Towards the Legible Street
A new approach to traffic engineering emerges from Denmark and The Netherlands. Out go all the signs, traffic lights, kerbs and zebra crossings of traditional street design. Instead enlightened traffic engineers rely on ambiguity and uncertainty to reduce speeds, encourage eye contact and integrate drivers into the social realm of the street.
‘Has the Council gone nuts?’ ‘Does a child have to be run over before the barriers are replaced?’ Incredulous parents in Amsterdam’s Floris Versterstraat discussed the recent removal of all the barriers, speed humps and signs on the short street that runs between two primary schools. In their place, an undifferentiated raised road surface invites children to play with friends on the other side of the road. "Typical of a council officer with no children" was the general opinion.
But after a few weeks, opinions shifted as the new approach dramatically changed traffic behaviour. Motorists, confused by the absence of familiar road markings, slow right down to figure out who has priority and how they should proceed. It is precisely this confusion that appears to calm traffic and reduce speeds without conventional bumps or controls. And the children themselves are more street-wise, knowing that they cannot rely on barriers.
A quiet revolution in urban design and traffic engineering is taking place in the Netherlands. It eschews the conventional traffic measures of control and separation of users such as traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, speed humps and bicycle lanes. Instead it employs lessons from design psychology to influence behaviour through the deliberate mixing of different types of road users. No hierarchies, no defined space for pedestrians, cyclists or drivers. Subtle visual tricks replace signs and street markings, requiring all users to interact and negotiate. The new approach has yet to be named, but has its roots in the Dutch "woonerf" principles established in the early 1970’s. These principles are beginning to be applied in the UK as "Home Zones" in certain residential areas. But the Dutch and Danes have moved far beyond the limited borders of 1970’s woonerven.
"The Dutch underestimate the contribution made by the introduction of the woonerf or home zone", says Ben Hamilton-Baillie. He is a specialist in urban design and movement, and has recently returned from a year’s fellowship at Harvard University following research into traffic and street design in North West Europe. He has become convinced that the new approach represents a means to reconcile the needs of vehicle movements with the potential to return streets to the social fabric of cities.
Urban developer Niek de Boer coined the term woonerf during a large-scale expansion of Emmen in the Netherlands at the end of the 1960’s. Early examples were mainly concerned with reallocating space from cars to pedestrians. A few years later his students, including Joost Váhl, interpreted the concept differently. VÂýhl and his contemporaries challenged the principles of road hierarchies, welcoming the car on an equal basis to all parts of the city, but on pedestrians’ terms. Only on motorways and major freeways did the car retain its clear priority.
The first phase of the revolution started in Delft, where Váhl introduced a speed hump in 1970. For the first time an obstacle was deliberately placed in the road. It provoked much indignation. A Delft councillor who ranted that the bump nearly broke the beer bottles on his back seat was advised by the Highways Director to either drink less or drive slower. New style home zones (not named as such at the time) were introduced in Delft, Utrecht and Eindhoven. Váhl developed a new language of street design using sandpits, sleepers, concrete pipes and odds and ends, becoming skilled in slowing cars and extending the public domain into the traffic zone. Experiments in Gouda, Rijswijk and elsewhere across Holland, playful, intriguing, imaginative and quixotic, reflected the spirit of the age and the challenging of conventions.
And it was not long before governments took the ideas seriously. Shocked by increasing numbers of fatal traffic accidents (at their worst in 1974), the Dutch government introduced a whole range of measures in 1976. Alongside the breathalyser and safety belt legislation, the Dutch government gave home zones a formal legal status. Urban developers were required to comply with tight guidelines and introduce traffic restraining measures every fifty metres, limiting urban design options to prescribed traffic engineering solutions.
So while visitors from Germany, Denmark and France flocked to the Netherlands to study traffic calmed streets, Dutch developers themselves gradually lost interest, ceding the streets to traffic engineers’ standard devices of signs, bumps and sleepers. The architect Carel Weeber dubbed such streets "railway accidents".
The final blow to the original woonerf in Holland came in 1983 with the introduction of the thirty kilometres per hour zone (approx. 18 mph). Here was a cheaper compromise for municipalities, which retained traditional pavements and reduced casualties through the use of the odd speed hump. Parents could still admonish children to "play outside but stay on the pavement". By 1988 the word woonerf had been dropped; instead legislators referred to the erf or erven (safe zones) so that shopping streets and business parks could be included.
So just as home zones start to appear in the UK, they are vanishing in The Netherlands. According to the Dutch Statistical Office, more than 2,500 woonerf disappeared in the second half of the 1990’s – a reduction of nearly forty- percent. Developers have returned to long sightlines and boulevards, either as a conscious choice or as an admission that they have resigned themselves to the authority of traffic engineers in street layout. Traffic flows are established and designed for, and only then are buildings and public spaces considered. Car traffic on main roads is subsequently restrained through signs, speed humps and gateways.
Steven Schepel is convinced that much has been accomplished in the past decades. He is responsible for safety within the Dutch Ministry of Transport and Public Works. For many years he was chairman of the pressure group Stop de Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder), and is a passionate advocate for change. "The home zone has established 30 kilometres per hour as the appropriate traffic speed for residential areas." However he acknowledges that conventional traffic measures, engineering, education and police enforcement are no longer bringing down accident statistics and that new approaches are needed. "Towns and villages need to be designed in such a way that slow driving comes naturally. This cannot come from me, from the top down. It requires designs planned metre by metre for each specific location, from local solutions. Just look at what is happening in the province of Friesland in the north of the country."
