Anarchy in the Streets

Several days ago, I noted a traffic experiment in Drachten, a Dutch city of 50,000, where authorities had removed most of the traffic lights, installed a number of roundabouts and counted on citizens to treat each other with courtesy. The experiment seems to be working there. The question I asked is whether a system based on courtesy could possibly be transferred to the United States? (See “The Role of Courtesy in Coping with Traffic Congestion.”)

Now comes an article from Spiegel Online, “European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs,” indicating that the idea may be migrating to other European countries. In seven cities and regions around the continent, the European Union is testing some radical ideas: eliminating virtually all traffic signs entirely.

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.

It’s nice to know that the E.U., which has passed so many regulations in its short existence that its rule book now runs 85,000 pages, wants to deregulate at least one sphere of human existence. Whether the idea can work or not, I don’t know. It may prove feasible in homogenous societies where people share the same habits, values and ways of thinking. I am highly skeptical, however, that anarchy in the streets could be transplanted to an entitlement society like the United States. We are, after all, the country that invented road rage. Friendly gestures? I’ve got yer friendly gesture right here!

Still, I’m a great believer in experimentation. I look forward to seeing what we can learn from the European experience.

(Hat tip to John Kalitka for pointing me to the story.)

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15 responses to “Anarchy in the Streets”

  1. Waldo Jaquith Avatar
    Waldo Jaquith

    You might be interested in my recent comment about this on Slashdot, about woonerven.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    While the idea of depending upon people’s good manners is fine, it also important to design systems that make it easier for people to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing. The traffic circle is a good example of that. Whereas you can easily blow by a stop sign or a stoplight — and kill somebody — there is no way to just blow by a traffic circle. That big mound in the middle of the road in clearly in the way.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Don’t confuse design with “free will”.

    Roundabouts and traffic calming measures don’t work because they provide a better environment for folks to be “polite” to each other.

    Rather they emplace a physical framework that makes it difficult to be nasty to others.

    It’s sorta like the movable cordons in fast food places.. so that a single queue line forms that then feeds into the counter with multiple cashiers – as opposed to multiple cashiers and a free-for-all queue.

    The fact that these cordons are easily moved… even easily defeated… in theory… “work” because someone has to be fairly overt in their actions… and everyone and their dog in line can clearly see them and it’s funny.. even a guy that just got out of prison for killing someone… will meekly stand in line.. just like everyone else – because of the peer pressure.

    So the same thing with roundabouts… the people who hate them the worst are aggressive drivers who prefer to cut in front of others… run yellow lights, etc… rather than being “forced” between two curbs.. and to slow their speed to a few miles per hour… which makes in harder to pull in front of someone than if you’re plowing through a yellow/read light at 50 mph…. it’s the “closeness” to your fellow drivers.. that can be intimidating to scoflaws.

    Signs don’t do much if you think about it… how many times have you gotten behind someone in the left lane as you both cruise by a sign that says “slower traffic keep right” ???

    but … do we REALLY want to take away speed limit signs and the general rule becomes “reasonable and prudent – and courteous to your fellow drivers?”

    In Europe.. people consider it a duty to move right and let faster traffic go by. It’s not a politeness thing.. it’s a “don’t be a dumb ass” thing. That won’t work in this country. Deduce your own commentary as to why we have dumb asses and Europe does not…

    but suffice to say.. if we took an intersection.. took down the signal and painted a roundabout pattern on it and suggested to folks that they treat it as a roundabout (without the physical design features).. we’d have killings on the 11 pm news every night… so there’s much more to it.. that “can’t we all just get along” bent.

  4. I think that 30 or 50 HP cars would go a long way to induce courtesy. We have managed to make autos both the symbol and the instrument of aggression. We have Dodge, Ram, Charger, Citation, and Taureg, but no Cygnets, Butterflies, or Inchworms (which might be more descriptive).

    I guess times are changing, though. We do have the Civic and the Envoy.

    We can’t do away with all signs, but we could eliminate a lot of visual chatter and focus on the ones that are really important. I believe that chaos, while unnerving, is also efficient.

