I’ve traveled in America, Canada, England, Western Europe, Israel, Mexico and North Africa. My experience about driving (and walking) in these countries, is as follows: In America and Canada, roads are really exceptionally well-organized, with clear rules, and the drivers, for the most part, following those rules. In England, roads are fairly well-organized, with clear rules, and the drivers usually follow the rules. The main problem for an American there, of course, is the fact that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road. In Western Europe and Israel, there are rules, but nobody seems to follow them. People do stop at lights, which is a good thing, but the whole concept of lanes, even though they are marked on the road, seems alien to them. In Mexico, there are no obvious rules but, since I’ve only traveled in fairly sparsely populated areas, it didn’t really matter. On then there is North Africa or, to be more specific, Tanger in Morocco. As far as I could tell, there were no road markings nor were there traffic signs. There were cars galore, though, moving in an anarchic, high speed dance. It was kind of like watching large schools of sharks jockeying for position in an urban ocean, if you can imagine that. It was terrifying.
I thought of Tanger when I read that European communities, frustrated by their driver’s lawlessness, have decided, not to encourage lawful driver, but to give up on laws:
Like countless other communities, this western German town lived for years with a miserable traffic problem. Each day, thousands of cars and big trucks barreled along the two-lane main street, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to scamper for their lives.
The usual remedies – from safety crossings to speed traps – did no good. So the citizens of Bohmte decided to take a big risk. Since September, they’ve been tearing up the sidewalks, removing curbs and erasing street markers as part of a radical plan to abandon nearly all traffic regulations and force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead.
This contrarian approach to traffic management, known as shared space, is gaining a foothold in Europe. Towns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Belgium have tossed out their traffic lights and stop signs in a bid to reclaim their streets for everyone.
The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down.
“Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,” said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. “When they’re confused, they’ll be more alert and drive more carefully.”
The European Union has subsidized shared space programs in seven cities in five countries. Interest is spreading worldwide, with cities in countries from Australia to Canada sending emissaries to Europe to see whether the experiment works.
In Bohmte, a town of 13,000 people in the state of Lower Saxony, residents were tired of all the trucks whizzing along Bremen Street, the main route through the city. Since the street is categorized as a state highway, German law prevented local officials from banning trucks. They considered building a bypass instead, but merchants worried it would suck too many vehicles out of the city center, hurting business.
In 2005, city leaders learned about shared space and decided to give it a try. One of the biggest obstacles was persuading regional traffic bureaucrats to approve the unorthodox approach.
“They were grinding their teeth, but finally they agreed,” Ladner said.
On Nov. 26, a small section of Bremen Street – absent signs and curbs – reopened to traffic. With no marked spaces, people can park their cars wherever they want, as long as they don’t leave them in the middle of the road. The new pavement is a reddish-brick color, intended to send a subtle signal to drivers that they are entering a special zone.
Only two traffic rules remain. Drivers cannot go more than 30 mph, the German speed limit for city driving. And everyone has to yield to the right, regardless of whether it’s a car, a bike or a baby carriage.
I’ve mentioned in other contexts my sense that Europe is binary. During the 1930s, Europeans couldn’t see any possibilities other than Communism or Fascism. Now, they seem to be struggling between over-the-top, completely destructive political correctness and a resurgence of, yes, Fascism. And so it seems to go with the roads. Faced with stupid driving rules, rather than rejiggering the rules to make them work, the Europeans are jettisoning them altogether. Binary. Just binary.