A traffic engineer in the Netherlands, Hans Monderman (1945 – 2008) turned urban transportation planning upside down with the groundbreaking concept of “Shared Space.” His idea is disarmingly simple: remove traffic lights, signs, crosswalks, lane markers and even curbs so that pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists must negotiate their way through streets by interacting with, and reacting to, one another.
Monderman’s work demonstrated that city and village streets become safer when they are stripped of traffic controls so that drivers must take cues from observing people rather than signs. Though it sounds chaotic, the results of Shared Space have shown to be just the opposite: traffic moves slower and the rate of major accidents declines drastically.
First implemented in his native Netherlands, Monderman’s designs have since spread throughout Europe, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, and Canada. They are also making an appearance in often car-dominated U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Chicago.
“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 an ongoing project of the European Union.
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 the underlying causes of road accidents.
In 1982, Monderman was appointed 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 while still keeping the streets safe, Monderman approached the idea of removing signs and street furniture in order to create a flat, even surface where travelers of all modes had to negotiate rights-of-way amongst themselves. The plan exceeded even his own expectations, cutting vehicle speeds by forty percent. The absence of all traffic controls increased driver awareness, forcing them to slow down.
Throughout his life, 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 he was featured prominently in publications like The New York Times and Wired. 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.” The article 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.
Shared Space. 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.”