    The problem is discriminating between chaos and anarchy.

    Larry’s right. People will do things in a car they wouldn’t think of doing with a grocery cart. Last week I (politely) insisted on my proper turn in a zipper merge, and the guy who would have gone out of turn honked at me. He knew he was in the wrong, there was no danger involved, but he honked anyway.

    It was like Ratso Rizzo saying “Hey, I’m waulkin’ here.”

    Finally, one problem we have is that, frequently, no one is responsible. “The car went out of control and struck a tree.”

    Nonsense. It should read, “The driver failed to keep control of the car and drove into a tree.” but if we said that some hapless newspaper would get sued.

    I think there is a big difference between an accident and what is the unintended result of an action deliberately taken, like passing on the shoulder.

    Here’s a good one, last week the traffic helicopter reportier was laughing so hard she could barely report. Apparently someone had overturned their car in Maryland. Then got out, pushed it upright, got back in, and drove off!

    She didn’t say if it was a Saab or not.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s one way to reduce VDOT maintenance and let the users pay more of their own costs.

  6. Waldo’s right. Urban traffic flows best at under 20 MPH. Even non urban roadways have their maximum traffic throughput at only 35 MPH.

    And we have 300 HP cars because?????

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    And we have 300 HP cars because?????

    Ray.. for those ramp merges! 🙂

    You’ve got one open (moving) slot and it’s already moved past you as you enter – you TRUMP down that accelerator to instantly summon those 300 horses and Voila – you easily merge when that hapless underpowered Civic is forced to the shoulder. And this is all the more impressive when you’ve got kids on board.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Had a local accident last week. A car hit a tree so hard that the impact broke it into two pieces one of which ended up against a house and the other hit a trailer.

    The Trooper was quoted in the paper as saying that he thought “speed was a factor”.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Traffic calming is actually directly related to the growth and development issues discussed in this Blog.

    Many prospective homeowners want to live on cul-de-sacs and are opposed to roads that connect subdivisions.

    and the reason is.. speeding vehicles, ironically in many cases – your neighbor – the lady with 4 kids on her way to soccer practice… will FLAT run your kid down on his bike… especially if she is late.

    traffic calming… narrows the streets as they approach intersections. Mini-roundabouts force low-speed merges and, in general, stop cut-through traffic consisting of those folks looking for “alternate paths”.

    we talk about “grid pattern” streets in New Urbanist communities .. in my mind not recognizing that they really don’t function the way they used to. Both cars and people are different now days.

    Many folks want signals “timed” so that Green comes up on all the signals at the same time… why?

    Well.. easy answer… speed limit is 20mph or less in a dense area and here you have folks going 40-50.

    Our road policy is schizo. We “say” we want pedestrian-friendly facilities but mostly on separate recreational trails as opposed to where auto traffic is. In Europe… walkers and bikers ARE weaved into the facility design. In this country… pedestrians are, at best, tolerated or minimally accommodated… because.. it’s “too expensive” to build pedestrian facilities… I’ve heard highway engineers say that if they were forced to provide pedestrian facilities that it would “break” their budget for a particular highway improvement.

    The emphasis is to provide facilities to those that pay gasoline taxes .. therefore those on foot .. are not entitled to ped facilities…

    Until very recently… VDOT road did NOT include ped unless the locality asked for them.. but they had to pay for them.

    Now, they’re included.. but they can be removed by vote of the BOS…

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Actually, much of the problem comes from the facts that we are using lousy management techniques and old technology to build our roads.

    Road construction is controlled by politics. Instead of road users being in the driver’s seat when it comes to road construction decisions, organized political constituencies decide where and how roads get built. On the other hand, drivers control automotive purchase decisions. So drivers get exactly the car they want and can afford, but they have to drive that car on inadequate roads.

    We have a similar dilemma with technology development. We have put automotive technology development into the hands of private commerce, but our government is in control of the development of the technology we use to develop transportation corridors. Without any real competition, government does little to innovate. Thus private entrepreneurs are limited as to how far they can innovate.

