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Tear down the traffic lights, remove the road markings and sell off the signs: Less is definitely more when it comes to traffic management, some European engineers believe.
They say drivers tend to proceed more cautiously on roads that are stripped of all but the most essential markings — and that helps cut the number of accidents in congested areas.
"It's counterintuitive, but it works," said urban planner Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who heads the British arm of a four-year European project, Shared Spaces, to test the viability of what some planners call "naked roads."
Since 2004, some roads in the eastern English town of Ipswich, as well as towns in Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands have been stripped of signs and signals — and authorities have been tracking the results.
"Drivers have started to act like people again, and they are relating to one another in a much more civilized way," Hamilton-Baillie said of the Dutch town of Drachten, where traffic lights were removed from the town's Laweiplein Square in 2003. "They have even developed their own hand signal to communicate with each other."
The square now buzzes with 22,000 vehicles a day, including dozens of buses from a regional bus depot. The buses, which used to spend an average 53 seconds traversing the intersection, now cross it in 24-36 seconds, officials say.
And in 2004 and 2005, there were only two accidents involving injuries, compared with 10 in 2002, four in 2001 and nine in 2000, records show.
The "naked streets" program has attracted interest in the United States and some American urban planners have visited Drachten to see how it works.
Hamilton-Baillie, who taught at Harvard for a year in 2000-2001, said "there is quite a lot of theoretical interest in the United States ... but there are no schemes on the ground that I know of ... With all the planning considerations, it takes a lot of years to get one up and running".
Psychologists have argued that a plethora of traffic signs confuses motorists, who ignore about 70 percent of them anyway. And a long list of rules makes drivers resentful, they say, adding that if allowed to interact freely, they become more cautious and more civilized in their behavior.
In Ejby, in central Denmark, planners are banking on this and have removed traffic signs and redesigned parts of the town center. "Some of our towns are now sign forests and motorists get confused," said Peter Kjems Hansen of the town's technical department.
jblue here - It was the Westender's Curious Times section that tipped me off to this; Andreas Ohrt related this to a study which showed that wearing a bike helmet increases your chance of being hit by a car because drivers give you less room if you are "protected" by a helmet. This must be the reasoning of the people who bike helmetless along busy narrow streets (I think of 12th Ave in Vancouver) during rush hour. I'd like to point out to them that a bike route is a block or two away, but those are often filled with shortcutting drivers who ignore road rules - and bicyclists - for their own benefit, making those "bike routes" potentially more dangerous. At least on a main road there are witnesses should anything happen.