Anarchy in the Streets: How Shared Space Revolutionized Traffic Engineering

By Sublett

The town where I grew up used to have a narrow bridge that got backed up every afternoon when the shift changed at the local shipyard. Drivers merging into traffic from the onramp would alternate one by one with those already on the bridge, creating a slow but steady flow of traffic that got everybody to the other side as quickly as possible under the circumstances. Until, of course, some cop would show up and start directing traffic, turning a smooth progression into a frustrating stop-and-go crawl. It was a perfect example of authority interfering in a cooperative, non-hierarchical process to make itself appear needed.

Yet most people, even most anarchists, would probably agree that in general traffic regulations are necessary. Without things like speed limits and traffic lights, wouldn't accidents and gridlock make driving impossible? Maybe not. An innovative traffic management system known as "shared space" has shown that under the right circumstances, fewer rules lead to fewer accidents.

Shared space was the brainchild of the late Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer. Monderman came up with the concept in the late 1970s, when he was the traffic safety officer of the Dutch province of Freisland. While trying to slow traffic on the main road in one small town, Monderman, instead of adding more rules and enforcement, went in the opposite direction. He ripped out traffic lights, center dividers, lane markers, street signs and even curbs. Nearly every fixture that offered travelers explicit instructions was eliminated. Without "street furniture" to induce a false sense of certainty, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians were forced to think for themselves and negotiate their own interactions, rather than rely on a rigid system of arbitrary rules. The result was that speeds were cut in half and fatalities dropped to zero. Monderman later explained the principle in a quote to the New York Times: "All those signs are saying to cars, 'This is your space, and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you.' That is the wrong story."

While the idea of shared space is highly counterintuitive to authoritarians, it is so effective in practice that even hidebound municipal bureaucracies and corporate propaganda organs have been unable to resist it completely. By replacing stoplights with traffic circles, shared space roads allow cars to get through intersections faster, even though top speeds are reduced. Even better, serious accidents are virtually unheard of.

Monderman used to demonstrate the safety of his intersections by walking backwards into traffic with his arms folded, as cars swerved smoothly around him (no, that's not how he died). Lured by such benefits, cities in Holland, Austria, England, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and even the US, among other countries, have established shared space intersections and districts. The New York Times, Wired, Reuters and other media outlets have published favorable articles on Monderman's work.

The concept of shared space is not confined to a few Western pilot projects; much of the traffic in China operates on the same principle. An article by Steve Benen on described how hundreds of thousands of commuters in the city of Suzhou get around without resorting to regulations of any sort. The few traffic lights and lane markers that exist are universally ignored.

The movie Return of the Scorcher shows a similar situation in Beijing, where bicyclists, instead of relying on stoplights, simply accumulate at intersections until their numbers reach a "critical mass" sufficient to let them proceed. Return of the Scorcher helped inspire the Critical Mass protests in which bicyclists form mobile pockets of shared space on otherwise authoritarian roadways.

But besides the obvious logistical benefits, shared space exemplifies the principle that people can arrange their own affairs better than any outside authority can do it for them. Top down, one-size-fits-all rules can never fulfill the needs of those they purport to benefit as efficiently as systems of cooperative interaction.

Shared space is hardly the only instance of this phenomenon. In the recovered factories of Argentina and the open-source software movement, amid countless other lesser known examples, we see people cooperating to solve their problems without any need or desire for bosses. Whenever a group gathers with a common purpose, whether it's avoiding gridlock or creating a computer operating system, they are practicing anarchy - even if they don't identify themselves as anarchists.

So what does this mean for the future of shared space? It's hard to tell, but every revolution provokes a reaction. Many police departments raise money from traffic enforcement fines and will probably be unwilling to give up this revenue merely to save a few lives. More broadly, if enough people notice that they don't need a government to regulate traffic, they might decide that they don't need a government at all. Bosses instinctively lash out at anything that threatens to expose their uselessness, and few things could be more embarrassing to a local public works department than having to admit that their entire approach to traffic safety has been a complete failure. But while you probably shouldn't hold your breath waiting for the shared space revolution to sweep your hometown, shared space at least provides a perfect response to those who ask, "But how could an anarchist society enforce traffic rules?"

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