Rethinking urban spaces: putting an end to town-centre traffic lights

Before delving into this subject, it is important to highlight the fact that there has for a while been a growth in an ecological and security-oriented vision of urban movement. In fact, certain cities such as Lille, Grenoble, Lorient and Rennes limit traffic to 30km/h. A desire to favour bicycles through the construction of cycle paths has also been noted, as has the development of exclusively pedestrianised roads. In a sense, many think that there is a lack of political courage in this domain, and they underline a form of generalised hypocrisy regarding public urban politics. However, it is interesting to note that traffic lights and driving at low speed ultimately lead to the emission of higher volumes of fine particles.

Traffic lights: a revolution in urban traffic flow

Traffic lights first saw the light of day in the USA during the First World War. They began arriving in France in 1920 thanks to Léon Foenquinos, and began being set up in 1923. This creation replaced the “informal processes” (James C. Scott) regulating the relationship between urban spaces and their users. Previously, this informal process was internalised in public psyche, and allowed users of urban space to take responsibility for themselves. The instatement of traffic lights as a method of avoiding accidents created a subconscious fear of breaking the rules on the part of the citizens. Thus, citing Scott once again, the “electronic legal order” became henceforth dominant in our society.

A critical look at the electronic order: the case of Drachten, Netherlands

Indeed, in the town of Drachten, a question was asked in 1999 which is fundamental in understanding the importance of the criticism of traffic lights. This question was, “what would happen if there was not this electronic order at the intersection, and thus drivers and pedestrians were forced to come to their own judgment?” The result of the consultation which followed this question demonstrates a desire, both of public authorities and of citizens, to remove traffic lights not only in the United States, but also in some European countries, as David Millward comments in his 2006 article entitled “Is this the end of the road for traffic lights?”. This method of rearranging urban circulation allowed for the development of self-responsibility within urban space and encouraged users’ independent judgment.

A less radical solution: Hans Monderman’s concept of “shared space”

Hans Monderman was a road traffic engineer whose idea was to put an end to traffic lights. He conceptualised the notion of “shared space” noticing, whenever a power cut took place, that the traffic was more fluid than normal. He thus attempted an experiment by removing the traffic lights from the most highly shared spaces – a roundabout, a cycle path, and a pedestrian street in Drachten, where around 22,000 cars normally pass through daily. It was found that with the withdrawal of traffic lights, the number of accidents in the following two years fell to just two, compared with thirty-six observed during the four preceding years. Equally, the traffic moved more smoothly, as drivers were more vigilant about giving way on the right or about a right of way, meaning that they were more attentive. It is notable also that traffic lights create frustration; often people would honk their horns just as the light changed from green. This frustration led automatically to aggression, anxiety and stress. The withdrawal of traffic lights produced the result of fewer traffic jams, as well as less aggression.

To solidify his theory, Monderman compared the situation to skaters who adapt their movements to other skaters. It may also be compared to users of skateparks, where a fluidity of movement and a considerate attitude between users exist automatically.

Thus, Monderman’s concept may be said to reflect an anarchic vision, as it depends upon individual intelligence, common sense and independence. These rules in general within urban space lead to situations such as accelerations or running red lights. This way of thinking critically allows us to take a step back and become aware of the individual within the urban network.

One could envisage the towns of the future adopting this model, or being still more radical and banning cars in town centres. However, it must be noted that this new philosophy of “what seems unsafe is most safe” remains subject to debate, but it is also praised by Dutch citizens who are in favour of a “verkeersbordvrij” (traffic-sign free) situation.  

Theo Wyckaert

Translated by Jenny Frost