Controlled Chaos - European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs
By Matthias Shulz
Are streets without traffic signs conceivable? Seven cities and regions in Europe are giving it a
try -- with good results.
Drachten in the Netherlands has gotten rid of 16 of its traffic light crossings and converted the
other two to roundabouts. "We reject every form of legislation," the Russian aristocrat and
"father of anarchism" Mikhail Bakunin once thundered. The czar banished him to Siberia. But now it
seems his ideas are being rediscovered.
European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers
and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren -- by means of friendly gestures,
nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.
A project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting
heir forest of traffic signs. Ejby, in Denmark, is participating in the experiment, as are Ipswich in
England and the Belgian town of Ostende.
The utopia has already become a reality in Makkinga, in the Dutch province of Western Frisia. A sign by
the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads "Verkeersbordvrij" -- "free of traffic signs."
Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are
nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren't even any
lines painted on the streets.
"The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We're losing
our capacity for socially responsible behavior," says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the
project's co-founders. "The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people's sense of personal
Monderman could be on to something. Germany has 648 valid traffic symbols. The inner cities are
crowded with a colorful thicket of metal signs. Don't park over here, watch out for passing deer over
there, make sure you don't skid. The forest of signs is growing ever denser. Some 20 million
traffic signs have already been set up all over the country. Psychologists have long revealed the
senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by
drivers. What's more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and
it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified
in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him
with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.
"Unsafe is safe"
The result is that drivers find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop
a kind of tunnel vision: They're constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out
The new traffic model's advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more
liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves. They demand streets like those during the
Middle Ages, when horse-drawn chariots, handcarts and people scurried about in a completely unregulated fashion.
The new model's proponents envision today's drivers and pedestrians blending into a colorful and peaceful
It may sound like chaos, but it's only the lesson drawn from one of the insights of traffic psychology:
Drivers will force the accelerator down ruthlessly only in situations where everything has been fully
regulated. Where the situation is unclear, they're forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.
Indeed, "Unsafe is safe" was the motto of a conference where proponents of the new roadside philosophy met
in Frankfurt in mid-October.
True, many of them aren't convinced of the new approach. "German drivers are used to rules," says
Michael Schreckenberg of Duisburg University. If clear directives are abandoned, domestic rush-hour traffic
will turn into an Oriental-style bazaar, he warns. He believes the new vision of drivers and pedestrians
interacting in a cozy, relaxed way will work, at best, only for small towns.
But one German borough is already daring to take the step into lawlessness. The town of Bohmte in Lower
Saxony has 13,500 inhabitants. It's traversed by a country road and a main road. Cars approach speedily,
delivery trucks stop to unload their cargo and pedestrians scurry by on elevated sidewalks.
The road will be re-furbished in early 2007, using EU funds. "The sidewalks are going to go, and the
asphalt too. Everything will be covered in cobblestones," Klaus Goedejohann, the mayor, explains. "We're
getting rid of the division between cars and pedestrians."
The plans derive inspiration and motivation from a large-scale experiment in the town of Drachten in
the Netherlands, which has 45,000 inhabitants. There, cars have already been driving over red natural stone
for years. Cyclists dutifully raise their arm when they want to make a turn, and drivers communicate by hand
signs, nods and waving.
"More than half of our signs have already been scrapped," says traffic planner Koop Kerkstra. "Only two
out of our original 18 traffic light crossings are left, and we've converted them to roundabouts." Now
traffic is regulated by only two rules in Drachten: "Yield to the right" and "Get in someone's way and you'll
be towed." Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically. Experts from Argentina
and the United States have visited Drachten. Even London has expressed an interest in this new example of
automobile anarchy. And the model is being tested in the British capital's Kensington neighborhood.
