"Naked" Roads May Reduce Accidents
IPSWICH, England (AP) - November 21, 2006 -- Tear down the traffic lights, remove the road markings and sell off the signs: Less is definitely more when it comes to traffic management, some European engineers believe.
They say drivers tend to proceed more cautiously on roads that are stripped of all but the most essential markings - and that helps cut the number of accidents in congested areas.
"It's counterintuitive, but it works," said urban planner Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who heads the British arm of a four-year European project, Shared Spaces, to test the viability of what some planners call "naked roads."
Since 2004, some roads in the eastern English town of Ipswich, as well as towns in Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands have been stripped of signs and signals - and authorities have been tracking the results.
The Dutch towns of Makkinga and Drachten led the way in the 1970s, decluttering streets under the supervision of visionary Dutch urban planner Hans Monderman.
In Ipswich, three narrow roads in the busy city center have been stripped of an ugly clutter of signs, lines and barriers. All that remains are a few discreet notices warning against illegal parking.
There is no data yet and residents of the town of 120,000 aren't quite sure what to make of the initiative.
"It looks very attractive down here now," said Valentine Rowe, who lives on Alderman Street, which is fringed by a park and Ipswich's football stadium. "But we could do with some speed signs back to stop young drivers roaring down the road."
But officials are convinced that "naked streets" yield positive results.
"Drivers have started to act like people again and they are relating to one another in a much more civilized way," Hamilton-Baillie said of the Dutch town of Drachten, where traffic lights were removed from the town's Laweiplein Square in 2003.
"They have even developed their own hand signal to communicate with each other."
The square now buzzes with 22,000 vehicles a day, including dozens of buses from a regional bus depot. The buses, which used to spend an average 53 seconds traversing the intersection, now cross it in 24-36 seconds, officials say.
And in 2004 and 2005, there were only two accidents involving injuries, compared with 10 in 2002, four in 2001 and nine in 2000, records show.
The "naked streets" program has attracted interest in the United States and some American urban planners have visited Drachten to see how it works.
Hamilton-Baillie, who taught at Harvard for a year in 2000-2001, said "there is quite a lot of theoretical interest in the United States ... but there are no schemes on the ground that I know of."
"With all the planning considerations, it takes a lot of years to get one up and running," he said.
Psychologists have argued that a plethora of traffic signs confuses motorists, who ignore about 70 percent of them anyway.
And a long list of rules makes drivers resentful, they say, adding that if allowed to interact freely, they become more cautious and more civilized in their behavior.
In Ejby, in central Denmark, planners are banking on this and have removed traffic signs and redesigned parts of the town center.
"Some of our towns are now sign forests and motorists get confused," said Peter Kjems Hansen of the town's technical department.
In Bohmte, in northwest Germany, town fathers plan to remove curbs to facilitate the flow of 12,500 vehicles a day.
"We simply want to give this whole area over to people again - not just give priority to cars, but try to shape this space for everyone," Mayor Klaus Goedejohann told Deutsche Welle television.
London's clogged Kensington High Street is reaping the benefits after planners removed 850 yards of pedestrian safety barriers along with many signs and road markings in 2000. Officials say that from 2000-2003, the number of pedestrians injured dropped by nearly 60 percent and traffic moves more freely.
Not everyone approves of naked streets.
Traditionalists in town planning departments say they rob the motorists of vital information. And blind groups say the sightless will founder if familiar features such as railings, curbs and barriers are removed.
"How long will it be before a blind or partially sighted person dies as a result of these changes?" asked Bill Alker of Britain's Royal National Institute for the Blind.
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