Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do is like the Freakonomics of cars. Vanderbilt draws material from his book on this Wilson Quarterly essay about “The Traffic Guru,” Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. He gained fame especially among traffic calming enthusiasts for his “shared space” approach to urban street design. Monderman found that traffic efficiency and safety improved when the street and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others. Shared Space designs typically call for removing regulatory traffic control features.
Some highlights from Vanderbilt’s essay:
Traffic engineers are rather obscure characters, though their work influences our lives every day. A geographic survey of East Lansing, Michigan, for example, once found that more than 50 percent of the retail district was dedicated to “automobile space”—parking, roads, and the like. By and large, the design and management of this space is handed over to traffic engineers, and our behavior in it is heavily influenced by their decisions.
“Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?” Monderman might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. “Why explain it?” He would follow with a characteristic maxim: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.”
“When government takes over the responsibility from citizens, the citizens can’t develop their own values anymore,” he told me. “So when you want people to develop their own values in how to cope with social interactions between people, you have to give them freedom.”
Vanderbilt also discusses how Level of Service is described only in terms of motor vehicle travel — any other mode of transportation is viewed only in terms of how they hinder automobile travel, and roads are designed to remove these impediments with the idea that travel can be faster and safer.
We know our roads are not absolutely safe, of course — like Monderman predicted, the people who are treated like idiots are indeed behaving like idiots on the road. Vanderbilt contrasts this with “the improvised grass parking lots at county fairs: no stop signs, no speed limits, no markings of any kind—maybe just some kids with flags telling you where to go. But people, by and large, drive and walk in a cautious manner. There is no great epidemic of traffic fatalities at county fairs.”