German town’s traffic plan: retrenchment, not radicalism

Parts of European cities have a modern streetscape, — Paris, due to Baron Haussmann‘s urban-renewal projects in the mid-19th century; many other cities, due to bombing in World War II and subsequent reconstruction.

But ancient, narrow streets without sidewalks are very common in European cities and towns. As an example, in 1989 during a bicycle tour in France, my wife and I walked east from the central plaza of the provincial town of Loches along a main street to attend a historical lecture. We had to zigzag from one side of the street to the other to find narrow sidewalks on the way to the lecture at a public school in town.

In this light, let’s examine the removal of signs, signals and markings from part of the Bremer Straße, the main street of the German town of Bohmte, which has received heavy news coverage recently. North American news media generally express wonderment that such a radical and unusual plan could reduce the crash rate, as claimed. Consider the article by Craig Whitlock published in the Washington Post on Wednesday, December 26, 2007.

The headline reads:

“Europeans try to solve traffic woes by throwing out most road rules”

A quote from the article reads:

“Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,” said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. “When they’re confused, they’ll be more alert and drive more carefully.”

The article also mentions an underlying, rather familiar reason for the town’s traffic problems: merchants didn’t want a bypass, because it would divert traffic away from their places of business.

But the headline, and the following quote, are off-base:

“Only two traffic rules remain. Drivers cannot go more than 30 mph, the German speed limit for city driving. And everyone has to yield to the right, regardless of whether it’s a car, a bike or a baby carriage.”

The reported speed limit is incorrect — it’s actually 30 km/h, about 19 mph, a common speed limit for low-traffic residential streets in Europe. And the posted speed limit is not the only speed limit, in Bohmte or anywhere. There’s also the fundamental speed limit rule — to drive no faster than is reasonable under the existing conditions.

The article’s statement about yielding to the right could mean either of two things, both of which apply: drive on the right, and yield to a vehicle entering from the right — the universal rule for uncontrolled intersections.

So, removing signs and signals emphatically does not remove road rules. It only imposes different rules.

Confusion may increase for readers of the article! But on the Bremer Straße, uncertainty, rather than confusion, has been increased by the removal of signs, signals and markings.

(I thank Don Cook of the City of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for making this distinction!).

To get some perspective on the situation, you may view a Google map of Bohmte, though the section of the Bremer Straße with its special red-colored pavement doesn’t show up yet in the images posted in February, 2008. Some crosswalks are shown with red pavement — a usual color in Germany to identify zones where drivers pay special attention (another rule!).

Uncontrolled intersections are very common in European cities and towns, stop signs less common than in North America. European drivers understand that the vehicle on the right has priority when two vehicles arrive at an uncontrolled intersection at the same time — also, that an intersection with restricted sight lines requires slow, careful driving. And it is always necessary to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists.

So, the main street of Bohmte has merely been reduced to the status of many other streets. Without the signs, signals, markings and sidewalks, slow and careful driving is necessary, as on many other European urban streets.

This approach also increases safety as long as everyone travels slowly enough to avoid collisions. But if used to excess or inappropriately, this approach defeats the major advantage of bicycling or motorized travel. If a street is too narrow for motor vehicles to overtake bicycles, motor vehicles must go as slowly as bicycles. And if pedestrian space is not defined and available, bicycle traffic as well as motor traffic must slow to walking speed.

Then, fuel economy decreases, while travel time and pollution increase. On a street used mostly for local trips, a mode shift to bicycling and walking may follow as motoring becomes less convenient. On an unavoidable through route, there will be a a “bottleneck” — a reduction in speed but not in volume of the through traffic. — Bohmte being one example; another, in North America, is Burlington, Ontario before the high bridge was constructed –see Google map of Burlington.

European drivers generally understand uncontrolled intersections. Americans, not so much. The first intersection down the street from my house on a dead end in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA is an uncontrolled intersection. Most neighbors understand that they need to be prepared to yield, but some assume that if they don’t see signs or signals, drivers in the cross street will yield to them. There was a nasty collision a few years back when two vehicles entered this intersection at right angles, both traveling around 30 mph.

A common response to such an incident in the USA is to post stop signs or signalize the intersection, further increasing drivers’ expectation that they can rely on signs and signals. Old-school traffic engineers resist this trend, but politics often overrides their advice.

The real confusion in the Bohmte situation is in the minds of advocates of urban reform. The removal of signs, signals, markings and sidewalks is diametrically opposite the common approach which installs all of these — and bike lanes too — but advocates of urban reform get excited about both.

Why? Both approaches are seen as ways to reduce the dominance of motor vehicles in the urban landscape. While streets shared with congestion-free, slow motor traffic work well for bicyclists, shared streets all too often reflect a vision primarily from the point of view of pedestrian advocacy, which neglects the different needs of bicyclists. I have seen too many advocates for traffic calming assume that plazas and sidewalk-less streets crowded with pedestrians make good bicycle routes. They most certainly don’t, and so bicyclists deserve to take a good hard look at the unintended consequences when such measures are proposed!

One response to “German town’s traffic plan: retrenchment, not radicalism

  1. As of May, 2010, research results on shared space begin to trickle in. Here’s an excellent preliminary report from the U.K. Dwight Kingsbury, who works for the Florida Department of Transportation and is a member of the Bicycle Technical Committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, summarizes:

    A British review of shared space schemes judged, from the limited data available, that schemes did not consistently reduce casualty risk (although some seemed to) . Speed reductions were not always as great as hoped. A Swedish shared-space study found that at speeds below 20 km/h, motorists usually yielded to pedestrians, not so much to cyclists (Figure 3.3).

    An article in German Wikipedia describes the experience in Bohmte. I hope to get around to translating it. An assessment by Kingsbury:

    ..crash rates did not decline in the first year after traffic signs and signals were removed from the town center. However, most crashes were minor. A more definitive assessment would require another couple years of data. The town’s financial burden of maintaining signs and signals has been reduced.

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