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human interaction and traffic lights

There is a short video clip of an intersection in Groningen* where bicycles from all four directions cross at the same time. Some people see it and conclude: you don’t need traffic lights. I think it a misunderstanding that in traffic technology negatively interferes with human interaction; the bike itself belongs to ‘technology’.

‘Anarchism in the streets’ or something to that extent was a headline in a Vancouver bike-advocacy periodical when I was living there. The editor had just read about ‘Shared space’ and the roundabout in Drachten where all traffic signs had been removed, with the stupendous result that there had been no accidents anymore. But ‘hold your horses’, a rule based social activity does not lend itself to anarchism; just removing all signs and traffic lights and letting people coordinate on the fly is maybe not in itself leading to safer traffic and happier participants.

All human activity follows some pattern, order, or rule. When we love someone, we do those things that are lovable, and refrain from those things that are part of the game ‘hatred’. Playing chess follows different rules than checkers and one cannot mix these rules – the rules constitute the game. Human interaction, social behaviour, follows conventions that make our ‘commerce’ easy and pleasant.

Participating in traffic is a social activity and belongs to our commerce. As long as we were walking, or at most running, traffic was calm and a low risk activity. But then we started riding horses and using coaches, increasing the speed with which we moved around. The need for some basic rules came up: what to do when two horse riders go in opposite directions? Riding on the left in order to give the upcoming rider ‘the right of way’, was the solution.

With the more intensive use by horses and coaches in cities, the streets also became dangerous places. Then the streetcar pulled by horses appeared on the streets, followed by the electric streetcar, bicycles, cars, motor bikes, mopeds, carrier cycles with or without motor, e-bikes, scooters, you name it. All these devices are meant for speed and will be a danger to the humans who move ‘naturally’, i.e. completely unaided by a device. The danger in traffic did not first come with the car; the car did cause ‘danger’ to become the paramount reality of the street (see Het recht van de snelste). All kinds of rules and signs were made and posted along the road or painted on the road, different road designs developed in order to mitigate the violent, often deadly, ‘meetings’ between traffic participants.

One day, someone looked at a roundabout in Drachten. A roundabout is thought to be safer than a normal crossing because it slows down traffic and has clearer flow of traffic. But at this roundabout, there were too many serious accidents. Maybe there are too many rules, one engineer (Hans Monderman) hypothesized. So they removed all the signs, merged all the lanes for pedestrians, bikes and cars into one continuous pavement, and let people negotiate their way across the square. And no accidents happened on that spot anymore. The idea of ‘shared space’ was born: make the situation fuzzy, and people will be much more careful.

Anarchism? No. Panacea? Neither. What I understand from ‘shared space’ is that it starts with a precise analysis of which behaviour we want from participants in traffic. The character of space is defined somewhere between ‘traffic’ and ‘public’. ‘Traffic’ is about speedy transport from A to B; public is when people just sojourn in the space, open to ‘commerce’ (‘public’ thus much in the way as I define it in the essays “Naar de Stad”).

The roundabout in Drachten showed that the concept does work. There are situations where an overload of rules makes the situation worse. But just making a diffuse road design and declaring it ‘shared space’ does not work, as this story from Meppel tells (sorry, it is in Dutch). The video with which we started is also a bad example of a hybrid situation: bike lanes that all get a green light while other traffic waits. All bikes are thus showing ‘traffic’ behaviour – over the left shoulder of the person who films this, bikes are coming down high speed from a bridge – and often have to fight instead of interact to negotiate the crossing. The 30 or 40 seconds of green restores a jungle where the ‘right of the fastest’ is re-established among cyclists.

‘Shared space’ is not ‘anarchy’ or removing traffic signs, but knowing exactly what kind of behaviour one wants in a specific space, and then designing that space accordingly: “The space itself must carry a message that can only be read one way. A space that encourages part of the users to display technical/legal traffic behaviour, but encourages another part to consider the space as a social residential space is asking for trouble.” (Shared Space, Fryslân Province, June 2005, p 14; no internet resource available). Contrary to what people might hold, ‘shared space’ is highly engineered space with strong nudges to mold human behaviour. It wants to restore the public behaviour that was normal in pre-modern times, but now with the presence of all kinds of mechanical devices for transportation that are intrinsically meant for ‘traffic behaviour’ and not for ‘public behaviour’. And that is the key question: how to behave socially with devices that are made for speed. The bicycle is part of this problem, on the side of all technology that aims at ‘speed’.


* Stationsweg/Hereweg (addition 22 April 2021)

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