Put a Stop to Stoplights
In 1982, two small children were fatally struck by cars passing through the small Dutch village of Oudehaske. Concerned about the safety of their roads, the townspeople requested a traffic evaluation from their regional safety inspector, a man by the name of Hans Monderman, who would later be described by Wired as “the sort of stout, reliable fellow you’d see on a package of pipe tobacco.”
Monderman faced a quandary. The road cutting through the village brought drivers accustomed to the speeds of empty highways into the heart of the town center. But he did not have the budget to install any of the traditional traffic engineer’s solutions to speeding, such as warning signs and speed bumps. So instead Monderman recommended that the village, which was also undergoing an aesthetic consultation at the time, try to look more “village-like.”
Rather than installing humps and bumps, warning signs and stoplights, instead of building guardrails around sidewalks or elevating the curbs, Monderman tore out the curbs altogether. He uprooted as many signs as he could legally get away with and replaced the standardized asphalt with red brick and slightly curved gray “gutters” that produced a road that looked five meters wide “but had all the possibilities of six.” Thus instead of traveling down a roadway that passed through a village, incoming drivers were thrust into a village, full stop.
Under conventional traffic-engineering guidelines, this was madness. Without signs, markings, and separations telling cars and villagers alike where to go and how to behave, people would be thrown into chaos that practically invited reckless driving and more accidents. Yet instead, Monderman was pleased to see, drivers recognized that their environment was different and ambiguous, and they slowed down to navigate with care, subtly negotiating their way through the space with eye contact and hand signals exchanged with those around them, whether in cars, on bikes, or on foot. Car speeds dropped by 40 percent, four times what conventional traffic control could promise, and the village was undeniably safer.
This was the birth of what would come to be called “shared space,” a traffic and urban design movement that seeks to remove street barriers, markings, and signs in order to create environments where pedestrians, cars, and bikes all have equal claim to the street and navigate the space socially and spontaneously rather than relying on timed lights or instructional signs. Since Monderman’s work in Dutch villages like Oudehaske, shared space principles have been implemented in experiments across Europe. And they’re worth Americans’ attention as well.
The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.
But the engineer has held the reins of decision-making tightly for the past century, for reasons both technological and ideological. After Henry Ford’s 1908 introduction of the Model T, automobiles suddenly became not just the playthings of the very wealthy but an affordable means of transportation for millions. As historian Clay McShane writes, “For the first time, cars were cheap and reliable enough for mass commuting,” flooding cities and suburbs alike with a new species of citizen of the road. Significantly larger than pedestrians, less predictable than streetcars, and ultimately much faster than either, automobiles were soon seen as reckless endangerments of society.
With this potent new technology being introduced to necessarily inexperienced users, accidents were commonplace and fatalities, especially of children, quickly accumulated. University of Virginia historian Peter Norton estimates that “more than 210,000 were killed in traffic accidents in the period 1920-1929, a figure “three or four times the death toll of the previous decade.”
Early 20th-century cities already had a trusted source to turn to for answers to their problems, however: engineers. As Norton describes in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the 1910s and 1920s were a time of tremendous optimism in the power of scientific and technical solutions. The integration of mass waterworks and sewer systems had bought engineers particular favor in densely populated cities, while the business communities that paid for some of the first traffic engineers were enamored of Frederick Taylor’s ideas about “scientific management” in the workplace. As early traffic engineer A.G. Straetz wrote, “Traffic conditions on our streets and highways today greatly resemble the confusion and disorder which prevailed in the industrial production field twenty years ago.”
Newly minted traffic engineers saw city streets as simply one more public utility in need of expert regulation, like the water systems civil engineers had just installed. Instead of negotiating the complex social environment of the street, traffic engineers sought to optimize the flows of traffic through the urban “pipes.” Common-law tradition had long dictated that all users were to have an equal claim to the street, but as Northeastern University’s Clay McShane explains, “at the urging of traffic engineers … city councils replaced this ancient rule with new ordinances that gave cars the right of way, except at intersections.”