Information Sought on Preserving Historic Street Name Signs
The Brookline Massachusetts Preservation Commission is seeking information from any localities
that have historic street name signs of any type that have been in use for 50 years or more, and
that may be at risk of being replaced due to pressures to conform to the guidelines for reflectivity,
letter height, etc. in the MUTCD (Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices). Brookline's signs are
cast aluminum and date to before WWII. The Commission would be interested in learning about any and
all such historic street name signs that are still in use with the idea of sharing strategies for
retaining them in the face of the MUTCD. If you have any ideas or examples, please contact:
Dennis J. De Witt
Brookline, Massachusetts Preservation Commission
New Historic Roads Book
America's Park Roads and Parkways: Drawings from the Historic
American Engineering Record is the latest publication showcasing
the design and engineering of historic roads in the United
States. CLICK HERE >>
Magazine Wins Honor
AMERICAN ROAD was recently named in the Top New Magazines
by Dr. Samir Husni—as seen in “USA Today.”
This quarterly publication focuses the spotlight on our nation's
back roads. It is the only national magazine dedicated to
historic roads and serves a valuable tool for convincing the
public of the value of allocating resources to preserve our
historic road networks.
AMERICAN ROAD’S Executive Editor, Thomas
Repp, is very passionate about preservation of America’s
highways and the landmarks that many of us recall from our
youth. Repp spoke at the Preserving the Historic Road in America
Conference in 2004 sending a message that preservation starts
with people. “To motivate people,” Repp stated,
“we must tell the tales of the people that built the
roads and the roadside establishments. Our two-lane roads
were built by people, they are not just pavement. They are
a part of our American heritage and must not be lost.”
Repp practices what he preaches. If you pick
up a copy of AMERICAN ROAD, you will find that it brings you
stories of life on the road—the highway history, landmarks,
roadside attractions, scenic drives, and the people that we
meet along the way. AMERICAN ROAD visits the mom-and-pop cafes
in neon-lit small towns that make each journey worthwhile
and brings them all to you with vibrant tales and colorful
View the transportation paintings of Bureau of Public Roads Artist Carl Rakeman. CLICK
New York’s Henry Hudson Parkway
The Henry Hudson Parkway, was constructed from 1932-36 with
federal money for park improvements under the centralized
parkway authority headed by Robert Moses. It introduced a
distinctly urban form of the American parkway. Its landscape
was conceived as more than a scenic backdrop for motorists
entering Manhattan; it was a grand linear park system which
would showcase the city’s residents at play as well
as its skyline and monuments.
its best, the parkway was a seamless and intimate integration
of park and roadway. In this Manhattan section, Robert Moses
extended the park and the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted
by covering a rail line with a terraced esplanade that lead
to beautiful tunnels like this one giving New Yorkers their
first true waterfront access. Today the corridor is undergoing
an resurgence, with a greenway, recreation, economic development,
and environmental conservation. The new challenge is now restoration
and rehabilitation of the parkway itself.
An initiative by volunteers to designate the Henry Hudson
Parkway a Scenic Byway, the first in New York City, will insure
that the parkway complements instead of sabotages future planning
for the corridor, including the waterfront. This year the
New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (a regional planning
agency administering federal transportation funds) approved
funding for the first corridor management plan for a New York
City parkway, and will oversee the unprecedented collaboration
of some 20 different city and state agencies in its development.
volunteers continue to rescue the parkway one piece of blight
at a time. Here, one of the many parkway overpasses in the
Bronx was transformed by volunteers and the New York City
Parks Department into a block-long green-street. The natural
area alongside the highway is being turned into a woodland
trail and part of the city’s greenway system."
Next volunteers are set to tackle the path under the parkway
near the George Washington Bridge, one of the few places in
northern Manhattan to access the waterfront and greenway.
With no agency claiming responsibility for maintenance (a
crucial problem of the city’s parkways to be addressed
by the CMP), the once-magnificent stairs and walkway has become
a deterrent to residents’ enjoyment of their great new
waterfront. Look for daffodils and creative solutions to the
challenge of designing a space like this.
more information about the Henry Hudson Parkway Scenic Byway
initiative, see the
Text prepared by Hilary Kitasei, Henry Hudson
Parkway Task Force, chair Edits for historicroads.org by Dan