Chaos = Cooperation

A new Wired article, Roads Gone Wild suggests that removing street signs, curbs and crosswalks can lead to less accidents.

It begins with this compelling premise: “Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.”.

It caught my eye for a few reasons. One, it shows that design is everywhere. It’s traffic flow too, not just pixels and RGB codes. (Of course I know that, but I still enjoy learning more and more about the design efforts all around us.) Two, it shows that taking things away is often a more effective solution than adding things. Three, it makes me reconsider what and how I design for the web. On the web we try to make things “intuitive”. This article strikes me as evidence that more explanatory and instructional text, more user-hand-holding, and more manipulation by the designer to achieve “control” isn’t the path to success.

[He considers] most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign – literally – that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job.

It also reminds me of the disbelief I felt in Rome this spring. Primarily, I was amazed that massive four-lane round-abouts could work. Without cross-walks and without traffic signals or indications of rights-of-way, incredibly dense traffic seemed to almost-peacefully coexist. Across Europe there are cafés more or less in the roads and plazas, all without obvious problem. This article describes just that, and the explanation makes sense:

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.”

Outside of web design and any parallels there, the article hits on things I feel in everyday life. I want to live where being a pedestrian is possible. I want to live in a neighborhood where people hang out outside, and kids play on the sidewalks and in the streets. I want outdoor cafés…. I don’t want parking lots and drive-thru’s and strip malls.

“They’ll go to places where the quality of life is better, where there’s more human exchange, where the city isn’t just designed for cars. The economy is going to follow the creative class, and they want to live in areas that have a sense of place. That’s why these new ideas have to catch on. The folly of traditional traffic engineering is all around us.”

I’ve only captured parts here; the whole article is worth a read.

Now I’m off to drive north from the Silicon Valley to San Francisco, up the crowded, slow, mind-numbing 101 North.