Hans Monderman – safer traffic management

photo courtesy of UrbanNous

I’ve just been reminded that there is no substitute for direct learning. After years of informally educating myself about Hans Monderman’s ideas about safer traffic management, and visiting British examples like Kensington High Street, I’ve finally heard the man himself speak. And it’s well worth it.

Sadly, Hans died recently. But if you’ve got broadband, you can watch him deliver a presentation to a British audience in London last year. I guarantee you that it will be 40 minutes well spent.

You’ll have your own thoughts on what he has to say. But to give a flavour of the issues that Hans raises, let me tell you what he made me think about:

blurring the public and private realms

The basis of Hans’ approach comes from concern with road safety statistics. It may also result in streets that look and feel better, but the fundamental motivation is to eradicate the 15% of accidents that cause death or injury.

Only a very small proportion of our roads are needed for road networks, for facilitating travel. The others can be humanised. And the roads that are needed for travel networks should be designed either for 20mph or below (human scale) or 50mph and above – because the number of fatalities increases hugely between those two speeds.

Hans talks about liminal circles, in terms of blurring the definition between public and private space that characterised 20th century traffic management – instead positively encouraging a blurred distinction between the ‘private’ (like play space in residential areas) and the ‘public’ (the vehicular carriageway). Introducing that fuzziness sends subliminal messages to drivers, warning them that they are encroaching on private, human environments.

Conversely, imposing rules (like 30 mph speed restrictions) takes away personal judgment of risk and responsibility. Hans argues that we should always aim to take away, not add – so we should reduce signs and instructions, not add more. The more signs there are, the less people will take responsibility. Basically, add a little risk, people take more are, and severe accidents drop.

Patience, understanding and careful negotiations are critical. It takes time and political support to change – discussions Hans was involved with for one key crossroads (22,000 vehicles per day) in the Dutch town of Drachten took 7 years to agree a design.

Kensington High Street (courtesy of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea

Looking around British towns and cities, it may seem as if we’re a long way off being able to implement Hans’ ideas. But there are examples that show it can be done. Apart from the oft-cited example of Kensington High Street, there are others – the EU publication Reclaiming City Streets for People contains 4 British examples as well as robust arguments for why this approach should be used more, whilst Willie Miller Urban Design has more information about how Hans’ ideas have been progressed in the UK.

Don’t forget to watch the videos of Hans’ presentation – and encourage every planner, traffic engineer and indeed member of the public to watch them too!

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