The auto industry and organizations like AAA assisted the engineers’ efforts by launching national campaigns to shift the blame for accidents away from the popular perception of reckless drivers and onto country-bumpkin pedestrians instead. Thus “jaywalking” was coined in advertisements and codified in law to brand pedestrians who dared step into the street as backwoods rubes, or “jays,” neither familiar with nor fit for life in the big city. And so the street was gradually surrendered to the car.
McShane notes one of the peculiar features of traffic engineering in the U.S. and indeed worldwide: its remarkable uniformity. The American system of governance is famously fragmented, after all, and nearly every municipality in every county in every state is empowered to make of its streets what it will. How, then, did their approaches all turn out almost exactly the same? McShane finds an answer in the nature of the traffic-engineering profession: “A unified, national profession with common education, professional journals, conferences, and shared consultants would push American cities toward traffic uniformity, the local autonomy inherent in the federal system notwithstanding. A network of professionals controlled the network of traffic control.”
According to Peter Norton, however, even the engineers were not destined to be entirely their own masters. The engineers’ greatest good is efficiency, which led them to a sympathy for streetcars and other modes of transit that could help alleviate pressure on the roads by more efficiently conducting people in and out of town. By 1923, however, the auto industry was seeing its formerly explosive sales growth start to slump, and fears arose that the market was “saturated.” To keep their market growing, automakers threw their weight behind a campaign to decry a shortage in urban “floor space” and urged reshaping and rebuilding streets to accommodate a greater supply of cars. “Induced demand” is a traffic-engineering phenomenon whereby the creation of more road space simply encourages more road use. Norton suggests that America’s highways and wide roads were originally the product of Detroit inducing its own demand.
With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.
When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”
On the night of the Academy Awards in 2006, journalist Tom Vanderbilt watched as Los Angeles Automatic Traffic Surveillance and Control engineer Kartik Patel attended to the city’s traffic system, conducting celebrity-packed limousines through the oppressive Los Angeles congestion even as he also coordinated the movements of some of his fellow municipal engineers who were picketing in the limos’ paths as part of a labor dispute. Vanderbilt writes in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, “As Patel furiously taps on his keyboard, lengthening cycle times here, cancelling a left-turn phase there, it becomes hard to resist the idea that being a traffic engineer is a little like playing God. One man pushing one button affects not just one group of people but literally the whole city…”
From the beginning, Peter Norton notes, “engineers seldom looked at traffic from the auto driver’s point of view,” no more than they did from that of a pedestrian or a streetcar passenger. Theirs was the “God-view,” surveying the entire system to maximize efficient flows. Hans Monderman was unusual, even for Europe, as a traffic engineer who saw through human eyes. A car enthusiast with a professed love of the Autobahn’s high speeds, Monderman ran his own driving school, which helped imbue him with an abiding understanding that cars are people, and people respond to the contexts they are given.
“When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,” he was fond of saying. And there were few parts of the received wisdom among traffic engineers that Monderman did not see as treating people like idiots: a sign warning of nearby cows posted on a road cutting through pastures, for example, or the panoply of barriers, safeguards, and redundancies built into roadways to accommodate the perceived inattentiveness of drivers.
The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described one of the fatal flaws of centralized planning as the “knowledge problem,” whereby the planner could never have as much information as the sum of each actor on the ground. Even an engineer with all the real-time data that Kartik Patel had at his fingertips on the night of the 2006 Academy Awards is information impoverished compared to the pedestrians and drivers who encounter each other at an intersection. A standard unsignaled roundabout can move traffic up to 65 percent faster than a stoplighted intersection because drivers do not waste time idling at the light, waiting for the computers to grant them permission to move. In shared-space designs, traffic is always flowing, even if at cautious speeds, as people negotiate their way among themselves, using eye contact and hand signals to accomplish any needed coordination.