    Such mismatches between private and government control of our transportation systems has resulted in traffic jams. The commercial automotive industry has produce millions of inexpensive automobiles. Unfortunately, the government has too little incentive to build a road system that is capable of handling the load.

    There is sad part to this. Although we want to blame the politicians, we truly have no one to blame except ourselves. When we put people into office who promised us free roads, we gave them complete control of our money. That proved to be very unwise. If we want roads that are pleasant to use and roads that are built where they are needed, then we have to pay for the roads when we use them.

  11. I’ve never owned a car that had over 80 HP, except one I inherited.

    I’ve seldom had a problem merging, and never felt that 300 HP would have helped. Even my heavy trucks are the ones with the least available HP. It is possible to get by famously without an exhaust pipe four inches in diameter.

    My wife’s car is a pocket rocket, and I have to admit it is FUN, FUN, FUN. Until you go to the gas pump.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that in Europe walkers and bikers ARE weaved into the facility design. It certainly doesn’t match my experience. Country roads there are no more likely to have sidewalks than here, and I find they are much less adept at keeping their animals off the road. Maybe in town it’s different.

    California seems to have a bike lane alongside even fairly major roadways, so I wouldn’t say that Americans are entirely remiss. Fifteen years ago I suggested to my Supervisor that the countyought to at least start thinking about bike trails, and he hissed at me. “Bikers don’t spend any money.”

    Now the county has finally started a program. All hope is not lost, but it takes lots of time, and the longer it takes the more money it takes.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think the point is that in Europe it’s possible to move around without an auto.

    It’s not just ped but ped for transportation not recreation and it includes bike and transit and rail.

    You can be young or old or poor and there are ways to move about without having an auto.

    One of the rationales for transit in this country is that it is the transportation mode of last resort for underserved groups.

    I believe that is why transit is supported by many – regardless of the fact that it is subsidized.

    A youngster could theoretically live in Md and go to George Mason… if we had a decent transportation system.

    Or an elderly person in Prince William that needs to see a specialist in Fairfax.. and is not up to driving on hell-bent-for-leather roads…

    The lack of a balanced transport system affects the quality of life of everyone because we are essentially forced into cars for almost every need.. and it actually takes away options that a more balanced system would provide.

  13. Jim Bacon Avatar

    I followed a link in Waldo’s “Woonerven” post to a 2004 article in Slate magazine, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, which expands on the theme. At least one American community, Brooline, Mass., has created a “woonerf” but blew it by painting lines, turn arrows and other forms of guidance that violate the precept of self-regulating anarchy.

    It’s definitely an idea that should experiment with here in the U.S. to see whether it is transplantable to our hyper-individualistic, auto-centric culture.

  14. “One of the rationales for transit in this country is that it is the transportation mode of last resort for underserved groups.

    I believe that is why transit is supported by many – regardless of the fact that it is subsidized.”

    OK then, lets sell it that way, and not pretend that it is an alternative to autos, that it is less expensive, or more energy efficient.

    Let’s cal it what it is, and plan accordingly. Let’s recognize that it is in addition to autos, not instead of, and that it comes at additional cost, not as a replacement to, or drain on, the funds we still need to spend for auto transit.

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I was actually thinking about what would happen if congestion pricing came to fruition and, in fact, generated funds beyond what was necessary for road needs (maintenance and optimizations that would not add to pollution levels).

    Where would you spend the excess money?

    You _could_ spend it on more METRO, commuter rail, BRT, etc…

    OR you could REBATE it to drivers as a net credit on their income taxes….or property taxes…

    but I do have the same exact problem with METRO that I have with VDOT. Neither of them design and operate cost-effective systems. They are your basic govt entities whose basic response to higher demands is “give us more money” rather than making better use of the money that they have.

    This is why I like the HOT Lane concept – because your GOAL is better traffic throughput not better or more roads falsely premised on the failed concept that more and more money builds more and more roads that “ease” congestion.

    HOT lanes not only “ease” congestion – but it does not cost more money. It actually can generate NET money for more improvements. Money that we don’t have right now and probably will not get if it means increased taxes.

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