Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Road Less Regimented

Power through the digressions on Proust and you have a very fine, thought-provoking essay in The Wilson Quarterly on Hans Monderman, a European traffic engineer whose "shared space" concept argues for fewer rules of the road, not more -- which stands in sharp contrast to the diktats of American safety Nazis. The author warns readers about libertarians who read too much into Monderman's ideas, or try hijacking them for nefarious purposes -- guilty as charged. But it does seem they could be usefully applied beyond just the roadway.

Here's a key excerpt for those who don't have 17 minutes to spare:

"If Monderman’s ideas seem heretical to many in the United States, it’s worth considering exactly who created the American system in the first place, and why. In Fighting Traffic, a fascinating history published earlier this year, Peter D. Norton documents how the automobile industry, in concert with ­self-­proclaimed traffic experts, helped shift the debate on urban traffic safety during the 1920s. As motorization levels soared, measures such as “speed governors” on engines, a once popular idea, fell out of favor, and the urban street was redefined from a place with various uses to a channel for moving the most vehicular traffic as quickly as ­possible.

And this is what we got: an entire infrastructure of ­inner-­city expressways and elevated pedestrian crossings, whose ethos of separation was adopted under the banner of safety but was meant to move cars through cities faster (and even that strategy backfired, as the available space quickly filled with new drivers). The traffic infrastructure was intended to make cities safer for pedestrians by removing them from the street; but in any vital city this was, of course, never possible. The illusion of ­safety—­roads built so that, as one engineer put it, “accidents will be impossible”—simply brought new dangers, and degraded the very qualities that made cities attractive: spontaneity, locality, interactions at human ­scales.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how long we have lived with this built ideology, Monderman’s ideas encounter two common criticisms. The first is that measures that appeal to the better angels of our nature could never work in a country such as the United States, where drivers seem stubbornly reluctant to “share the road” even with other cars, much less pedestrians and cyclists, and the threat of a lawsuit hovers over the smallest traffic intervention. It is true that if a local government is to remove the signs from a busy intersection, and orchestrate the smooth movement of bicycles and cars through it, strong social norms must be in place. But norms can be influenced by context. Picture, for example, the improvised grass parking lots at county fairs: no stop signs, no speed limits, no markings of any ­kind—­maybe just some kids with flags telling you where to go. But people, by and large, drive and walk in a cautious manner. There is no great epidemic of traffic fatalities at county ­fairs.

The other objection Monderman’s ideas often meet is that people do act like idiots, and that, if anything, we need more separation, more safeguards, more rules. Standing with me near the roundabout in Drachten, Monderman noticed a driver speeding past. “There’s a little part of society who don’t accept rules, who don’t accept social structures,” he said. “It’s not up to a traffic engineer to change it.” A few weeks earlier, he said, a local 21-­year-­old who had just gotten his driver’s license had died in a crash. “He used drugs, alcohol. There’s not a street that can cope with that problem.”

Traffic signs, for Monderman, were an invitation to stop thinking, to stop acting on one’s own volition. In streets designed to safely handle the actions of the riskiest participants, everyone slips into riskier behavior. As he put it to me, “There are so many things that can be forbidden. The stranger thing is that we believe everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed.”

Monderman loved cars. “I like to drive really fast on the Autobahn,” he admitted. But he did not love the accommodations that had been made to cars everywhere outside the ­Autobahn—­the garish, ­over­sized warning signs, the pens for pedestrians, the anonymous asphalt roads. For decades, traffic engineers have pursued, with the best of intentions, an impossible goal: the elimination of accidents. Monderman questioned how safe this kind of safety was. More fundamentally, he asked if mature automobile societies could, in essence, act like adults."

Treating people like adults should be the aim not just of "mature automobile societies," but of mature societies, period.

1 comment:

Jon said...

A really interesting take on road safety. To me, this is another clear illustration of the road to hell being paved with the best of intentions. The Government intends to make things better and safer for everyone...so the Government makes laws and tells us how to behave. We accept these laws as our protectors and become mindless to the dangers these laws were designed for. All common sense and rationale is quickly set aside and forgotten, thanks to the new "protection" offered from the State.