Calming Traffic by Losing the Signs

Traffic engineer Ian Lockwood explains why some European cities have ditched their traffic signs and make the roads "shared space."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We have a modest proposal for you today. To make roads safer, let's make them less safe. We'll remove all the road signs, crosswalks and street markers. No more speed limits, stop signs or red lights, no more green lights, for that matter. We'll remove the curbs and the sidewalks and let pedestrians and cyclists mix right in the streets with the traffic.

This counter-intuitive idea is the brainchild of a traffic designer in the Netherlands, and his ideas are being tested in several European countries and in a few places in this country. Reports say it makes roads safer and more peaceful.

So what do you think? Would taking away the signs make you drive any more carefully or just unleash anarchy and road rage? And if you've tried one of these shared-space areas, call us and tell us how it worked for you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Ian Lockwood is a traffic engineer and partner with Glatting Jackson, a community planning design firm. He joins us today from Vero Beach in Florida, and thanks for taking a break from your Thanksgiving to be with us.

Mr. IAN LOCKWOOD (Traffic Engineer): Oh, it's my pleasure.

CONAN: Now, what we're talking about - really removing all of the traffic signs?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, it sounds kind of scary at first, but in the right circumstances it makes a lot of sense.

CONAN: Really. I know you were the traffic guru - I guess you probably had a fancier title in West Palm Beach, which tried this.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah. We did a few areas in the city, and it worked very well. We had fewer collisions and far less injuries and deaths.

CONAN: But I wonder, the first morning where it went into effect and all the signs were down, did you just close your eyes and hope for the best?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, you just don't take down the signs. There's a lot of things that go into this. There's several ingredients that make these places safe...

CONAN: Like?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Probably the most important thing is doing it in the right places. You can't just do this anywhere because, you know, you'll make things worse, because the speeds are too high. But if the context is right, it really, really helps.

CONAN: Where's a spot, for example, where the context was right?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, normally the contexts are right in the older parts of town, where you've got a good street network, and the buildings are holding the street nicely, where there's lots of pedestrians and cycling, where exchange is the highest, you know, for entertainment and social contact, those types of things.

And those are the kinds of places where you can use a variety of changes to the street to self-enforce the kinds of behaviors you're looking for, you know, by drivers, and people on bikes and pedestrians and so forth can mix in quite easily with the cars.

CONAN: Does it not generate anxiety amongst the drivers, that they're afraid they're going to hit somebody?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: No, I think it's the contrary. There's a combination of things that happen through the textures and materials and landscaping and street furniture, and the drivers are going slowly. This is not something you do on, you know, suburban strips, where you just take out the signs and people are flying around. It requires speeds which allow people to communicate. And people do it quite naturally, and in a lot of places it's already happening.

You often see it in many places, in parking lots, for example, and when festivals are happening. You know, it happens all over the United States already. We just don't recognize it.

CONAN: So there's than informal right-of-way thing where you look at the driver and wave or whatnot?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yes, it's all that sort of thing that happens. And it creates some really vibrant places. Like, for example, West Palm's Main Street. The 100-percent corner is in front of a plaza, and it's all at the same level. There's no curbs, there's just bollards separating, you know, the different spaces. And it's a real success story. Where prostitutes and drug dealers used to hang out, and where there were vacant buildings, now it's a very vibrant, happening place where people go with their families. The signals were removed, the one-way streets gone, the two-way environment - you know, it's just a terrific place.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get a listener in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And Tim is with us. Tim on the line from Virginia Beach.

TIM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tim, go ahead, please.

TIM: I'm calling from Shore Drive in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I happen to live on the deadliest road in the city, and we've been trying to inspire the city to paint crosswalks or do something progressive to make the roads safer, and I've heard of this idea and would love some comments on how we might get him to study our road.

CONAN: Ian Lockwood, what's a good way to get people intrigued in this idea?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, first of all, this doesn't suit every context, but there is different things that you do on different streets. And the key thing, I would suspect, on your street is to get the speed under control and make the street more legible so that drivers know where to expect pedestrians and where they need to slow down. And so there's different degrees of traffic calming.

You know, what a lot of the press has been about with removing signs is sort of the ultimate in traffic calming. And there's various degrees of that that we do on arterial streets and collector streets, you know, which reduce the collision rates by typically 50 percent or more, and injuries and deaths 80, 90 percent reduction. So it really works well in the United States on a lot of these busier roads.

CONAN: And even higher rates for injuries because they're going slower.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah. Look, the property damage and the death and injury rates drop far more than the number of collision. The sorts of things that happen on these streets are just little fender-benders.

CONAN: Is there a Web site or some manifesto that Tim could send his town bosses to?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah. Just look - you can look up our address on the Internet. It's glatting.com, and you can contact us, and we can send you some info.

CONAN: G-L-A-D-D-I-N-G is Gladding.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: G-L-A-T-T...

