Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pique of the week: Road signs

The two-lane country road that links my Oregon town to the nearest freeway is lined with 73 traffic signs over its 10-mile length. Some of the signs are clearly indispensable, including such standbys as Stop, Entering School Zone, several speed-limit signs and a few directional signs. But most of the signs are so obvious and redundant as to be worthless. Is it really necessary, for example, to have No Passing signs when there's already a double yellow line clearly painted on the pavement? By my reckoning (and I'm admittedly not a traffic engineer), at least two-thirds of those 73 signs could be removed without endangering or even confusing anyone.

The result of all the unneeded road signs is visual clutter that is distracting, ugly and, quite possibly, unsafe. The safety concerns have been reinforced by a "Shared Space" study that was recently conducted across the Atlantic:
"The experiment, funded by the European Union, began in 2004 in seven villages, towns and municipalities in Denmark, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. One Dutch town, admittedly tiny with a population of 1,000, has not only taken down stop signs and directional signs but has yanked its parking meters and scraped off the lines on its streets.

"While the experiment has generally been tried in areas of smaller populations, the city of London conducted a similar experiment on one of its most crowded shopping streets - and saw a 40 percent reduction in accidents. In response, the city next will yank out traffic signals on a main street in its busy museum district."

Traffic signals work best, it seems, when they're separated by at least a quarter mile--a principle often violated in U.S. towns and cities.

The Shared Space innovations have attracted considerable attention around the world. Maybe similar experiments could be conducted here, although we have a long history of government paternalism in regulating our highways. In brief, transportation planners assume that drivers in the U.S. are complete dolts. The Shared Space designers took a different approach:

"The theory behind the philosophy: Drivers will speed, run yellow lights and generally drive like idiots when they think they are protected from the consequences of their actions because they assume other drivers will follow the rules.

"Throwing in a little anarchy sharpens drivers' senses, say advocates of the Shared Space philosophy.

"Or, as the German magazine Spiegel put it in a story on the experiment: 'Where the situation is unclear, they're forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.'"

The goal of the Shared Space experiment is paradoxical:
"The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down.

"'Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,' said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte [Germany]. 'When they're confused, they'll be more alert and drive more carefully.'"

The benefits of the Shared Space approach may extend beyond the streets and highways:
"There is another underlying assumption to Shared Space: Without signs and signals telling motorists what to do, they will revert to the courtesy and good manners they show in other parts of their life. That means watching and adapting to the movements of other drivers and peering into the eyes of pedestrians and bicyclists to reach some unspoken accommodation with others on the road."
It's easy to imagine nightmare scenarios in the U.S. involving drivers on cellphones without traffic signs to guide or inhibit them. But the experiment hasn't produced mayhem in Europe. Quite the contrary: accident rates have fallen dramatically in most locations.

So and it may be worth a try here. To date only West Palm Beach, Florida, has undertaken a similar approach to traffic signs.

In many communities across the U.S., on the other hand, New Urbanist designs (like "skinny streets") have successfully achieved traffic calming in neighborhoods and reduced the aesthetic impacts of an autocentric culture. But traffic engineers, by and large, remain convinced that the principal goal of a street or highway is to move vehicles as efficiently as possible from point A to point B.

The local 10-mile freeway connection was upgraded a couple years ago by the addition of two roundabouts at a couple dangerous intersections. The traffic flow has slowed considerably, reducing accidents and making them less harmful when they do occur.

But the number of road signs, alas, hasn't changed. They're just a small part, easily overlooked, of the aesthetic nightmare that the built landscape of the U.S. has become.

PHOTO: Traffic-light sculpture in the U.K.

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