The End of Traffic Control is Nearer Than You Think...
Road design? He calls it a revolution
By Sarah Lyall The New York Times
Saturday, January 22, 2005
DRACHTEN, Netherlands "I want to take you on a walk," said Hans Monderman,
abruptly stopping his car and striding - hatless, and nearly hairless - into
the freezing rain.
Like a naturalist conducting a tour of the jungle, he led the way to a busy
intersection in the center of town, where several odd things immediately
became clear. Not only was it virtually naked, stripped of all lights, signs
and road markings, but there was no division between road and sidewalk. It
was, basically, a bare brick square.
But in spite of the apparently anarchical layout, the traffic, a steady
stream of trucks, cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, moved
along fluidly and easily, as if directed by an invisible conductor. When
Monderman, a traffic engineer and the intersection's proud designer,
deliberately failed to check for oncoming traffic before crossing the
street, the drivers slowed for him. No one honked or shouted rude words out
"Who has the right of way?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't care. People
here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own
Used by some 20,000 drivers a day, the intersection is part of a road-design
revolution pioneered by the 59-year-old Monderman. His work in Friesland,
the district in northern Holland that takes in Drachten, is increasingly
seen as the way of the future in Europe.
Variations on the shared-space theme are being tried in Spain, Denmark,
Austria, Sweden and Britain. The European Union has appointed a committee of
experts, including Monderman, for a Europe-wide study.
His philosophy is simple, if counterintuitive. To make communities safer and
more appealing, Monderman argues, you should first remove the traditional
paraphernalia of their roads.
That means the traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers
to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from each
other; even the speed bumps, speed-limit signs, bicycle lanes and pedestrian
crossings. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous,
when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that
driving becomes safer.
"All those signs are saying to cars, 'This is your space, and we have
organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can
happen to you,"' said Monderman. "That is the wrong story."
The Drachten intersection is an example of the concept of "shared space," a
street where cars and pedestrians are equal, and the design tells the driver
what to do.
"It's a moving away from regulated, legislated traffic toward space which,
by the way it's designed and configured, makes it clear what sort of
behavior is anticipated," said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British specialist in
urban design and movement, and a proponent of many of the same concepts.
Highways - where the car is naturally king - are part of the "traffic world"
and another matter altogether. In Monderman's view, shared-space plans
thrive only in conjunction with well-organized, well-regulated highway
Monderman is a man on a mission. On a daylong automotive tour of Friesland,
he pointed out places he had improved, including a town where he ripped out
the sidewalks, signs and crossings and put in brick paving on the central
shopping street. An elderly woman crossed slowly in front of him.
"This is social space, so when Grandma is coming, you stop, because that's
what normal, courteous human beings do," he said.
Planners and curious journalists are increasingly making pilgrimages to meet
Monderman, considered one of the field's great innovators, although until a
few years ago he was virtually unknown outside of Holland. Hamilton-Baillie,
whose writings have helped bring Monderman's work to wider attention,
remembers with fondness his own first visit.
Monderman drove him to a small country road with cows in every direction.
Their presence was unnecessarily reinforced by a large, standard-issue
European traffic sign with a picture of a cow on it.
"He said, 'What do you expect to find here? Wallabees?"' Hamilton-Baillie
recalled. "'They're treating you like you're a complete idiot, and if people
treat you like a complete idiot, you'll act like one.'
"Here was someone who had rethought a lot of issues from complete scratch,"
"Essentially, what it means is a transfer of power and responsibility from
the state to the individual and the community."
Dressed in a beige jacket and patterned shirt, with scruffy facial hair and
a stocky build, Monderman has the appearance of a soccer hooligan but the
temperament of an engineer, which indeed he trained to be. His father was
the headmaster of the primary school in their small village; Hans liked to
fiddle with machines. "I was always the guy who repaired the TV sets in our
village," he said.
He was working as a civil engineer building highways in the 1970s when the
Dutch government, alarmed at a sharp increase in traffic accidents, set up a
network of traffic-safety offices. Monderman was appointed Friesland's
traffic safety officer.
In residential communities, Monderman began narrowing the roads and putting
in design features like trees and flowers, red brick paving stones and even
fountains to discourage people from speeding, following the principle now
known as pyschological traffic calming, where behavior follows design.
He made his first nervous foray into shared space in a small village whose
residents were upset at its being used as a daily thoroughfare for 6,000
speeding cars. When he took away the signs, lights and sidewalks, people
drove more carefully. Within two weeks, speeds on the road had dropped by
more than half.
In fact, he said, there has never been a fatal accident on any of his roads.
Several early studies bear out his contention that shared spaces are safer.
In England, the district of Wiltshire found that removing the center line
from a stretch of road reduced drivers' speed without any increase in
While something of a libertarian, Monderman concedes that road design can do
only so much. It doesn't change the behavior, for instance, of the 15
percent of drivers who will behave badly no matter what the rules are.
Nor are shared-space designs appropriate everywhere, like in major urban
centers, but only in neighborhoods that meet particular criteria. Recently,
a group of well-to-do parents asked him to widen the two-lane road leading
to their children's school, saying it was too small to accommodate what he
derisively calls "their huge cars."
He refused, saying that the fault lay not with the road, but with the cars.
"They can't wait for each other to pass?" he asked. "I wouldn't interfere
with the right of people to buy the car they want, but nor should the
government have to solve the problems they make with their choices."
Monderman's obsessions can cause friction at home. His wife hates talking
about road design. But work is his passion and his focus for as many as 70
hours a week, despite quixotic promises to curtail his projects and stay
home on Fridays.
The current plan, instigated by Mrs. Monderman, is for him to retire in a
few years. But it is unclear what a man who begins climbing the walls after
three days at the beach ("If you want to go to a place without any cultural
aspect, go to the Grand Canaries," he grumbled) will do with all that free
"The most important thing is being master of my own time, and then doing
things that we both enjoy," he said. "What are they? I don't know."
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