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Radical Experiment: Get Rid of Stop Signs and Traffic Lights


I thought this article by Linda Baker from Salon www.salon.com and specifically http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/05/20/traffic_design/index.html (subscription required) was fascinating and worth reading... maybe worth subscribing to Salon just to read it?

It fits nicely with this week's Village Building Convergence here in Portland: http://www.cityrepair.org/vbc/

In case you don't subscribe, I take the liberty of quoting from the opening paragraphs here to give you a flavor.

"May 20, 2004 | It's rush hour, and I am standing at the corner of Zhuhui and Renmin Road, a four-lane intersection in Suzhou, China. Ignoring the red light, a couple of taxis and a dozen bicycles are headed straight for a huge mass of cyclists, cars, pedicabs and mopeds that are turning left in front of me. Cringing, I anticipate a collision. Like a flock of migrating birds, however, the mass changes formation. A space opens up, the taxis and bicycles move in, and hundreds of commuters continue down the street, unperturbed and fatality free.

"In Suzhou, the traffic rules are simple. "There are no rules," as one local told me. A city of 2.2 million people, Suzhou has 500,000 cars and 900,000 bicycles, not to mention hundreds of pedicabs, mopeds and assorted, quainter forms of transportation. Drivers of all modes pay little attention to the few traffic signals and weave wildly from one side of the street to another. Defying survival instincts, pedestrians have to barge between oncoming cars to cross the roads.

"But here's the catch: During the 10 days I spent in Suzhou last fall, I didn't see a single accident. Really, not a single one. Nor was there any of the road rage one might expect given the anarchy that passes for traffic policy. And despite the obvious advantages that accrue to cars because of their size, no single transportation mode dominates the streets. On the contrary, the urban arterials are a communal mix of automobiles, cyclists, pedestrians, and small businesses such as inner-tube repairmen that set up shop directly in the right-of-way.

"As the mother of two young children and an alternative-transportation advocate, I've spent the past decade supporting the installation of ever more traffic controls: crosswalks, traffic signals, speed bumps, and speed limit signs in school zones. But I'd only been in Suzhou a few days before I started thinking that maybe there's a method to the city's traffic madness -- a logic that has nothing to do with the system of prohibition and segregation that governs transportation policy in the United States.

"As it turns out, I'm far from the first person to think along these lines. In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It's called "second generation" traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and -- of all subjects -- evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it's a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty. In practice, it's about dismantling barriers: between the road and the sidewalk, between cars, pedestrians and cyclists and, most controversially, between moving vehicles and children at play.

"For the past 50 years, the American approach to traffic safety has been dominated by the "triple E" paradigm: engineering, enforcement and education. And yet, the idea of the street as a flexible community space is a provocative one in the United States, precisely because other "traditional" modes of transportation -- light rail, streetcars and bicycles -- are making a comeback in cities across the country. The shared-street concept is also intriguing for the way it challenges one of the fundamental tenets of American urban planning: that to create safe communities, you have to control them.

"One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you," says U.K. traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaking from his home in Bristol. "The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos," he says. "Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive."


The article continues on for two more online pages, and it is eye opening. I hope this quotation qualifies as a "brief quote for purposes of review and commentary." It is not my intention to infringe on Salon copyrights but to share and comment on an interesting idea. It's a a great online journal, worth subscribing to.

Here in Portland it is the week of the Village Buidling Convergence, http://www.cityrepair.org/vbc/ but no one has reclaimed a street to the extent discussed in this article.
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I noticed the same thing while living in South America for a few years. And in addition to the aforementioned items, there were rarely any posted speed limits. I think the chaos causes people to drive much more defensively, and consequently, much more safely.