Urban traffic engineering

James’ post about the Oxford Circus redesign fails to distinguish three very different ideas about managing movement in urban spaces, though if you follow his links you can parse it out.

The culture of traffic engineering is about moving cars (in parts of Europe, bicycles and trams also) quickly, and one of its tropes – James’ main target – is to get the damn pedestrians out of the way. Also the bicycles, in most of the US until quite recently: the Secretary of Transportation of Massachusetts said to me in 1981, when I asked what programs he was planning for bicycle commuting, “well, they mostly just interfere with traffic, right?”.   This leads to fences along curbs to prevent jaywalking and funnel pedestrians to approved crossing lanes, and some really appalling things like the two-story stair climb required to cross the eje’s (arterial through streets) on which Mexico City drivers drive park in ranks and files during rush hours, not to mention the quarter-mile hike along the eje to get to one.

The first big idea is the realization that cities are not about being easy to drive cars through; cities are about being easy to get about in by many modes, especially including feet (and wheelchairs), and having places that are nice to dawdle in.  Respect for modes other than cars has led to some quite amazing engineering, like the four completely separated  interlocking, light-controlled systems for pedestrians, bikes, cars and trams in the Netherlands.

The second idea is a fairly modest innovation, called the Barnes Dance when introduced in New York by Henry Barnes, the traffic commissioner: this is the four-way red for cars at orthogonal intersections and free pedestrian movement between any two corners.  It turned out to slow vehicle traffic very little and greatly eased walking; this is the idea introduced at Oxford Circus, where allowing people to walk in the direction they want to go allowed the removal of a bunch of fences and street junk.

The third idea is genuinely revolutionary.  Hans Monderman, one of my heroes, was the  champion of the astonishing idea that a lot of busy, complicated urban spaces work better for everyone if cleared of traffic lights, sidewalks, curbs, and crossing controls and turned into a free-for all (I also have to admire the courage of the elected officials who let him try this the first time).  It turns out that when they aren’t dependent on lights and lanes, and know that the right-of-way is full of pedestrians, bikes, and hot-dog wagons, drivers slow down, take care, and (this is one remarkable outcome) get through the space faster. Pedestrians step out of the way of the cars with modest inconvenience, and (this is the other remarkable outcome) accidents, including pedestrian accidents fall substantially. Obviously, there is an inescapable tradeoff between pedestrian and car convenience, and between safety and convenience, but these are two more of the many obvious things that are also false.

The recognition that behavior is not always improved by formal controls, but often by transferring decisionmaking back to people who can efficiently size up situations and will generally be polite and cautious, is quite important and much bigger than street  design.  In my business, to mention only one example, a lot of my colleagues seem engaged in a losing arms race with their students to control cheating by what seem to me to be infantilizing rules, requiring them to put their backpacks on the floor at the front of the room during exams, not letting them come back in the room if they go to the bathroom, and the like.  That kind of thing really grates on me; I don’t see how I can expect students to act like grownups if I treat them like children, much less juvenile delinquents.  It’s possible I’m being cheated blind, but I’m pretty sure I do better giving only open-book, open-notes midterms (this helps them not obsessively memorize stuff) that are all  essay questions (for which I tell them, stuff they bring along probably won’t be useful but might be comforting), but nothing electronic allowed.   They also grade each other on class participation, so I can expect a certain amount of peer control for which I don’t have to play Mommy; presumably most students will be inhibited about being seen to cheat by exactly the people they are cutting in line ahead of, and who will be registering consequential judgments about them.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Urban traffic engineering”

  1. Mondermanism is alright, but if you really want to save the climate you have to give people alternatives to cars. Not just, "We'll remove some street signs and you can walk if you want to," but alternatives to cars that are actually superior. The Netherlands has this figured out. In a lot of places the bike is actually quicker than a car because they've made the bike routes more direct than the car routes. Here are an Anglo-Dutch bike blog's posts tagged "directness":
    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/search/label/directne

    Hembrow has a post on shared space:
    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/11/shared-space….

  2. Shrines! There's your answer… http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/… I'm also a big fan of road pricing, and putting the price very high at commute hours. Gas taxes don't compel one's attention to the effects of one's actions on others, but variable tolls do. On your cheating controls – I think this is something you can get away with, given what you teach, it's less workable for, say, a 200-person lecture course in applied math, or Spanish I.

  3. I fancy the word in British English will be ¨Shibuya crossing¨ as Tokyo, not New York, was the proximate inspiration for London.

  4. UCLA recently started advertising (I am not sure how long the actual fine has been in place) a fine for riding anything down Bruin walk, I suppose this falls under the major thoroughfare caveat provided in the article, but I wonder if the fine has had the intended effect?

    I understand the concept, shifting the responsibility back to the user from the state, but how to we convince law enforcement to get on board with the loss of revenue due to traffic violations? What about law enforcements use of traffic violations to engage the community?

  5. Seems to me you already have the enlightened Netherlands approach in many parts of Asia; I would like to hear some learned commentary on that. In Da Nang, Vietnam, there are only a handful of traffic lights; everyone just goes, pedestrians, cars and all those motorcycles. None of the vehicles goes terribly fast but then they're not stressed out by sitting at traffic lights or long jams. You can cross a city of about a million in less time than we do here in America in a similar-sized city.

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