"Controlled Chaos" - Europeans Eliminate Traffic Signs

Heidi Perry, chair of Carrboro's Transportation Advisory Board, sent us this link to an article on a new trend in traffic "management" in Europe.

Seven European cities and regions are doing away with traffic signs, "dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren -- by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs....

"They demand streets like those during the Middle Ages, when horse-drawn chariots, handcarts and people scurried about in a completely unregulated fashion. The new model's proponents envision today's drivers and pedestrians blending into a colorful and peaceful traffic stream.

"It may sound like chaos, but it's only the lesson drawn from one of the insights of traffic psychology: Drivers will force the accelerator down ruthlessly only in situations where everything has been fully regulated. Where the situation is unclear, they're forced to drive more carefully and cautiously."

Sound crazy? Follow the link to read the plans of the towns of Bohmte (Germany) and Drachten (Netherlands).

Any thoughts on where (or if) this could be applied locally? The short block of E. Weaver Street comes to mind.


On a related note, someone suggested to me last night that the reason that cyclists in Amsterdam (which are legion) don't wear helmets is that they feel it would encourage cars to drive less carefully. Interesting reverse safety psychology...

I just discovered that Chapel Hill Council member Sally Greene wrote about this same trend on Monday. (Too bad I can't get her to blog here as well!) http://greenespace.blogspot.com/2006/11/test-of-trust.html

This concept of ambiguous and integrated traffic hit the mainstream press about a year and a half ago. I've compiled several newspaper articles into a pdf for anyone who requests it.

But on a lesser scale, the positive benefits of ambiguity have been known to cyclists for decades, and forms the basis for just one rationale (others being preservation of bicyclist's rights and clean pavement) for the use of wide lanes rather than bike lanes. Same space, no bike lane line.

The bicyclist in the wide lane choses his appropriate lateral position (rather than it being chosen by the bike lane), is an equal user of the road, induces caution in passing motorists, and has clean pavement (rather than a debris filled space). Of course, the purpose of a wide lane is to allow motorists to pass easier; they just do it more cautiously than if the lane is partitioned into "motor vehicle lane" and "bike lane."

The lowest order of road is the residential street with no striping, which induces caution and low speed. Progressively higher order streets intended to facilitate faster traffic add a centerline, then edgelines, and finally paved shoulders of increasing width. This is standard engineering practice. A bike lane is little more than a named shoulder.

If you want to enable faster motor traffic in the presence of bicyclists, sequester the bicyclists in a bike lane, aka bike reservation.

Regarding helmet use, many bicyclists, including me, report that motorists use more caution when the bicyclist is not wearing one. Bicyclists use more caution too when bare headed; helmets result in risk compensation. Whether these effects outweigh the benefits of helmet use is a topic for hot debate.


I posted the story without comment because I don't know what I think. Drivers do seem especially kind to each other when a traffic light goes out. On the other hand, if that were the norm I am not so sure. For kind of the flip side of what drivers will try to get away with, see this video of bus lane-only traffic in Manchester, England.

Where will liability lie for accidents caused by misunderstood "nods of the head and eye contact"?

A friend's comment when I mentioned this was "won't work here - too many type-A drivers in America". But is the type-A driving maybe a product of our over-regulation? Few countries rely on traffic lights for intersection management to the extent that the US does, and there's no question they lead to a certain driving style. Sally commented on the courtesy produced by outages: it seems to me that mostly the intersections also flow better too. Lights are often the fix of first resort for any kind of intersection problem, whether it's safety or congestion, but they're seldom the best choice. Among the many counts against them:

Speeding. A few milliseconds makes a difference of minutes at a slow light, so drivers race to and through the intersection.
Impatient behaviour. Many lights allow only a few vehicles through on a cycle. Woe to you if you're slow off the gridiron.
Environmental problems. Stoplights are inherently inefficient and engineers add stacking lanes to compensate, eating up valuable urban space and adding runoff. Idling engines pollute the air.
Peril for pedestrians. Crossing those muliple lanes adds needless risk.
Racing. Those multiple lanes again - lining up the hotrodders up for the start flag, jockeying for pole position on the next light.

Less regulation can indeed be better. Let's start by losing the lights.

