Thursday, May 20, 2004

Embracing traffic anarchy

An article on discusses a counterintuitive trend in traffic engineering.

...between street and sidewalk, woonerfs combine innovative paving, landscaping and other urban designs to allow for the integration of multiple functions in a single street, so that pedestrians, cyclists and children playing share the road with slow-moving cars. The pilot projects were so successful in fostering better urban environments that the ideas spread rapidly to Belgium, France, Denmark and Germany. In 1998, the British government adopted a "Home Zones" initiative -- the woonerf equivalent -- as part of its national transportation policy.

"What the early woonerf principles realized," says Hamilton-Baillie, "was that there was a two-way interaction between people and traffic. It was a vicious or, rather, a virtuous circle: The busier the streets are, the safer they become. So once you drive people off the street, they become less safe."

Contrast this approach with that of the United Kingdom and the United States, where education campaigns from the 1960s onward were based on maintaining a clear separation between the highway and the rest of the public realm. Children were trained to modify their behavior and, under pain of death, to stay out of the street. "But as soon as you emphasize separation of functions, you have a more dangerous environment," says Hamilton-Baillie. "Because then the driver sees that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment and chases a ball across the street is a child in the wrong place..."

...When it comes to reconfiguring streets as community spaces, ground zero is once again Holland and Denmark, where planners are removing traffic lights in some towns and cities, as well as white divider lines, sidewalks and speed limits. Research has shown that fatality rates at busy intersections, where two or three people were being killed every year, dropped to zero when controls and boundaries were taken away. A photo of a reconstructed intersection, "the Brink," in the Dutch province of Friesland, provides more design details. Until 1998, the Brink was a standard asphalt intersection with traffic controls and segregated spaces. Today, the entire area has been repaved with red bricks bordered by sections of green railing. A raised piazza juts into the middle of the intersection, but there are no sidewalks, road markings, or right-of-way signs. Every day, 4,500 cars share the space with cyclists and pedestrians who wander about "the road" at will.