Wild roads

Holland, England and France are starting to reduce signalling to improve road safety. The trend seems unstoppable, and there’s one man behind it.

Text: Enrique Alpañés

Despite a hatred of traffic signs, Hans Monderman was the most famous traffic engineer in the world. The Dutchman, who died in 2008, brought the concept of less is more to roads, stripping them of signs, traffic lights and markings. Monderman believed that excessive use of these features gave drivers a false sense of security. His goal was to reduce the use of signs to a minimum, arguing that first and foremost, they signalled the failure of the engineer. He also sought to end the separation between spaces for pedestrians and cars, merging the two habitats to create more pleasant cities that were easier to navigate both by car and on foot and which were, most important of all, safer. In Monderman’s vision, roads make up an integral part of the city, a space where pedestrians, cyclists and cars live together in harmony, with an emphasis on visual contact, respect and negotiation. If all this sounds bizarrely utopian, you might be surprised to hear that the model he bequeathed really works.

Monderman believed that excessive use of these features gave drivers a false sense of security.

Welcome to Makkinga, Holland. As you enter this small town with a population of just over 1,000, there is a sign setting the speed limit at 30 kilometres per hour. The next line proclaims that the city is free of road signs. Arguably Monderman’s most famous work, all this came about by chance during a redevelopment project that left the town without road signs for a few weeks. Seeing its success, the authorities asked Monderman to design the new system. Taking into account the features of the town, its size and the limited volume of traffic, he decided to make this temporary situation permanent. The roundabouts in Makkinga don’t have give-way signs and there are no one-way streets. The curbs of the pavement have been lowered and there are no zebra crossings, merging the habitats of drivers and pedestrians.

The success of Makkinga and the attention received by the town in the media became its greatest asset. Monderman subsequently began to apply his theory to larger and more chaotic spaces, such as the Dutch city of Drachten (population 50,000), where he removed an old roundabout to create a busy intersection without signs. “The best way to drive is negotiating,” Monderman often remarked. “Public space forces people to be social and visual contact is part of people’s social behaviour.”

Sweden, Spain, Germany, the UK, the USA… numerous cities throughout the world timidly began to embrace Monderman’s ideas, noticing reductions in accidents and significant improvements in traffic.

England now leads the way, driven by Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The engineer has been responsible for eliminating lane markers in cities such as Suffolk and Wiltshire. The result: drivers have significantly reduced their speed and, in the case of Wiltshire, accidents have fallen by 35%. According to The Guardian, around a dozen English cities have followed in their footsteps.

Public space forces people to be social and visual contact is part of people’s social behaviour.”

The trend is relatively new and its application still limited but it has begun to break down a paradigm that has prevailed since the 1920s. In the beginning, the coexistence of pedestrians and drivers was traumatic. Historically, nothing in the street moved faster than 20 kilometres per hour and pedestrians, especially the smallest, were not used to the passing of cars. Without driving regulations and with roads not designed to be shared by pedestrians and cars, accidents increased until they reached alarming figures.

Thus, the decision was taken to separate roads and pavements. With the passing of time, cars became more and more important until they were kings of the road. But all this is changing.

Intelligent design and driver psychology are key elements in transforming our streets. Until relatively recently, they were not taken into account when designing roads. In the past, engineers analysed the movement of traffic in the same way as they analyse water. Simply put: the best way to improve flow was to use wider pipes. Driver behaviour was not controlled using intelligent architecture but through the use and abuse of traffic signals. Bikes and pedestrians were banished from the roads.

Numerous cities throughout the world timidly began to embrace Monderman’s ideas, noticing reductions in accidents and significant improvements in traffic.

Monderman’s work marked a turning point in this trend and despite his death, disciples like Hamilton-Baillie continue to work in this direction. Roads are becoming smarter, something that may have less to do with technology, materials and the Internet of things and more to do with sharing the same space, negotiation and encouraging drivers to stop looking at signs and make eye contact instead. In the words of Monderman: “Every road tells a story. It’s just that so many of our roads tell the story poorly, or tell the wrong story.”

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