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Hans Monderman (1945 – 2008), a Dutch traffic engineer, turned urban transportation planning upside down with the idea of “Shared Space”. Although it strikes people as shocking, Monderman’s concept is disarmingly simpl e: remove traffic lights, signs, crosswalks, lane markers and even curbs so that pedestrians, motorists and cyclists are allowed to negotiate their way through streets by gesturing and reacting to one another.
City and village streets become safer, Monderman showed, only when the road is stripped of traffic controls so that drivers begin to take their cues from looking at people instead of signs. The results of Shared Space are just the opposite of what many people would expect: the traffic moves slower and major accidents decline drastically.
Monderman’s designs were first implemented in his native Netherlands and have spread throughout Europe, outh Africa, Australia, Japan, and Brazil. They are now being introduced to car-dominated U.S. and Canada.
“It’s a moving away from regulated, legislated traffic toward space which, by the way it’s designed and configured, makes it clear what sort of behavior is anticipated,” said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English urban designer who coined the phrase Shared Space after trying out Monderman’s controversial ideas in his hometown of Bristol. Hamilton-Baillie now promotes Shared Space projects in Germany, Belgium and Denmark as part of a European Union project.
Monderman was born in the town of Leeuwarden in the northern Dutch province of Friesland, in 1945. As a child, he loved to tinker with things and became known for repairing his neighbors’ broken radios and telephones. This knack for problem solving led him to study civil engineering, and his first job out of university was designing roads in Friesland. He also moonlighted as a driving instructor, which sparked his interest in better understanding what causes road accidents.
In 1982, Monderman was appointed as road safety investigator in the town of Oudehaske at a time when budget cuts had derailed plans for traffic calming measures, even though there had been several recent traffic fatalities. To save money yet keep the streets safe Monderman hit on the idea of removing signs and street furniture to create a flat even surface where travelers of all modes had to negotiate rights-of-way among themselves. Exceeding even his own expectations, Monderman found that the plan cut vehicle speeds by forty percent. The absence of all traffic controls increased drivers’ awareness and thus forced them to slow down.
Between then and his death in 2008, Monderman developed more than 100 Shared Space plans in towns of the northern Dutch provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe. Some began to see his work as the next generation of traffic calming, which also was invented in the Netherlands in the late 1960s by frustrated neighbors in the city of Delft who wanted to slow traffic on residential streets.
Monderman gained wide attention outside Europe in 2004 when prominent articles on him appeared in the New York Times and Wired magazine, generating a surge of media interest. Wired describe him as, “the sort of stout, reliable fellow you’d see on a package of pipe tobacco,” but went on to praise him as “ a new breed of traffic engineer– equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist.”
An ever skeptical magazine, Wired scrutinized Monderman-inspired projects in West Palm Beach, Florida, and reported: “Planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times. People felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town’s main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured.”
Although Monderman has been championed as a traffic engineer who revolutionized the profession by designing streets not just for motorists but for pedestrian and cyclists, he always remained a car-lover who relished tooling around the backroads of Holland in his green Saab.
Monderman’s designs emphasized human interaction over mechanical traffic devices. By taking away conventional regulatory traffic controls, he proved that human interaction and caution would naturally yield a safer, more pleasant environment for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
“Every road tells a story. It’s just that so many of our roads tell the story poorly, or tell the wrong story.”
“A wide road with a lot of signs is… saying, go ahead, don’t worry, go as fast as you want, there’s no need to pay attention to your surroundings. And that’s a very dangerous message.”
“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”.
“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”
“Essentially, what it means is a transfer of power and responsibility from the state to the individual and the community.”
“When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.
Hans Monderman. (January 2006). Tour of Shared Space in Drachten (YouTube) [Video, 10 parts]. tequio. Retrieved on 2008-02-22.
Hans Monderman. (2007-11-13). Designing Shared Space (mov) [Video, 57:33]. Urban Design London. Retrieved on 2008-02-22. Masterclass 7.
Articles about Monderman
The View from Alger’s Window
The Metropolitan Initiative