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Red light, green light -- how about nothing at all?

Posted by Anthony Flint  October 14, 2010 04:18 PM

Palmer Street in Harvard Square is a curious football-field length stretch of street. It’s not blacktop like Church Street with a double yellow line down the middle; its paving suggests a pedestrian way, though there’s no sign indicating vehicles are not allowed. Any motorist traveling down it plods along slowly. In other words, a perfect shared space, according to Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an architect from Bristol, England who specializes in new street design.
Palmer Street.jpg
Streets are too often the forgotten element of the public realm, dominated by traffic engineers interested in the swift flow of vehicular traffic, and adorned with all manner of signage and warnings and flashing lights. Highways are a separate matter, but the streets in downtowns and town centers serve a number of functions, as places where pedestrians, bicycles, and cars and trucks must mix. If the aim is more livable, greener cities, being able to feel comfortable walking or riding a bike is hugely important.
We’ve been living with the legacy of Le Corbusier, who among others advocated the strict separation of pedestrians and traffic. Lately there have been efforts to change the paradigm. In New York City, the blur of traffic in Times Square has been replaced by tables and chairs. Many communities are engaged in traffic calming, with such measures as bump-outs, neck-downs, speed bumps, bicycle lanes and brightly marked pedestrian crosswalks, all of which achieve some of what is known these days as “complete streets.”
But in Europe, designers are taking it a step further – removing traffic signals and signage altogether, relying on the human ability to adapt and communicate with other drivers and pedestrians by entering an intersection or traveling down a street and figuring it all out. It’s a counter-intuitive notion to be sure, based in the Dutch concept of the “woonerf,” a street that eliminates the strict separation of uses and instead invites a civil set of ad-hoc rules and eye contact. Woonerfs are all around us – the valet area in front of a hotel, or the parking lot in front of Target. Everybody slows down because there is an obvious mix of parking and getting out of cars and moving around on foot.
“When you introduce a little uncertainty, and no one’s sure what the rules are, the driver becomes human again,” says Hamilton-Baillie.
On Walnut Street in Brookline on weekday mornings, dozens of parents and kids make their way to the Lincoln School. There are crossing guards and flashing yellow lights indicating a 20 miles per hour limit in a school zone. But even without all of that, the visual cues make it obvious to all drivers what’s going on there: they should slow down and be mindful of little kids making their way.
To go down this road, as it were, in Harvard Square, for example, would require taking a hacksaw to all the traffic signals and let the cars and pedestrians mix it up, says Hamilton-Baillie. That’s essentially what they’ve done at Exhibition Road and Seven Dials/Covent Garden in London, and in the ring road in Ashford in Kent, at the portal to the Chunnel. Nobody could believe this could possibly make sense; a BBC reporter predicted hundreds of deaths. But in fact the accident rate and especially fatal accidents goes down when the signage and signals are taken away. “Humans are smart. We adapt to circumstances,” says Hamilton-Baillie. As it is now, all the signs are doing the thinking for us.
Can American culture ever embrace such a system, or non-system, in cities? Hamilton-Ballie, who spoke earlier this month at the fall lecture series at the Lincoln Institute, part of the 40th anniversary symposium for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, says the important thing is to just get started, and to experiment. Cambridge and Brookline – Webster Street in Coolidge Corner is an example of a woonerf – have been doing just that. Boston may be a tougher challenge. It’s been hard enough to raise awareness about the state law requiring motorists yield to pedestrians in unsignaled crosswalks. The statewide highway design manual in Massachusetts now allows lower design speeds and narrower minimum street widths, though it doesn’t say anything about removing signals entirely. But thinking about the context of streets is well worth it. The payoff is not only safety, but a more civil and attractive urban environment.

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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. www.lincolninst.edu and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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