June 15, 2010

Bright ideas: Removing all street signs

Stop signRemoving traffic signs might make our streets… safer? Yes, according to the late Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. Behavioral psychologist John Staddon agrees. As he wrote in The Atlantic, “Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.”

It’s not just about attentiveness; it’s also about trust. The rules and regulations on our roadways breed resentment by placing no confidence in a driver’s own judgment. After all, with every rule comes the temptation to break it, and it’s estimated that drivers ignore about 70 percent of traffic signs.

Mondermon and Staddon have both advocated for “naked streets”—that is, streets stripped entirely of signage and signals. The idea is to encourage motorists to navigate amongst bikers, pedestrians, and other motorists by using eye contact, hand signals, and—gasp!—their own brains. Said Monderman to SPIEGEL International, "The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We're losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior."

Have any cities been bold enough to enact this crazy idea? Quite a few, actually, and with positive results. Not only have traffic accidents declined dramatically, but the streets have become a much more welcoming place for bikers and pedestrians. As WIRED magazine reports,

“In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact.”

It’s a counter-intuitive approach, to be sure, but one that makes a lot of sense the more you think about it. What if our city streets also served as bike paths, walking trails, and play areas? For cash-strapped cities, this just might be the cheapest way to get more kids and families outside.

Photo by Bridget Ames (cc).

Other Bright Ideas:

Also of interest, from our CEO on the Huffington Post:

bright ideas, urban planning, street games