Want to make that intersection safer? Remove all the traffic signals

Ben Hamilton-Baillie presenting on the topic of shared space at the 22nd Congress for the New Urbanism, Buffalo, 2014. (A still taken from the video of his speech on YouTube.)

I‘m a big fan of Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the British urban space designer and traffic engineer who specializes in “reconciling traffic movement with quality public spaces in cities, towns and villages.” I mentioned him a couple of weeks ago in a post about how double-parked delivery trucks are maybe not such a bad thing.

Hamilton-Baillie (I will call him “BHB” for short) is something of a raconteur, which makes watching his speeches worthwhile. I saw him speak at the 22nd Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo two years ago. There he spoke about the notion of “shared space,” which he is a strong proponent of. The idea is to make a street or intersection safer by, counter-intuitively, removing all the street signs and signals.

I know! It sounds crazy! But you can see the results for yourself in this 4-minute clip from his CNU 22 speech:

(full 62-minute video here)

First he addresses what speed is safest in a city environment, where the streets are shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, trucks and cars. If you really want to make the place safe for pedestrians, how fast should wheeled vehicles be going?

The answer: no more than 20 mph. The risk of death to a pedestrian who collides with a car going any speed above that increases dramatically. (I touched on this in the delivery-trucks post, too, but it never hurts to ram these stats home. At a mere 25 mph, the risk of death for a hit pedestrian rises from 5% to 20%. At 40 mph, the risk is 85%.)

He then shows us examples of what you can do when you slow traffic down to 20 mph or slower, by introducing the work of the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman’s philosophy was “unsafe is safe”: signs and signals don’t make streets safe for all users. They simply make it okay for cars to go faster — faster than bikes and walkers, perhaps as fast as the car is capable of going. By removing signals, and any markings or physical separations between cars and pedestrians, car traffic is simply forced to slow down, in a way that no amount of signage could produce. An unsafe-looking environment for cars to go fast is safe for everybody else.

If you’re a Bloomingtonian — heck, if you’re an American — your mouth ought to begin dropping open around 35:53, where BHB shows a video example of Monderman’s design work in Drachten, a small city in the Netherlands. Cars, pedestrians and bicyclists all move slowly but harmoniously through a busy intersection — no signals, no stop signs, no yield signs. If you’ve ever been driving a car and been angry to see a bicyclist blow through a stop sign, maybe that’s because stop signs aren’t just uptight, they’re unnecessary.

I know! It’s crazy! But BHB shows more pictures of streets and intersections where cars and pedestrians coexist with no fuss, often just by colorizing the surface white or brick-red where street space is to be shared by all types of users.

The most astonishing example given of Monderman’s work is in a small Dutch village called Noordlaren, where parents and teachers were worried about how to keep kids safe on a grade-school playground next to a busy road. His solution was to build the playground across the entire road, and make cars drive through it. No School Zone signs, no yellow stripes, no flashing lights. BHB remarked, to laughter from the audience, “Infinitesimally small numbers of people wish to kill children; it’s very encouraging.” This was one of Monderman’s last projects before he died in 2008; this speech was given in 2014. It means this solution was working for at least six years without incident, or BHB wouldn’t have shown it.

You’re saying, Steve, c’mon. This is America. Haven’t you seen Singles? People love their cars!

Deep down, though, you know that this is doable. Don’t you? Sure you do. You’ve done it before. You’ve been driving before when you’ve come to a busy intersection, and for some reason — a storm, a power outage — the signal is out. How does car traffic manage to move through that intersection? Everyone slows down and takes turns going; everyone is watching each other because we have to. No one complains. No one gets road rage — the traffic jam is nobody’s fault. Somehow we all make it work and go on our way. To make such intersections intentionally may require special dispensation from the state, which regulates traffic laws, but look how huge the upside is.

There’s plenty more amazing street designs in the full video. (BHB’s remarks start around the 17-minute mark.) I’m not advocating the immediate removal of signs and signals, of course. Shared space has to be designed well to function appropriately. But “unsafe is safe” works, and it makes every place it touches better. In fact, it is essential to the notion of “placemaking,” the creation of spaces in towns and cities that people actually care about. I’ll be exploring more video snippets from this talk, and of ideas about shared space, in future posts.

If we want our priority to be to move cars, let’s keep building streets as we have been. If we want our priority to be to make a street safest for pedestrians, let’s go ahead and block it off as a pedestrian mall, and kill the commerce on that street for years while people adjust their habits. Neither is a particularly desirable solution.

The surprising moral of this presentation: we don’t need to keep going as we have been, and we don’t need to close a street to cars, or even to separate modes of traffic, to make it both safer and livelier, if we use the techniques of designers like Monderman and Hamilton-Baillie to create truly shared public space.

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