherlands. There is also a province called North Holland, but it’s some way south-west from here.


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