German Town's Traffic Plan: Remove Signs, Curbs

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A street in Bohmte, Germany i

The German town of Bohmte is trying a radical new approach to traffic management: tear down the street curbs and get rid of the signs. City officials hope that this will make people drive slower. Khuê Pham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khuê Pham for NPR
A street in Bohmte, Germany

The German town of Bohmte is trying a radical new approach to traffic management: tear down the street curbs and get rid of the signs. City officials hope that this will make people drive slower.

Khuê Pham for NPR
Hotel owner Brigitte Asshorn i

Hotel owner Brigitte Asshorn thinks that the Shared Space project has caused a change in people's awareness. She says drivers are paying more attention to pedestrians now. Khuê Pham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khuê Pham for NPR
Hotel owner Brigitte Asshorn

Hotel owner Brigitte Asshorn thinks that the Shared Space project has caused a change in people's awareness. She says drivers are paying more attention to pedestrians now.

Khuê Pham for NPR
Police officer Peter Hilbricht i

Police officer Peter Hilbricht supports the project even though he thinks it's a big challenge to Germans. "In Germany, everything is regulated," he says, "and suddenly we have a little town that takes all of its traffic signs down." Khuê Pham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khuê Pham for NPR
Police officer Peter Hilbricht

Police officer Peter Hilbricht supports the project even though he thinks it's a big challenge to Germans. "In Germany, everything is regulated," he says, "and suddenly we have a little town that takes all of its traffic signs down."

Khuê Pham for NPR

Bohmte, a small town in Germany, is implementing an unusual plan to decrease its traffic accident rate: Take a busy main street and strip it of road signs, curbs, sidewalks and stop lights — then mix up the cars and trucks with pedestrians and bicyclists.

Many drivers on the town's main street have spent time fighting for space among the 12,000 cars and big trucks that once rumbled along the narrow lane on an average day.

Uwe Muther, who stocks vending machines and spends a lot of time in his delivery van, was one of them.

Muther says the driving was bad, especially because all the trucks would come right through the center of town. If you wanted to cross the street, you had to stand there and wait for five or 10 minutes, so something had to be done, he adds.

Along one stretch of the town's main thoroughfare, the curbs have been removed and the asphalt and sidewalks replaced by one continuous red pavement. There's hardly a street sign in sight. As Muther's van approaches this section, he slows down.

He says the kind of pavement here and the lack of street signs mean everybody has to be considerate of everyone else. It's about cooperation on the streets, and Muther thinks it makes sense.

It seems counterintuitive to give drivers less information, by taking away street signs, stop lights and lane markings, to make them drive more safely. It's supposed to help reclaim the streets for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocates of this traffic-management philosophy, called Shared Space, say it works. Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a leading Shared Space advocate based in Bristol, England.

"If you're faced with a traffic signal, you don't have to think anymore. Whether you go depends on whether the light is red or green," he says. "In the absence of such things, we're perfectly capable of reading and understanding the situation so that if grandma's in the road ahead of you, you don't run her over."

He compares the Shared Space concept to an ice skating rink. It might look chaotic, but people usually navigate the shared area pretty well. In a traffic context, it means cars, bicyclists and pedestrians are in much closer proximity than they usually are.

But common sense and courtesy, as well as drivers feeling more a part of the space they're moving through, is supposed to cut down on accidents.

Brigitte Asshorn owns a hotel and restaurant on a road that is being turned into more Shared Space. The street in front of her business has already been redone.

Asshorn says that since this part was finished, she's had drivers actually stop, smile at her and signal for her to cross the street, without a marked pedestrian crossing or a light. She thinks it has caused a change in people's awareness.

The shared streets are not meant to replace every road, but reworking downtown thoroughfares has already succeeded in the Dutch town of Drachten. That Shared Space municipality got rid of almost all its stop lights a few years year ago. Most street signs are gone, and big intersections have traffic circles. Accidents have fallen by 50 percent since the program started, city officials say.

But in Bohmte, some worry the roads will become more dangerous. Others, like Nadia Keer, worry about the cost.

She says the town needs a lot of things, like programs for young people, and is surprised that it is spending all this money to repave the streets. She also says that tiny Bohmte just wants to put itself on the map.

Police officer Peter Hilbricht says the investment is worth it. Still, he says, in car-loving, rule-loving Germany, sharing the lane with those on two legs or two wheels will take drivers some getting used to.

He explains that in Germany, everything is regulated, and suddenly this little town is losing all of its traffic signs.

He says that to really get that into people's heads it is going to take a while.

Bohmte officials hope it never catches on with some. The town's mayor says as traffic slows and drivers have to be more careful, he hopes big trucks bypass his main street all together.

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