CONAN: Oh, it's Glatting, Glatting, excuse me.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah, and dot-com.

CONAN: Tim, good luck.

TIM: Is there a possibility we could inspire you to come up and speak at a civic meeting or speak with city officials? Because we've had a number of deaths. Due to the fact that the speed limit is 45, we're the densest section in the entire city...

CONAN: I think you'd better discuss this with him offline, off the air, Tim. So we don't want to get involved in these arrangements here. But thanks very much for the call. We wish you good luck.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And Happy Thanksgiving. We're talking today about a proposal to get rid of traffic signs. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Shared space is the name for a European project that develops new policies for how to plan and use public space, including the streets, as we've been talking about. Ben Hamilton-Baillie is an urban design specialist and a leader in shared-space thinking in Great Britain, and he joins us now from his office in Bristol, England. And thanks for taking the time to be with us today, even though it isn't Thanksgiving there.

Mr. BEN HAMILTON-BAILLIE (Urban Designer): My pleasure.

CONAN: What's the idea behind shared space?

Mr. HAMILTON-BAILLIE: Well, as Ian describes, we're beginning to discover in a number of European countries that you can achieve, integrate traffic and cars into towns and into civic space much better if you don't separate them, but you allow ordinary human factors to govern the decisions that people make. So there are a number of schemes cropping up in a whole number of European countries that, as you've heard, remove traffic signals and signs, road markings, and replace them with a very - much more of an emphasis on the context. So that, for example, a street going past a park or a school or a church or a pub reflects that and becomes part of that activity that it serves.

CONAN: How does a school going past a park reflect the fact that it's going past a park?

Mr. HAMILTON-BAILLIE: Well, typically you might find that the street takes account of typical routes that pedestrians take to cross between a park and a city center, so that rather than being merely a matter of removing signs and markings, shared space is much more about making sure that the streets and public spaces are an integral part of the spaces they serve.

CONAN: All right. Here's a couple of e-mails that we've gotten for an against. The against, from Beth in Springfield, Oregon. No need to experiment. This occurs in every parking lot in America. Yesterday I witnessed two women in a huge SUV swing around and capture a parking space that another little old lady had been waiting patiently for for at least three minutes. Thank God no other pedestrians were in the way when they gunned for the space. I went up to the offender and sweetly asked, Did you know that there was a little old lady who was already waiting for that spot? I was met with a round of curses, but they actually backed out. Justice was done. Moral: Let's not make our streets like our parking lots.

This, though, from Bracey in San Jose. We spent three weeks recently driving through France and love the rotary intersections. No stop signals or signs, you just kept going round and round until you figured out which road you wanted. Rotary centers are all nicely landscaped as well. Everyone keeps to the right on a multi-lane road unless they are passing, and it's very peaceful. However, traffic was much lighter than here in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it probably wouldn't work here. What do you think, Ben Hamilton-Baillie?

Mr. HAMILTON-BAILLIE: Well, there's a number of schemes more recently which have used this approach in really busy streets. In London, there's a street called Kensington High Street, which handles - it's one of the major arterial roads into the center of London, handling about 40,000 vehicles a day. That's very busy, and it's a hugely busy street. And it's achieved a completely different balance by taking out all the pedestrian guardrails and all of the clutter and signs that separated the pedestrian world from the traffic world.

A more impressive scheme is in the Netherlands and Denmark, have taken signals and signs and markings out on junctions handling, you know, really high volumes of traffic, large bus movements and so on, but not only achieved better safety, but most importantly achieving much better flow of traffic.

CONAN: So even though they're driving slower, the traffic goes faster.

Mr. HAMILTON-BAILLIE: That's right.

CONAN: It really is counter-intuitive. Ian Lockwood, I guess what you and other proponents of this are asking us to do is re-think the way we think about traffic. As opposed to thinking of it as like a pipe, a water pipe, if you want more traffic, you make the water pipe bigger.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah, that's exactly right. Our streets used to be like that, you know, years and years ago. They used to be places where pedestrians could walk easily. People would go much slower. The average speed on a street in the United States was four to six miles an hour, because that's how fast your horse walked. But as we sped up our streets and specialized them for cars, we had this sort of fixed-use thinking that came to streets, and they could only be used for cars. And then the cyclists wanted lanes for cycling, and everybody wants their own little piece. And the cars want to go fast.

So all the signs and signals are making up for the inability for us to communicate, because we're going too quickly. And so the opposite thing happens when we start slowing down our streets and simplifying them.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Ian Lockwood, I'm afraid that's all the time we have, but thank you very much for being with us. Happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: You too, my pleasure.

CONAN: Ian Lockwood with us today from Vero Beach in Florida. He's a partner with Glatting Jackson, a community planning firm.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, thank you for your time as well.

Mr. HAMILTON-BAILLIE: My pleasure.

CONAN: Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a design specialist and a proponent of what's called shared space. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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