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Paying Homage to the 'Traffic Guru'

trafficlighttreeThe modern American city is undeniably built around the car. And though many forward-thinking citizens sometimes question the money and space set aside for the automobile, few have a grudge with the simple stop sign.

Hans Monderman did. He believed that “the traditional traffic safety infrastructure—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,” writes Tom Vanderbilt in the Wilson Quarterly.

In “The Traffic Guru,” Vanderbilt pays homage to the late traffic engineer, who died at the age of 62 in January, famous (or as famous as a traffic engineer can get) for wiping out all or most traffic signs in a handful of Dutch towns.

Monderman and the author traveled together to one such city, Drachten, and observed a town square stripped of traffic symbols. It’s a system that challenges the traditional relationship between drivers and pedestrians, ultimately relying on their intelligence and common sense. Vanderbilt writes:

As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle. . .  Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the [intersection]. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of binary, mechanistic processstop, gothe movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.

Calling our attention to the ungodly number of signs drivers are forced to interpret, Vanderbilt recounts Monderman's ire:

‘Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?’ [Monderman] 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.’

tom cannon_1
10/15/2008 2:53:12 PM

A recent power outage directly east of Savannah illustrated the power of what Monderman was trying to get across: drivers have undue faith in their abilities and their car's capabilities, and as long as the overall outside "system" of lights, signs, and overt controls is in place, they'll speed because everything around them seems "normal". This day, with the power out, NOTHING seemed normal and everyone slowed down, crept through the intersection and kept a close eye on everyone else. The time it took to get through the intersection wasn't that much longer than normal, but it seemed very slow because it was a delay not normal to any of us. Monderman knew that modern man in his car was just another cat and that traffic engineers these days merely herded cats from one stop to another.