The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The Ruleless Road

In the long list of books I’ll never write, there’s one that’s about a theory of risk. The theory is that there’s a threshold of risk aversion beyond which our attempts to extinguish risk actually exacerbate it. It would be filled with the case studies you might expect – things like the overuse of antibiotics and how a financial insurance product short-circuited the economy. But the opening anecdote would be about roads. And I’d basically copy and paste it from from this December ’04 Wired story:

Riding in [avant-garde traffic engineer Hans Monderman’s] green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. [Monderman’s baby. – M] It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”


Tim Carmody says…

I wrote a little bit about Monderman in my Kottke post, “The city is a hypertext”, comparing cognitive overload on the web to similar overload in cities. WQ article on Monderman in italics, my comment in bold:

Traffic engineers, in Monderman’s view, helped to rewrite [towns] with their signs and other devices. “In the past in our villages,” Monderman said, “you could read the street in the village as a good book.” Signs advertising a school crossing were unnecessary, because the presence of a school and children was obvious. “When you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world,” he argued, “then you have to explain things.”

In other words, information overload, and the substitution of knowledge for wisdom. Sound familiar?…

I’ll just say I remain unconvinced. We’ve largely gotten rid of pop-up ads, flashing banners, and the “blink” tag on the web. I’m sure can trim back some of the extra text and lights in our towns and cities. We’re versatile creatures. Just give us time.

I’m skeptical. I have such a traffic circle in my life, on a much smaller scale, and it’s one of the most stressful parts of my driving routine. Obviously we all feel that there is some application of ‘California Driving common law’ that governs it, and obviously we frequently disagree. It’s true I can’t think of a single accident on this sleepy circle, but just thinking about it makes my jaw clench.

Chapter five: Helicopter Parenting

Re “In the long list of books I’ll never write…”:

Intelligenda longa, vita brevis

robertogreco: that book already exists. It’s called Simplicity Parenting, by Kim John Payne. I recommend, even though most of it will just seem like common sense.

I agree with Monderman about having the design built into it. I mean, I believe it to be a large failure of the system that can’t design cars that DO NOT crash into each other. Human driving error is far too large and if you add booze to the mix – just start the insurance claim. I know they’re designing systems now – but they won’t be available for everyone which will be another failure.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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