German Town's Traffic Plan: Remove Signs, Curbs
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But first, here's a bright idea. Take a busy main street, strip it of road signs, curbs, sidewalks and stoplights, then mix up the cars and trucks with pedestrians and bicyclists. Now, sit back and wait for the accident rate to drop. Sound crazy? That's the plan they're working on in Bohmte, a small town in Germany.
Kyle James went slowly and carefully into Bohmte to take a look.
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KYLE JAMES: Uwe Muther knows all about dealing with heavy traffic. He stocks vending machines and spends a lot of time in his delivery van.
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JAMES: On the road, he's used to fighting for space among the 12,000 cars and big trucks that once rumbled along the narrow main street in the little town of Bohmte on an average day.
Mr. UWE MUTHER: (Through translator) I was really bad before, especially because all the trucks would come right through the center of town. Sometimes, if you wandered across the street, you had to stand there and wait for five or 10 minutes. Something had to be done.
JAMES: And something was done. 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.
Mr. MUTHER: (Through translator) The kind of pavement here and the lack of street signs means everybody has to be considerate of everybody else. It's about cooperation on the streets. But I think it make sense.
JAMES: It seems counterintuitive, though, giving drivers less information by taking away street signs, stoplights and lane markings to make them drive more safely. It's supposed to help reclaim the streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. And advocates of his traffic management philosophy called Shared Space say it works.
Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a leading shared space proponent based in Bristol, England.
Mr. BEN HAMILTON-BAILLIE (Designer, Shared Space): If you're faced with a traffic signal, you don't have to think anymore. Whether you go or not depends on whether the light is red or green. Of course, if in the absence of such things, we are perfectly capable of reading and understanding the situation, so that when grandma is in the road in front of you, you don't run her over.
JAMES: He compares the shared space concept to an ice-skating rink - it might look chaotic, but actually 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, are supposed to cut down on accidents.
Back in Bohmte, a team of construction workers is busy turning a road that runs along the side of Brigitte Asshorn's hotel and restaurant into more shared space. The street in front of her business has already been redone.
Ms. BRIGITTE ASSHORN (Hotel Owner, Bohmte, Germany): (Through translator) Since this part was finished, I've had drivers actually stop, smile at me and signal for me to cross the street without a marked pedestrian crossing or a light. I think it's caused a change in people's awareness.
JAMES: These 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 stoplights a few years year ago, most street signs are gone, and big intersections have traffic circles. Since the program started, city officials say accidents have fallen by 50 percent.
But in Bohmte, some worry the roads will become more dangerous. Others, like Nadia Keer, worry about the cost.
Ms. NADIA KEER (Resident, Bohmte, Germany): (Through translator) I think it's a waste of money. This town needs a lot of things like programs for young people and they're spending all these money just to repave some streets. I think this little backwater just wants to put itself on the map.
JAMES: Policeman 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.
Mr. PETER HILBRICHT (Policeman, Bohmte, Germany): (Speaking in foreign language)
JAMES: In Germany, everything is regulated - from the food we eat to how I have to tear my toilet paper, he says. Suddenly, we have a little town losing all of its traffic signs. To really get that into people's heads, he adds, it's going to take awhile.
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JAMES: 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 altogether.
For NPR News, I'm Kyle James.
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