Saturday, 4 August 2012

A city with no traffic signs

Dennis Githinji Mwaniki                                                                                                             

Who in Kenya hasn’t faced the mayhem of being caught up in the cities road madness? My guess is everyone reading this piece has. I know of myriad problems one can associate with Kenyan traffic, so I’ll talk discriminatively of what you haven’t considered as a solution to solve one problem in particular- safety. I mean everything from over speeding, overtaking, competition for space, and independent decisions-making.
  You probably don’t know who Hans Monderman is, or more to the point, was; he died of prostate cancer in January 7th 2008 aged 62. He was a Dutch civil engineer, a specialist in road traffic designing.
In his time as a Dutch road traffic engineer and innovator he managed to place his name in more than a few people’s mouths for radically challenging the criteria by which solutions for streets designs are evaluated. His work compelled transportation planners and highway engineers to look afresh at the way people and technology relate to each other.
He is particularly known for his “Shared Space” design approach, also known as designing for negotiation or shared streets. Monderman found that the efficiency an safety of urban streets improved when the streets and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others. Shared space designs typically call for removing regulatory traffic control features, and replacing intersections with roundabouts.
Anyone who has being in  Kenya long enough can relate that to;  imagining Nairobi without kerbs, lane markings, signs and lights and traffic police. I like the sound of that but just figure it out in your head and let me know any way it work.
At the centre of Monderman’s philosophy about traffic was a desire to force drivers to take responsibility for their actions, to make us drive as if we walking down the streets, not driving. To achieve this, go ahead and remove all the traditional road signs and markings and replacing them with none at all.
Doing this creates a ‘shared space’ in which everyone- old ladies with walking sticks, Ferrari drivers, schoolchildren , hairdressers- is on an equal footing. Lets be clear on that first:- if you are with me still you’ll figure that this means no one has the legal or physical right of way, everyone ends up behaving more responsibly- driving more slowly, looking at other people rather than just other cars, sharing the space available in a civilized manner.
Surprised? Wait, there is more! I know what you thinking, “ that was so nuts of him, it’s impossible,”  and all that; I’ll tell you this wasn’t merely an idea. Monderman’s first experiment in shared space traffic took place more than 20 years ago in a village in Holland, where the residents had become fed up with it being used as a daily thoroughfare for 6000 speeding cars. Within a fortnight of the signs and markings being removed, speeds had dropped by more than half.
Since then, this method of traffic calming has become increasingly popular and is genuinely beginning to make a difference. You’ll be surprised that more than seven countries in Europe have already signed up at government level to undertake in the endeavor-shared space road design. On initial inspection this intersections are always in anarchic mess but within weeks the speeds reduce drastically and the number of accidents always end up vanishing from these scenes.
A few places with this kind of design implemented are:-
v  In Denmark, the town of Christianfield stripped the traffic signs and signals from its major intersection and cut the number of serious or fatal accidents a year from three to zero.
v   In England, towns in Suffolk and Wiltshire have removed lane lines from secondary roads in an effort to slow traffic - experts call it "psychological traffic calming."
v   A dozen other towns in the UK are looking to do the same. A study of center-line removal in Wiltshire, conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory, a UK transportation consultancy, found that drivers with no center line to guide them drove more safely and had a 35 percent decrease in the number of accidents.
This man literally disliked traffic signs, yes. He could put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considered most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they were an admission of failure, a sign - literally - that a road designer somewhere hasn't done his job. "The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there's a problem with a road, they always try to add something," Monderman says. "To my mind, it's much better to remove things."

A picture of Hans Monderman.
I write this with Kenya in mind because of the lifes we are loosing on our roads these days. Now, can our Kenyan drivers heed to the call of responsibility required in this method of traffic calming? Would they by any chance watch the other and scrap the unending tread of,  “me first” on our roads? Will a Kenyan driver wait and watch the pedestrian on the road as an equal user?
My answer is yes; I look at it as a method that gives every humane driver a no choice kind of a situation and thus the resulting smooth, slow and safe traffic. No one will watch the lifeless signs and lights to decide what to do on the road; rather you will be forced to watch closely on each other for a safe drive. A motorist will look upon a motor-cyclist and a cyclist, and a cyclist will look upon the pedestrian and in the end everyone looks on the safety of the other.
By anyone’s analysis of the same, we are able to predict a safe traffic with very few accidents. On a scale of 1-10, I give it a seven, so 70% pass.
It’s plainly simple, my remaining three points go to the following inevitable:-
1.      Machine failure
2.      The hard-core arrogant drivers on our roads.
3.      The rude Kenyan pedestrians trying to test the patience of motorists.
My verdict is, it can work let’s try it out on our Kenyan roads or what…..!?

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