Last week I was riding through Union Square with my daughter on the back of our tandem bicycle. As I pulled up to stop at the red light, a woman rolled down the window on her mini-van/SUV and screamed at us: “Do NOT ride on this road with that kid!” Her tone and facial expression overflowed with anger and hostility as she whipped around the corner staring daggers.
Was she genuinely concerned for our safety? Or venting spleen after a hard day’s work? Was she warning us away from her own driving habits? Or had she experienced the tragic death of a child on a bike? I did not notice if she had children in the back of her vehicle, but given that the leading cause of death for people aged 6-27 is car crashes, it’s amazing to me that she can assume her transportation choices bear any less risk.
Two days later, I attended an event at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, MA which shed some light on this incident. The talk was given by an architect, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, and was entitled: Shared Space: Reconciling People, Places, and Traffic.
Hamilton-Baillie presented research to support several interesting points:
- If we feel safe in our cars and in our driving contexts, we are actually a greater hazard to ourselves and to others.
- When the perception of risk increases, we will modify our behavior to be more cautious, thereby decreasing the actual risk.
- When urban intersections are re-designed to convey equality between cyclists, pedestrians, and autos — including the removal of regulatory apparatus such as stop-lights and striping — traffic mishaps and congestion actually decrease.
When we over-regulate our roads, we remove the engagement of the driver’s intelligence, and this renders the roads more hazardous. When we design the roads in a manner that requires drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to work together in order to negotiate limited space, we actually create safer and more civil public spaces while decreasing traffic congestion. Too good to be true?
There are a number of examples of this revolutionary traffic de-engineering in Europe, and the lessons being learned are counter-intuitive and startling. In every instance, Hamilton-Baillie reported that the flow of traffic was improved and the rate of accidents was reduced.
Hamilton-Baillie discussed a salient example in the Netherlands involving a school playground next to a busy road. In order to increase the safety of the children, they actually designed the playground so that it bumped out into the margins of the road. The increased proximity of the children to the road motivated drivers to maneuver more cautiously around the play area and taught the children to behave more responsibly near traffic. Their closeness to each other provided a mutual education regarding what was at stake, and the children’s safety increased as a result.
The numerous examples provided by Hamilton-Baillie in his presentation supported his claims that integrating the various modes of transport in an urban environment rather than adhering to strict regulation and mode segregation improves everyone’s behavior, travel experience, and safety. In our efforts to eliminate all risk from the road through over-engineering, we have increased the disparity between the actual risk and the perceived risk. Being coddled by the tightly regulated infrastructure has dulled our senses and inured us to the real risks of speeding around in an upholstered metal contraption. It’s this disparity between the actual risk and our perceived risk that is making our daily travels more dangerous. If you didn’t feel so safe and comfortable, would you really try to look down and type on a tiny keyboard while driving?
Removing the regulation does a number of important things. It increases our sense of personal responsibility, it aligns our behavior with the true risk, and it changes the nature of our relationships with each other and with our government. Traffic lights increase friction and resentment between parties impatiently awaiting their turn while the absence of lights increases collaboration and cooperation. Think of navigating through a crowded grocery store with your cart. There’s a fruitful tension between the competing needs of the many cart-pushers and the imperative to cooperate and behave well in such close quarters.
Over-regulated roads put the government in the role of evil enforcer rather than the beneficent facilitator of our mutual interdependence. People who navigate through a space in which no party is given priority and in which all must work together to achieve their goals experience a shift in the way they perceive their government and their fellow citizens. One might even go so far as to say that over-engineered traffic infrastructures foster a sense of passive and disengaged entitlement. Remove the controls and you might see the development of a new civic maturity! (Contrary to the sounds of this, I am not a Libertarian or a Republican….)
So, the next time you see me riding on a tandem bicycle through Union Square with my daughter, I’m hoping you’ll put your energy into driving safely around us rather than yelling at us.
Note: Martin Cassini, an advocate for traffic system reform in the UK, has created several instructive videos in support of traffic light removal: