A world without signs

Sign of things to come? This concept seems downright un-American, so it is probably a good thing it is not being attempted in America:

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.

Here is an interesting perspective on why the concept is even being considered:

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”


It may sound like chaos, but it’s only the lesson drawn from one of the insights of traffic psychology: Drivers will force the accelerator down ruthlessly only in situations where everything has been fully regulated. Where the situation is unclear, they’re forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.

Indeed, “Unsafe is safe” was the motto of a conference where proponents of the new roadside philosophy met in Frankfurt in mid-October.

Yes, I agree that too many senseless rules desensitizes people. Not sure that translates into a complete absence of any signs at all. After all, you have to marvel at some of the irony buried in the story:

A sign by the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads “Verkeersbordvrij” — “free of traffic signs.”

Personally, I noticed a big difference between European airport security officials who quietly shuffled everyone through security and American TSA employees yelling out mind-numbing orders like “People, you must remove your coats! Take off your shoes!” And my personal favorite: “Open your passport to the correct page!” Although the lines were more disorganized in Europe, they actually seemed to flow more steadily.

Perhaps Europe is coming to a “surrealist” movement, while the US lags behind in the age of rationalism and industrial security.

Like those involved in Dada, adherents of Surrealism thought that the horrors of World War I were the culmination of the Industrial Revolution and the result of the rational mind. Consequently, irrational thought and dream-states were seen as the natural antidote to those social problems.

Will a Dali of risk soon emerge? I can just imagine: “We no longer use stop signs, but instead try to find ways to harness subconsious abilities to manage change and conflict…” How will insurance companies cope with determining fault? What about the camera-ticket systems used to flag violations — what will the industry do?

“More than half of our signs have already been scrapped,” says traffic planner [in the town of Drachten in the Netherlands] Koop Kerkstra. “Only two out of our original 18 traffic light crossings are left, and we’ve converted them to roundabouts.” Now traffic is regulated by only two rules in Drachten: “Yield to the right” and “Get in someone’s way and you’ll be towed.”

Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically.

Total number, or ratio of accidents to overall traffic? Maybe the number declined because people would rather drive somewhere else now?

Edited to add (24 Nov 2006): The BBC says that London is about to have a go at safety without signs:

Planners are now planning to strip out the safety barriers, kerb stones and traffic lights which keep pedestrians and drivers separate. Shared space, they say, will actually make the area safer – because drivers will have to make eye contact with pedestrians before proceeding.

As a former bicycle-commuter in London, I can say it takes a lot more than eye-contact to determine a driver’s intentions. In fact, this reminds me of all the cabbies who seemed to have a secret desire to take out cyclists by faking a direction and then heading another way. Can you imagine a “no-sunglasses” rule, or importing poker rules to the roadway. That seems rediculous today, but if you have to rely on body-language to be safe…

It used to take nerves of steel, lightning-fast reactions, and top-shape equipment (brakes, gears, tires) to minimize the risk of a ride through downtown London. In other words, I loved every minute, and despite all the miles I never had an accident. My only regret is that I did not know the severe health risk of the air quality on a cyclist’s lungs and there was nothing personally I could have done to reduce the risk, even had I known.

2 thoughts on “A world without signs”

  1. PurpleSlog,

    But would you could say the same about teachers in the classroom? They are generally working cross-purpose to the “society” of children, no?

    Can’t tell if you would get rid of all the signs or let everyone put their own signs up as they saw fit…and would you define a town ordinance as central planning, or just a county, or state, or federal…

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