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Road signs suck. What if we got rid of them?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Vox and 99% Invisible take a look at the movement to remove signs and traffic lights from traffic intersections in favor of building “shared spaces”, intersections in which cars, pedestrians, and cyclists are equally free to roam.

In traditional intersections, right-of-way has essentially been outsourced to unthinking objects like stop lights and signs. Shared spaces place the responsibility of determining right-of-way back with the individual motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. Both approaches have their pros and cons. As the video notes, accessibility is an issue with shared spaces. But in traditional traffic schemes, cars are often given too much power to harm people, in the form of speed and the implied “I have the right-of-way so get out of my way” legal authority of the green light.

While watching traffic interact in the shared spaces in the video, you realize the assumption that makes them work: that as a general rule, people do not want to harm others. Cars, being so much more dangerous than pedestrians or cyclists, could bully their way these spaces but mostly they don’t because they don’t want to menace or injure others. However, as we’ve seen in the American political sphere recently, social norms can erode and force re-evaluation of assumptions. There will always be individual bad actors — asshole drivers or those who deliberately want to harm — but what happens to shared traffic spaces if the general assumption of people not wanting to harm others breaks down? And would traffic lights and signs fix that problem?

P.S. This is off topic (or is it?!), but I was in Amsterdam last week and it was interesting to observe the hierarchy of traffic there compared with other cities. In the absence of signs or traffic lights, who has the assumed right-of-way in these places?

In NYC (especially Manhattan), cars rule the streets, followed by pedestrians and cyclists…you only need to look at the city’s policy of not prosecuting murder-by-car to understand this. In California and esp. San Francisco (at least when I lived there years ago), if a pedestrian steps out into the street, cars will usually stop, even if they’re jaywalking. This also holds for many other places in the US, especially outside of large cities…cars are generally assumed to have the right-of-way but will also stop for pedestrians. But not in Boston…the sheer insanity of the drivers there gives cars a certain authoritative wide berth, not unlike that of a tottering Jenga tower. In Amsterdam though, cyclists seem to take priority in most situations…cars and pedestrians had to be on the lookout for them whether the cyclists had the light or not. Fascinating to observe.