How do you keep cars from killing people? Ever since the automobile first started clogging city roads and competing with pedestrians for street space, planners and politicians have sought engineering solutions for road safety. And engineer we have. From advanced electronic stability and traction controls programmed into cars to yawning shoulders and clear-cut forgiveness zones carved out by the roads, we have deployed every trick we can muster to separate drivers, passengers, and pedestrians from danger. Yet a century after the Model T first started rolling out of Detroit in monochrome masses, at least 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States every year.

In response, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has declared war on his own city’s couple hundred annual traffic fatalities, aiming to eliminate pedestrian deaths from the roads of New York. Drawing on the lessons of Sweden’s Vision Zero initiative, de Blasio has marshaled all the agencies within his reach and sought special sanction from the state legislature to drive down automobile speeds and protect pedestrians. This week he announced the installation of 140 new speed cameras near city schools as part of the aggressive enforcement component of his safety push. The NYC Vision Zero plan includes lowering the citywide speed limit from 30 to 25, dramatically expanding enforcement measures such as police deployments and speed and red light cameras, and rebuilding what roads they can in order to better buffer pedestrians and bicyclists from traffic. There are certainly some positive and productive ideas incorporated into the Vision Zero initiative. But much of his rhetoric and many of his measures betray a throwback to older efforts to tame the roads by force and regulation.

The history of the automobile and safety campaigns in the 20th century is too rich and varied to exhaust here, but a few highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be) can provide enough of a flavor for context. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford recounted earlier this year, In the Beginning (1900 or so), streets were shared by all modes of transportation. Pedestrians (then better known as people going about their business), horses, streetcars, and the early automobile all took their turn passing through the public space that happened to lie between destinations. Children played in the streets, with the protection of a common law understanding that with great vehicular weight came great responsibility.

The advent of cars that could drive at speeds in excess of 10 miles per hour changed the entire balance of the streetscape’s ecosystem, however. Mr. Ford’s mass efficiency compounded the problem, clogging city streets with dangerous speed machines. As UVA scholar Peter Norton told Oatman-Stanford, “In 1914, it was pretty much the opposite [of today]. It was more like, ‘What evil bastard would drive their speeding car where a kid might be playing?’ … It would be like if you drove a motorcycle in a hallway today and hit somebody—you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, well, they just jumped out in front of me,’ because the response would be that you shouldn’t operate a motorcycle in a hallway.”

As Oatman-Stanford tells the story, Big Auto responded to a growing public demonization of drivers by launching a wide-ranging campaign to reorient the streets to exclusive car service, for “Through a series of social, legal, and physical transformations, these groups reframed arguments about vehicle safety by placing blame on reckless drivers and careless pedestrians, rather than the mere presence of cars.” “Jaywalkers” were invented to caricature people walking in the street as hapless country rubes, and AAA took over safety training in the schools to impress the importance of intersection-only crossings upon the children. The result was city streets reserved for automobiles, and pedestrians sequestered onto what sidewalks remained after decades of street expansions seeking to accommodate the burgeoning traffic. As Ben Hamilton-Baille, a standard bearer for the “shared space” movement discussed below, notes, “Segregation of traffic from other aspects of urban life matched the zeitgeist of 1960s planning,” with “the state as controller and regular of activities.”

Still, even as people were technically restricted to sidewalks, they kept getting killed by cars, whether they were behind the wheel or under the wheels. Ralph Nader’s breakout 1966 book, Unsafe at Any Speed castigated the auto industry for prioritizing profits over passenger safety, prompting a series of reforms in the cars themselves. As New Jersey DOT veteran Gary Toth documented at the Project for Public Spaces, around that same time the United States and the Netherlands both sought to address their shockingly high traffic fatality rates with a variety of technological, educational, and planning measures, including what they called “Forgiving Highways”:

Forgiving Highways is a concept that designs roads to ‘forgive’ mistakes made on the road. It seeks to smoothly redirect the vehicles that leave roads, and allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if and when they leave the roads. Breakaway supports, burying the end of guardrail, clearing the roadside of unneeded obstacles, and flattening and rounding slopes and ditch sections became standard design as part of the concept.

U.S. engineers saw the success of the Interstate in forgiving mistakes and reducing accidents, and sought to apply its lessons to any paved surface they could get their hands on. As Toth writes, “It sounded logical at the time… and a great political solution, because the responsibility for fixing the problem once again fell on government, not the individual. We dove deep into the Forgiving Highway philosophy and still have not come up for air.” Separation, wide berths, and buffers became de rigueur. Our city and suburban streets became as wide and comfortable as our freeways, but for some reason we expected drivers to ignore everything we built around them and obey the increasingly fractured and detailed signage telling them to slow down.

The Dutch, on the other hand, also applied Forgiving Highways to their highways, and adopted many of the same technology and education campaigns, but they took a very different approach to their built-up areas. Suburbs and cities were not treated as freeways, wide open roads to be blasted down with obstacles set at a safe distance. Instead, they created “self-explaining streets.” By accommodating all modes of transportation on their streets, not just the automobile, and by subtly signaling that cars would be sharing their space with pedestrians and bicycles, and most of all by shrinking the lanes and lines of sight available to their drivers, the Dutch put drivers in a position to slow themselves by common sense. And their fatalities have fallen from 3,200 in 1975 to 800 in 2008. Having started with a traffic fatality rate 20 percent higher than the United States, the Dutch presently enjoy a rate 60 percent lower. In the delightfully perverse phrase of “shared space” pioneer Hans Monderman (also Dutch), in order to make streets safe, you must first make them dangerous.

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. As Lynda Bellalite modeled for Quebec’s roads, credible speed limits are set by the number and width of lanes, the width of visual clearance, and the type of surrounding buildings. To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out. Lining such a street with speed cameras is less traffic enforcement than traffic entrapment.

Instead, safety can best be secured by breaking down the century of segregation, and letting drivers notice that they are not alone. “Shared space” will be a concept frequently covered here at New Urbs, as it is a uniquely powerful example of how humane insights can overturn decades of planning wisdom to achieve better outcomes by empowering people, not engineers.

Shared space was born out of the Dutch villages that Hans Monderman was charged with making safer in the face of children being struck by vehicles. Dissatisfied with the traditional traffic engineer’s toolbox of signs and lines, humps and bumps, barriers and warnings, Monderman sought to make the villages more… village-like. He tore out the signs and lines, flattened the humps and bumps, and restored the aesthetic of a village plaza to what had previously been an anonymous intersection. As Tom Vanderbilt describes it, “Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating.” Monderman forced drivers to actively engage their environment, and they took closer care of their behavior in it. Yet as Ben Hamilton-Baille delighted in demonstrating in his own shared space reforms in Poynton in the UK, traffic can move more efficiently even with all these sentient obstacles sharing the road, because no time is wasted waiting on stoplights to give cars permission to move.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a village traffic model for one of the most populous major cities in the Western world, it should be noted that London’s Kensington High Street has been able to incorporate shared space elements (removing pedestrian barriers, stripping signage and street clutter) despite carrying more than 40,000 cars per day, on par with many of New York City’s busiest (and most dangerous) streets. Car speeds are down, and even with more pedestrians recklessly crossing outside of designated areas, accidents are down as well. The contrast between engineering traps to catch or restrain drivers in the hopes of discouraging them from bad behavior, and engineering environments that lead them to naturally respond to their surroundings in a safe and humane way, should hold lessons for safety-concerned communities on this side of the ocean.

It may be that the answer to “how do you keep cars from killing people?” is simply: you don’t. You re-empower the person behind the wheel to negotiate the roads with their own judgment, and trust the social fabric to direct the traffic.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.