The English town of Poynton recently provided one of the most successful demonstrations of this principle. With a population of just 13,000, Poynton was bisected by a busy road that transported 26,000 cars a day on their way to and from London. The intersection in the heart of the town was heavily engineered with conventional lights, signals, signs, and markings in an effort to coordinate the dense traffic. Yet the area surrounding the intersection was dying, as fully 16 of 32 nearby business locations closed. Poynton commissioned urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baille to turn the intersection into a shared space, where cars were guided around subtly suggested roundabouts and pedestrians were free to cross. The returns to the town of Poynton were felt immediately, and today 15 of those 16 storefronts are now occupied and open for business. Despite the high traffic volumes, car speeds dropped and accidents fell, yet congestion did not increase because vehicles were able to continue moving at a constant, if slower, pace.
By contrast, Tom Vanderbilt describes Los Angeles as “essentially a noncooperative network,” and says, “What traffic engineers do is to try to simulate, through technology and signs and laws, a cooperative system.” “Shared space” allows for a Hayekian solution to a century of problems arising from centralized traffic planning.
The planning enthusiasm of the 1960s that produced urban renewal and the Great Society also introduced the concept of “forgiving highways.” Understanding that some accidents may be inevitable, safety engineers in the United States and elsewhere designed enormous buffer zones to reduce the severity of the consequences of running off the road. They built highways to anticipate the dumb driver and protect him from himself. Monderman did not mind that. But what irked him was when the forgiving highways treatment was extended into town—as it was in the U.S. to an extreme degree.
The very features that make a street feel safe to drive down—wide, straight lanes with comfortable run-off zones—encourage drivers to speed up and zone out, raising the risk of accidents due to a phenomenon called the “risk compensation effect.” As the famed Dutch engineer Joost Vahl once said, and Monderman eagerly repeated, “to make a street safe, you must first make it dangerous.” To demonstrate to visitors the safety brought about by his dangerous streets, Monderman was fond of walking into his redesigned intersections, backwards, with his eyes closed, allowing his visitor to observe the alert, civil drivers negotiating their paths around him.
Monderman drew a distinction between the traffic world and the social world. The traffic world is the domain of the car, where people should speed along quickly and comfortably and unexpected surprises are best kept to a minimum. The social world, on the other hand, is the world of places, of people, where a driver is not expected to speed up and tune out but rather must negotiate his way through a place in conversation with both his environment and his fellow citizens.
This distinction is what separated Monderman from the rest of his profession, according to Ben Hamilton-Baille, the current standard bearer of the shared-space movement since Monderman’s death in 2008. Monderman was engaged in place-making more than traffic engineering, and Hamilton-Baille observes that in place-making there must be a clear conversation between the street and the buildings. The history of a place, the sorts of people that come out of its shops, whether a particular street is lined with retail stores or restaurants, all of these factors should be reflected in the street, and each street must be customized in accordance with its place.
This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.
Hamilton-Baille notes that American roads and suburbs present particular challenges for efforts to share space, as most of them were built after the advent of the automobile age and thus have few historical or structural signifiers of place to begin with. The development of more humane traffic patterns in America is therefore a project requiring good buildings as well as good streets, so that both can participate in the conversation of place. Here the shared space movement intersects with the work of other urban-design reformers: just as Hans Monderman sought to make village streets more “village-like,” so the New Urbanist movement, for example, has spent the past 20 years pursuing the reintegration of American neighborhoods into the traditional models of development that preceded the great planning boom of the 20th century.
“In the face of the countless technological and social disruptions accompanying mature industrialism,” Peter Norton writes, “Progressives substituted expert control for imperiled traditional or natural restraints.” The seeming collapse of the traditional street’s safety under the pressure of the automobile empowered traffic engineers in much the same way as the dissolution of traditional social safety nets rationalized the creation of the welfare state. A century later, however, conservatives have brought nearly every other component of the planning culture under scrutiny, as they press to reform and devolve our institutions to accommodate greater individual responsibility and restore traditional communities. Our streets and built environment are no less in need of such attention and reform. Hans Monderman and the shared space movement suggest the way—without making us wait for the planners’ lights to change.
Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.