The silent revolution of the new style woonerf seems to be gathering particular momentum in Friesland. But do not mention the term woonerf to Hans Monderman at the Friesland Regional Organisation for Traffic Safety "A woonerf is a traffic-engineering measure that incorporates signs and uniform standards. What I want is to employ architectural and urban design techniques to guide, suggest and modify behaviour. Ultimately the traffic code should be replaced by a social code." Monderman senses an anti-car element in old-style woonerf designs. As a car enthusiast and owner of a driving school, he dislikes anything that smacks of "war against drivers". And yet he strives for all the same objectives as the ideologists of yesteryear. Streets where children and the elderly can cross safely, diversity and mixed traffic flows. The means to achieve such objectives are also the same; designing in confusion to ensure that people are forced to make eye contact. "The biggest mistake that we can make as traffic engineers is to give people the illusion of safety," says Monderman.
He proudly shows us a place called ‘The Brink’ in the Friesland market town of Oosterwolde, popularly known as the Red Junction. Until 1998 this was a standard asphalt intersection with lanes, zebra crossings and right-of-way signs. Now it is a junction made of red clinkers, nothing more and nothing less. No signs, no pavement, no bicycle tracks, nothing, not even a sleeper in sight. It takes a while to comprehend the subtlety of the detailing, such as the surrounding green railings and the studied absence of traditional borders.
"An old man with a shopping trolley muddles along diagonally over the junction; a mother parks her car, gets out and changes her child’s trousers; a truck lets a group of cyclists have the right of way even though they come from the left. "It is great that so many ‘traffic offences’ can take place simultaneously," says Monderman, "and still there have been no accidents involving physical injuries since the redesign, even though 4,500 cars drive by every day. We used to have on average three serious accidents a year."
A strong sense of place and history is evident at The Brink in Oosterwolde. It’s not really a village green, more a sandy hillock in the surrounding peat moor. The start of the old peat canal, the church, the town hall and the shops all provide strong landmarks that inform the design and influence the space. This is the heart of the town. The junction or Town Square took more than 18 months to redesign, and many months in practice until it bedded in. Monderman spent hours observing the new arrangements in use, watching how people make eye contact and react to each other’s mistakes. It was not immediately popular, and it took months for many people to adapt to the new arrangements and responsibilities.
Indeed the new generation of home zones often encounter much opposition. Living without the illusion of safety provided by light-controlled crossings and familiar devices takes some getting used to. Barriers and laws give comfort in an uncertain world. New approaches require patience, much discussion, and considerable political bravery. This was certainly the case in Drachten where Monderman redesigned an intersection used by 10,000 cars a day into a junction where everyone walks, cycles and drives higgledy-piggledy across in seeming anarchy. But to demonstrate the safety of the new arrangements, Monderman walks backwards across the junction as we talk. It is unnerving, but illuminating. No shrieking brakes, no horns; cars just drive quietly around us. As a compromise, Monderman will add zebra crossing stripes to increase the sense of safety of elderly people, but insists that they are not necessary. The Drachten junction has been taken as far as it can for the time being, feels Monderman. It is safer, undoubtedly more attractive, and traffic flows have improved despite the reduction in speeds. It is no longer a piece of traffic engineering but is part of the town’s public space.
Monderman estimates that the number of fatal traffic accidents could be halved with this approach that focuses on social behaviour. This would mean five hundred less victims each year in the Netherlands. But we know that safety and accident reductions are not the same thing, and we should not concentrate on casualty figures alone. A much more important advantage is the recovery of public spaces. The traditional separation of traffic flows and the corresponding separation of public spaces is making way for areas that have their own identity and where people are able to meet again. Instead of trusting rules and regulations set by impersonal authorities, people have to agree on their own rules to determine the use of their street or junction. Monderman: "Our society still seems to rely on the state for social conventions. If people in Oosterwolde have a problem with the fact that drivers are allowed to park in the Red Junction, they have to consult each other to find a solution. If they do not feel inclined to raise the issue, why should we place signs and police the area to solve the problem for them? All those traffic measures only lead to unnecessary lawsuits." This handsoff approach was implemented in the village of Makkinga to the extent of eliminating all traffic signs, even the Dutch AA signs; no road markings, no stop lights, no traffic engineering. It’s only signs are at its entry-points, proudly announcing its sign-free status!
New style home zones offer designers a lot of freedom. They can create austere village junctions but also rustic and idyllic streets. Incorrigible fans of the 1970’s may even pull out all the stops and use railway sleepers. Only one element remains taboo and that is the radiused kerbstone beloved of traffic engineers. Streets and public spaces are no longer based on the turning circles of vehicles – that would send all the wrong signals. Every element in the new approach is based on behavioural psychology, and the details are critical.
Fundamental to the new approach is seamless co-ordination of traffic engineering with architecture, urban design and landscape architecture. This requires a realignment of the professional institutions and design education. Merging urban design objectives with safety engineering offers an opportunity to end the absurd position which until now has left traffic engineers alone responsible for more than half the space between buildings in European cities, and often 70% of urban land in the United States. If anywhere should reflect our urban values and priorities, it should be our streets.
Ben Hamilton-Baillie lights up with enthusiasm about the new approaches to road design in Friesland. "Self-explanatory streets of this kind are a distant dream for the USA or for the United Kingdom. We still have to get through the first stage of old-style home zones as part of the learning curve – it is not possible to skip this step." But eventually he sees movement in urban areas guided by design and context rather than by traditional traffic engineering devices. "Ultimately our behaviour and interaction as humans is governed by our surroundings and the cultural signals that go with them. After all, nobody needs a sign in the living room saying "Do not spit on the floor"! The architecture of your house and the values it reflects is enough to explain appropriate behaviour."