Hans Monderman Has Died

One of my heroes, the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, died this week. Here is an excerpt from his obituary in The Times.

Hans Monderman pioneered the concept of the “naked street” by removing all the things that were supposed to make it safe for the pedestrian – traffic lights, railings, kerbs and road markings. He thereby created a completely open and even surface on which motorists and pedestrians “negotiated” with each other by eye contact.

Consider that our system of traffic lights basically treats traffic management as a hydraulic problem rather than as a problem of human psychology. The system, amazingly, encourages drivers to look up at traffic lights instead of what’s going on straight ahead. Think about that.

bq.He passionately believed that segregating cars and pedestrians was wrong and an imposition from the state. Instead, he claimed a natural interaction between the driver and the pedestrian would create a more civilised environment.

His maxim was: “If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots. Never treat anyone in the public realm as an idiot, always assume they have intelligence.”

It should go without saying that this maxim applies to far more than driving.

It’s important to note that Monderman reached this conclusion not from principle, but from long experience in trying to save lives.

Soon after starting in the role, sudden budget cuts led to the scrapping of planned traffic-calming measures in the village of Oudehaske, where two children had been killed in road accidents. Monderman suddenly hit upon the idea of stripping out all the remaining highway signs and furniture to create a plain, even surface. To his astonishment he found that drivers cut their speeds by an average of 40 per cent when driving through the village. It was a defining discovery and further experimentation confirmed that naked streets cut speeds far more than speed humps because they increased drivers’ awareness of their surroundings and thus caused them to slow down.

“Roads Gone Wild,” published in Wired three years ago, tells you everything you need to know about Monderman’s “radical” idea, an idea that has led to dramatic reduction in traffic fatalities and environmental damage.