Does this sound like a good idea to you?

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.

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Comments

  1. zhombre says

    Precisely, Book. As author Tom Wolfe remarked, fascism is always descending upon America, but somehow misses and lands on Europe. Yet there is a whole generation of American intellectuals who believe we should defer to the sensibility of the Europeans in all matters cultural, artistic,political and economic. Perhaps Berkeley or some little village in the Shire of Vermont will ape this particular European innovation and do away with all traffic control, as a prelude to banning automobiles altogether.

  2. zhombre says

    An off-topic afterthought: Howard Dean is a lot like Bilbo Baggins, isn’t he? The Dean Scream in Iowa is reminiscent of Bilbo, portrayed by Ian Holm in the popular film, going crazy when denied the Ring just as Dean was denied the Caucus in Iowa.

  3. Danny Lemieux says

    Actually, there is something to the shared space concept. What the cited article does not mention is that when the concept was first tested in the Netherlands, the incidence of traffic accidents actually went down in these areas.

    The professed reason was that by removing all distracting rules signage, you force everyone to drive more defensively.

    Time will tell if this works.

  4. says

    This is absolutely the most lunatic thing that I have ever read. Even with warnings, drivers, pedestrians and everyone else are at the mercy of the most moranic, reckless driver out there. Now they’re at the mercy, also, of every clod who, when faced with an ambigious traffic situation — makes the wrong guess.

  5. jj says

    I find myself in agreement with Danny. I don’t actually have a whole real big problem with that. In this country we nit-pick the roads to death – and what does that get us? 40,000 people a year dead. I’m not sure I see that as a particularly positive accomplishment.

    Of course, crappy little towns from one end of the country to the other live off the traffic fines (oh no, there are no quotas – of course not), but I don’t see that as a real positive, either.

    What they’re doing, at least on the highways, is just making “official” what happens anyway: people generally drive to what the main traffic flow is doing, whether it’s with or somewhat opposed to what the sign says or not. When Montana was limitless on the highways there was no particular upsurge in accidents – though the crappy litle towns were starving to death, so political pressure was put on to bring limits back, which they eventually did – but certainly not for any reasons of safety. Or even logic.

    I think what works best is to improve drivers, not rules or roads. In England it used to take several months to get a full license, the ‘Learner” stage went on for a while. None of this “drive around the block and park it – you pass” kind of nonsense. You had to have demonstrated that you actually could handle the car, and could actually have a thought now and then to be fully licensed.

    As the article points out, the accident rate in the Netherlands actually went down – what’s the problem?

    We lost power out here a couple of weeks ago, and all the traffic lights in town were out. Not a problem, everyone slowed at lights, took it in turn, and the whole thing was fine. This wasn’t a fluke, either, it went on for about three days. I see no reason for it not to have gone on indefinitely. Seattle, my nearest big city, is the only place I know of that says: ‘Use your damn head,” and allows lefts on red as well as rights – no problem.

    People can, for the most part, be made to function – if they’re presented with no alternative. Germany, like England, makes you work to get a license, they’ll probably be fine in Bohmte.

  6. expat says

    There is a difference in the physical structure of small towns in Germany. Very often, you have countryside and then an abrupt change to a densely built town. I’m not sure how this would work with our sprawling towns with strip mall approaches.

    BTW, my own experience with France is that the parking is more of a problem than the driving. In some places, people don’t use parking brakes so that other drivers can bump into a space. I’ve even seen people parked across corners at 45-degree angles to the crossing streets. And once when taken by a friend to a Paris bistro for an after-work drink, we were directed to his favorite table. Why favorite? The large window gave the best view of parkers on a side street as they maneuvered into spaces large enough for a baby carriage. Vive la difference:

  7. Jose says

    Anytime bureaucracy backs offs regulating anything, my automatic response is approval. My small town constantly lowers speed limits and plants new, and unnecessary, stop signs. Europeans generally drive in an offensive manner, so an environment that causes them to act defensively is probably a good thing.

    On a related topic, anyone who has driven outside the US knows how superior traffic circles are to stop lights in many situations. Sitting at a red light waiting on non-existent cross traffic is one of the supreme idiocies of modern life.

  8. says

    Binary. Just binary.

    Simplistically retarded. Nature tolerate a lot of things and many instances of mistakes. It doesn’t tolerate organisms committing suicide every time they get a chance. That organism’s DNA template and entire line gets edited out soon enough.

  9. says

    Here we have an interesting psychological experiment. The article clearly implies that this is something that works, that the experiment has been a success.

    And the reaction of some of us? “This can’t work, this doesn’t work, it’s crazy.” This is astonishing close-mindedness.

    Yet all of us have had the experience of driving somewhere without the usual rules… In improvised parking lots, perhaps, or when traffic lights go out in a power failure. Do people start playing bumper cars, or speeding? Never.

  10. says

    When lights go out where I live, the driving becomes horrible beyond all reason. Yes, everyone is hypercautious, with the result that traffic backs up — and at that point, the reckless ones emerge. These bad apples are enough to make driving dangerous for everyone. So, perhaps it depends on our perspectives. Where I live, drivers, for the most part, follow the rules, and traffic usually moves and moves safely. When the rules have to be jettisoned, people are initially more cautious, which makes traffic horrible, and then they become reckless, which makes it dangerous. We go from good to bad.

    Perhaps in those communities in which the no rules situation works, people are ignoring the rules and driving recklessly (which is my experience from driving in Europe). Taking away the rules increases caution and, perhaps, lowers recklessness sufficiently that it’s actually better than the status quo.

    In other words, my reaction may be less about psychology and more about the situation on the ground.

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