Traffic Engineering

A nice article at The Wilson Quarterly about Traffic Engineering and the work of Hans Monderman in particular.
The Traffic Guru
If you were asked to name a famous traffic engineer, in some pub quiz gone horribly wrong, chances are slight you could hazard a good guess. It is true that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, was trained as a traffic engineer, but his notoriety does not derive from tinkering with the streetlights in Tehran. Bill Gates got his start developing software for a device to count car traffic, but he was a computer boffin more interested in the technology than the traffic. Your memory might flicker in recognition at the names of William Phelps Eno, the putative �father� of traffic control, or Henry Barnes, the onetime New York City traffic czar credited with inventing the �Barnes Dance,� wherein an entire intersection, for a moment, is given over to a �four-�way pedestrian �crossing.

Traffic engineers are rather obscure characters, though their work influences our lives every day. A geographic survey of East Lansing, Michigan, for example, once found that more than 50 percent of the retail district was dedicated to �automobile space��parking, roads, and the like. By and large, the design and management of this space is handed over to traffic engineers, and our behavior in it is heavily influenced by their �decisions.

In the last few years, however, one traffic engineer did achieve a measure of global celebrity, known, if not exactly by name, then by his ideas. His name was Hans Monderman. The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety �infra�structure��warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so �on��is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.

As I drove with Monderman through the northern Dutch province of Friesland several years ago, he repeatedly pointed out offending traffic signs. �Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?� he might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. �Why explain it?� He would follow with a characteristic maxim: �When you treat people like idiots, they�ll behave like idiots.� Eventually he drove me to Makkinga, a small village at whose entrance stood a single sign. It welcomed visitors, noted a 30 kilometer-per-hour speed limit, then added: �Free of Traffic Signs.� This was Monderman humor at its finest: a traffic sign announcing the absence of traffic �signs.
And statistics prove that his ideas work. The throughput is increased and the rate of accidents is cut approximately in half. In our neck of the woods, the DOT is micro-managing a lot of our highways and roads; putting in roundabouts, traffic lights, etc... in an attempt to cut down on the number of accidents (which is already pretty low). I'll have to forward copies of this article to some of the engineers and managers and see what they say.

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on August 21, 2008 2:44 PM.

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