A world without signs?
We have one woonerf in Ottawa: part of Cambridge is designated as a woonerf. An ‘erf’ is a somewhat old fashioned Dutch word for the area around the farm house, where chickens roam, the dog guards and the cow explores. ‘Woon’ comes from the verb ‘wonen’, Dutch for ‘to live in a place’.
Woon-erf more or less literally translates to “living yard”. Here in Canada, we’d like to translate it with ‘complete streets’ sometimes, but typically a woonerf has few curbs; traffic calming measures are taken to the extreme with planters, coloured pavers, bike racks and curbless divisions between the different modes of traffic.
Woonerf is a public space, where everyone moves around. When cars are gone, the space becomes the kids’ soccer patch. A complete street doesn’t necessarily have that. Speed is reduced to 15 k/hr (10 m/h) on a woonerf. Sounds fuzzy? Today, 20% of the Dutch houses are on woonerven (the actual plural of woonerf). It must work somehow. Extra advantage is that you use the public space more optimally.
Bold traffic engineering
Woonerf is the brain child of Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer with somewhat radical ideas 40 years ago. While here in Canada engineers appear convinced that car traffic shouldn’t really have any hindrances in order to get from A to B and therefore get their own space, Mr. Monderman already figured long ago that safety and efficiency can be improved when everyone has to negotiate their movement directly with others. In other words, neither signs nor road markings should set the tone, but eye contact and slower speeds instead. Basically he relied on common sense and responsibility. He believed that sharing and slower speeds must go hand in hand.
The mistake we make too often in Ottawa –and in North America for that matter- is that we want everyone to share the road, but don’t design the roads so that it is actually a safe shared space. It is built for fast traffic, and we expect others to adjust: a bike lane is fine, as long as it is not a nuisance for car traffic. Pedestrian crossings are fine, but it shouldn’t interfere too much with traffic flow. Kids on bicycles are welcome, but we are not slowing speeds down in our neighbourhoods.
Just pick one
In North America we don’t want to choose for both sharing and slower speed; we just pick sharing as the solution. It is the most convenient one because it doesn’t require any money or new design solutions. And that is a fundamental flaw if governments want to promote serious active transportation.
To compensate for the lack of design, we start to warn people: we bring in signs to share the road, to take the lane, to warn for elderly people crossing, or visually impaired people, how to cross a roundabout, how to use a pedestrian circle; we paint lines, sharrows, boxes and bays to guide people, but the road stays wide and fast and dangerous. We try to battle the effects with signs, rather than tackling the causes with better design.
Removing signs sounds very counter-intuitive. However, there is evidence that signs actually don’t help that much. A Dutch connection told me once that they had put out a sign at a certain location to slow traffic down, but it didn’t have the desired effect. Then they put a bigger sign out, then a well lit sign, than a one of those electronic road signs. Nothing worked.
To stay closer to home, in Ottawa, I was discussing the intersection at Wilton Crescent in the Glebe. Neighbours complained that everyone turning right ignores the stop sign at the end of Queen Elizabeth Place. The city engineer suggested a bigger stop sign than the current one. But that doesn’t help. Why?
Drivers adjust their speeds depending on the design of the road and the situation. Bronson is a perfect example. Speeding is rampant, because 50k/h on Bronson “feels wrong”. I am guilty of it myself I think too once in a while.
Someone from Carleton U. told me recently that a law is expensive to uphold. Roundabouts are a good example of places where you can barely break a law even if you want. You can’t speed through an intersection, you can’t drive through red and you can’t swerve into another lane. Woonerven are good examples too. Few signs required, few laws to write; it all organises itself.
Therefore people believe that proper design to slow traffic saves lives and money and law enforcement, not an ever increasing amount of signs. Isn’t that what we all like? Ultimately, signs are ignored or a mere distraction.
Coincidentally, when I was writing this blog post, an article by Sarah Goodyear on a public space based on Hans Monderman’s ideas appeared in the Atlantic Cities about a British town that just implemented a sign free intersection. It is worth reading: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/04/lots-cars-and-trucks-no-traffic-signs-or-lights-chaos-or-calm/5152/
Another article you may want to read is: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/distracting-miss-daisy/306873/
Ottawa pics by me, Dutch pics from Google Streetview and Google Images.