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Vienna | 13.3.2008 | 18:57 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

"Die Stadt Gehört Dir"
  "We have to function like normal human beings," said Hans Monderman, shortly before he sadly died this Christmas of cancer.

It doesn't sound like a very radical statement from a man who has been heralded as a visionary. But then he was talking about the mad old, bad old world of traffic.

We are not ourselves when we are en route. At least that's what I'd like to think. We lose track of our innate human spirit.

I know a shy, placid young bank worker called Gudrun who turns into Attila the Hun when she gets behind the wheel of her Renault - blasting her horn at people who are driving too slowly and thus delaying by 20 seconds her arrival at an office she absolutely hates.

I also know a reggae-loving cyclist who is usually a living emblem of peace and love, but when he's let loose on the streets of Vienna he fires his stinker finger off like a machine gun and uses a language he can only have learned from punk rock.

And this very morning, after a black SUV sped over a pedestrian crossing at a gazillion miles a hour, I have to shamefully admit using the ugly greeting 'You ******* p******!"
And I revere Gandhi.
A Petty War
  As colleague Dave eloquently pointed out today, there is an age-old battle on European streets: "Bikers think that drivers are rude and ignorant jerks, and Drivers tend to think that bikers are, well, rude and ignorant jerks." And, needless to say, many pedestrians think that drivers and bikers are rude and ignorant jerks. We are at war on the streets and it's a petty, pointless war.

Green groups might not like cars with their toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Indeed, they are right to urge people to cut out unnecessary journeys. But a world without traffic (unlike a world without tobacco smoke) is still unthinkable.

So somehow we have to get along. And that's where the late Dr. Monderman, optimist and idealist, comes in.

"Shared Space"
  Monderman, a professional traffic planner from Friesland in northern Holland, believed that mutual trust and respect was the key.

To see if he could cause traffic to slow down, he used to walk backwards into the busy streets with his arms folded.

I beg you not to try this experiment yourself, but in Holland the results were happily surprising. Drivers slowed or stopped and let him cross to the other side.

Time magazine described his kamikaze experiment as an "act of faith in the concept of shared space".
Flower Power
  Coming from the land of tulips, his next move follows a bizarre logic. He placed a series of giant flowerpots in strategic places on 120 roads across northern Holland, and managed to reduce traffic speed by 10%.

It was a notable vindication of flower power.
Weg, Weg, Weg!
  His next move was even more drastic. He removed all road signs and street lights from his project areas.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie a British traffic and urban design consultant, explains the safety logic behind the bizarre move. He points out that in real life, when you are walking around and communicating with each other, you don't need signs to tell you how to behave. Instead you have to act on the basis of mutual respect and consideration:

"Those places that have begun to reduce the amount of highway clutter, the signs and the road markings, appear to bring a change of awareness among drivers that is much more effective in achieving safety and flowing movement than a reliance on regulations and markings."
Heart Attack
  Now at this point I have to say I find this all a bit hard to believe. The whole of Vienna seems to suffer from a collective bout of high blood pressure during rush hour. Without the beta-blocker effect of traffic regulations, you've got to fear that the city might go into cardiac arrest.

But the test models prove me wrong.

By removing the signs and road-markings, as well as eliminating the curb between the pavement and the road, the average speed of traffic in Monderman's test areas was cut by 50%.

In the Dutch town of Drachten, Monderman designed a "naked" junction that has been running since 2004. 'Not only has the speed of individual traffic slowed dramatically, but, because no-one has to wait at traffic lights, crossing time has quicked. It's a winning equation, especially since accident rates have dropped from 9 per year to just one.

The presentation used to promote the idea, features the good burghers of Drachten - drivers, cyclists and pedestrians - nodding at each other amicably and waving each other ahead. It's like the stories of a calmer more bucolic world that you grandparents used to tell you about. As the Dutchman told a congress in London last year.

"If you want people to behave as if they're in a village, you have to make it feel like a village."

These statistics have seen his "shared space" experiments exported to the USA, Australia, the Middle East and in Europe.

Indeed seven small towns within the EU are taking part in a 4 year project of sign reduction. As one traffic expert told me: if you you're driving in a city and you need a sign to tell you to look out for pedestrians, you should have your car-keys confiscated anyway!
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