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Netherlands road design 4

In this overpopulated world of ours, everything we do is guided by rules and laws. Signage on our streets would appear to maintain control and reduce traffic collisions. But do the plethora of signs and traffic lights on our streets really reduce collisions and maintain order? Or do they simply make us unattentive and distract us while driving?

A friend of mine informed me about a highly innovative road design in Holland that addresses said issue. The town of Drachten in the Netherlands is a town with no traffic signals, side walks or speed limits. Here is an excerpt from author Paulo Coelho on the town of Drachten:

The idea came from an engineer called Hans Mondermann. He was working for the Dutch government in the 70s when he began to think that the only way to reduce the growing number of traffic accidents was to make the drivers fully responsible for what they did.

The only measure he took was to diminish the width of the roads that passed through villages by using red bricks instead of asphalt, remove the central line that separates the two flows of traffic, destroy the curbs, and fill the verges with fountains and relaxing landscapes – so that the people stuck in traffic jams could be distracted while they waited. Then came the radical decision to take down all the traffic lights and put an end to the speed limit.

When they first entered the town, the 6,000 motorists who passed by every day were astonished: where can I turn? Who has the right of way? And so they began to pay twice as much attention to what was going on around them. Two weeks later, the average speed was under 30 km/h in places like Drachten. Monderman proclaimed loud and clear:
“If a pedestrian is about to cross the street, of course the cars will have to stop: our grandparents taught us the rules of courtesy.”

So far this has been a success. I reached the airport thinking that Monderman did not just implement a traffic experience, he did something much deeper than that. After all, as he himself says:
“If you treat people like idiots, they will behave according to the rules, and nothing else. But if you give them responsibility, they will know how to use it.”

Monderman’s “distraction theory” removes anything from the road that might distract a driver and cause a collision. I think it’s an interesting test to see how people will behave if they aren’t governed by strict rules and having them held accountable for their actions.

I’d love to see a pilot of this same theory in North America. I think it could be a success in a busy downtown area with narrow streets where traffic is already slow moving. I don’t think it would work on the streets of New York where roads are 6 lanes wide.

4 thoughts on “Netherlands road design

  1. Anonymous Nov 8,2005 1:14 am

    Hey JIm… Thought I’d send you a quick note to let you know I’m still checking up on you!!!
    Joel’s interested to find out more about your studies in January… e-mail him at
    Hope all is well.. you’ll have to visit during Christmas… there’ll be some good nights!!!
    Talk to you soon,

  2. Michael Holloway Mar 14,2010 11:51 pm

    Thinking Kensington Market is a Woonerf.

    Michael Holloway

  3. James D. Schwartz Mar 15,2010 12:20 am

    True Michael, Kensington is sort of an “unofficial” woonerf.

  4. Anneke Oosterink Sep 17,2013 7:41 am

    I suppose this blog entry is about not so much about woonerven (as those are residential only, and not throughroads, in fact, most roads are dead-ends) but it sounds more like Monderman’s shared space idea. Streets without any signals whatsoever. Yes, at first the fact that is was new made people go slow and pay more attention. As soon as they were familiar with the layout they went back to speeding etc. After the first few months/years it has become a very unsafe place for cyclists and pedestrians. There is a very limited situation in which woonerven and/or shared space is desirable, which is residential streets with NO through traffic and 30 km/h maximum speed. In all other situations it only endangers the cyclists. The links I can provide are mostly in Dutch. I believe David Hembrow also wrote a piece about Monderman though.

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