I assume y'all've actually driven or ridden around in cities like those mentioned with less regulation, or somewhere like Rome or Marrakesh where everyone just ignores the lines and signs anyway?

And considering in 2002, we had the second highest pedestrian death rate in NC (according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project and available at transact.org) and rated as the 8th most dangerous area for child pedestrians by Safe Kids Worldwide, maybe we shouldn't be jumping on the deregulation bandwagon...

"considering in 2002, we had the second highest pedestrian death rate in NC ... and rated as the 8th most dangerous area for child pedestrians by Safe Kids Worldwide, maybe we shouldn't be jumping on the deregulation bandwagon…"

What was that phrase about repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results?

I don't know. I had my first car accident (thankfully minor) at a T-intersection, with a one-way stop. I was turning left, and there was a parked van blocking my sight. Of course, some impatient person behind me kept honking, so I crept out and turned ... right into an oncoming car. :P About 3 years later, they replaced the one-way stop with a light. I think it's good.

And I won't even try to count how many times I've been driving up my street (without center lines) and found someone driving toward me 2/3 over on my side. They put in 5 stop signs in a mile to reduce speeding, but most people slow down at the signs but don't stop. (They're infinitely better than the speed bumps that were counterproposed, however.)

According to engineering guidelines, stop signs are not to be used to reduce speeding. The inappropriate use of any sign or signal results in that traffic control device being abused. There are a myriad of inappropriate stop signs all over these towns, and they contribute to overall driver frustration. There a ridiculous lights too, like the one at Performance Bicycle stopping free flowing traffic around the curve heading toward CH.

The reason the driver on a non-center line road will drive toward the center is because he can, and it gives an advantage. This provides buffer from the side of the road and better sight lines, and gives optimal maneuvering space. When opposing vehicles meet they carefully pass each other. The lack of a centerline has induced caution.

The reason we drive on the right side of the road but the steering wheel is on the left side of the vehicle is so that the driver is as far as possible from the edge of the road so he has better sight lines. All countries have adopted the convention of placing the driver nearer the center of the road.


Wayne, except for some delivery vehicles. I had to drive a truck for the Postal Service while in college. the driver was on the right to be able to put the mail in the boxes. Boy, that took a lot of getting used to.

Our road is certainly wide enough for two cars to pass each other without slowing down or being overly cautious. There's definitely not induced caution on this street, let me assure you. Because I've had so many run-ins with people driving on my side of the road, I hug the shoulder. Our road curves a lot (Beckett's Ridge Rd in Hillsborough), and people exceed the 25 mph speed limit by a lot, and in my little MINI Cooper, I'm at a decided disadvantage vs an SUV coming at 40 mph around a curve in my lane.

I hate the stop signs. I'd hate speed bumps even more. Our HOA is all about making people feel better without actually fixing problems.

Mark Chilton,

Put my second post back up, or be consistent and take down every post from everyone who did not write about the alleged topic.


Sorry. My 12/7 post should have been in the "Carrboro family loses son in Iraq" thread.


I just remembered this thread while writing something else, so I thought I'd offer this:

When I was living in New Orleans this past year, from about January through March most stoplights were out of service outside the center of town. And, because of the flooding, many street signs had been thrown down, twisted, or removed altogether. The end result was a town full of intersection where there was no traffic guidance. As a result, drivers (I was one of them) got into the habit of treating every intersection as either a four-way or a two-way stop (at the main avenues). Because there weren't lights or, in a lot of cases, stop signs, it was in your own interest to slow down at intersections and be more-than-usually aware of what was happening around you -- in adjacent lanes, and intersecting lanes.

I wouldn't be mentioning this if it weren't my observation that nearly every driver I encountered very quickly learned this style of driving. I never, not once, saw a traffic accident. I'm certain there were some, but I'd venture that if you were to ask New Orleanians who were driving through the city in that early period, they would tell you that they were able to get around the city pretty well. And I had numerous conversations with people who said that the habit of stopping at intersections, marked or not, engendered a feeling of goodwill -- that it made them feel pretty good about their community when others voluntarily stopped and cooperated with each other so that everyone could proceed safely. Like everyone was in it together.

My two cents.


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