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Second generation traffic calming

Salon recently ran an article on the relatively new school of thought about traffic management called second generation traffic calming. It involves improving traffic flow by incorporating, under certain circumstances, automobile traffic back into the flow of other human activities:

Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it’s a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty. In practice, it’s about dismantling barriers: between the road and the sidewalk, between cars, pedestrians and cyclists and, most controversially, between moving vehicles and children at play.

The idea, borrowed in part from behavioral psychology and evolutionary biology disciplines, is that traffic will become safer and move more smoothly if drivers are forced to pay more attention to their driving and be on autopilot less:

Reversing decades of conventional wisdom on traffic engineering, Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes. Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.

At the beginning of the article, the author observes traffic working like this in China:

It’s rush hour, and I am standing at the corner of Zhuhui and Renmin Road, a four-lane intersection in Suzhou, China. Ignoring the red light, a couple of taxis and a dozen bicycles are headed straight for a huge mass of cyclists, cars, pedicabs and mopeds that are turning left in front of me. Cringing, I anticipate a collision. Like a flock of migrating birds, however, the mass changes formation. A space opens up, the taxis and bicycles move in, and hundreds of commuters continue down the street, unperturbed and fatality free.

In Suzhou, the traffic rules are simple. “There are no rules,” as one local told me. A city of 2.2 million people, Suzhou has 500,000 cars and 900,000 bicycles, not to mention hundreds of pedicabs, mopeds and assorted, quainter forms of transportation. Drivers of all modes pay little attention to the few traffic signals and weave wildly from one side of the street to another. Defying survival instincts, pedestrians have to barge between oncoming cars to cross the roads.

But here’s the catch: During the 10 days I spent in Suzhou last fall, I didn’t see a single accident. Really, not a single one. Nor was there any of the road rage one might expect given the anarchy that passes for traffic policy. And despite the obvious advantages that accrue to cars because of their size, no single transportation mode dominates the streets.

When I was in Bejing a few years ago, I observed the same thing. Traffic was an amazing thing to watch there. One day as we toured a temple a few stories off the ground, my dad and I broke away from the rest of the group to watch traffic on the 5 or 6-way intersection below us for several minutes. It was a marvel of self-organizing behavior, with buses, pedicabs, pedestrians, cyclists, taxis, cars, and motorcycles forming temporary lanes of traffic that would weaken and yield to newly formed lanes of flow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in NYC as well, especially in dense areas of Manhattan like Midtown. People are always in the street, crossing against the light or jaywalking across even busy avenues or through stopped traffic. Cyclists run red lights, charge through busy crosswalks, and barrel down one-way streets the wrong way. Everyone pays a lot of attention to what they’re doing, regardless of what the signs say or where the crosswalk is marked. And for the most part, it seems to work. New York City has a relatively low pedestrian fatality rate, about half that of the city with the highest rate, a remarkable fact considering the pedestrian density involved and how fast traffic moves in Manhattan sometimes (I saw a cab zipping down 5th Avenue this afternoon doing at least 50 mph, slaloming through jaywalkers as he went).