If the motor car had just been invented, you’d imagine that the health and safety brigade would call for something a little more effective than a white line between traffic moving in opposite directions at speed. And it turns out that there is indeed something more effective; in fact, when it was introduced in Wiltshire, a study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that it cut accidents by 35 per cent.
It was removing the white line altogether. This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s part of a global movement which has been growing since the turn of the century. The evidence suggests that removing not only centre line markings, but many traditional safeguards, from road signs to traffic lights and even pavements, actually reduces the accident rate and improves traffic flow.
For most of the 20th century, road designers and urban planners assumed that the best way to prevent congestion and accidents was to make roads wider and segregate cars from pedestrians (and, often, cyclists too). But since the millennium, a different approach has sprung up – initially in The Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany, though it is now winning adherents around the world.
One of the most recent experiments of this sort has been the remodelling of Exhibition Road, a major thoroughfare in London, where architects removed even the pavements, encouraging cars and pedestrians to share the space. The half-mile stretch between South Kensington station and Hyde Park, which, because so many of the city’s museums are located nearby, was always a busy area for pedestrians, now has very little in the way of “street clutter”, nor even a kerb – though there are markings to alert blind pedestrians when they are entering the area where vehicles are allowed. This redesign, which took almost a decade from conception to completion, has, however, come at no small cost – the project came in at £30 million.
Road designers found that when these barriers and signs were removed, drivers and pedestrians police their own traffic flow more effectively; compelled to slow down and take more notice of other road users, they negotiate for priority by making eye contact, and are more considerate. One Danish town which abandoned all warnings and markings from its principal intersection saw its annual number of serious accidents fall from three to zero, while West Palm Beach, when it removed road signs and actually narrowed its highways, found that it led not only to fewer casualties, but that journey times improved (even though drivers cut their speed).
It fits in, however, with the current UK government’s ambition greatly to reduce the number of road signs and clutter. One financial incentive is that many signs need lighting, which adds up to a serious cost for many councils, but the chief imperative came from research suggesting that too many signs make drivers more likely to recklessly ignore their surroundings.
In October 2011, the rules were changed to allow for the removal of unnecessary or confusing signs and markings, and around 10,000 signs have since been axed. The Department of Transport is now pushing for further changes, and actively encouraging councils to remove signs.
The old approach to traffic engineering assumed that wide routes and frequent instructions was the best model, but the evidence suggests that congestion actually increases, traffic moves more inefficiently, and pedestrians and cyclists find the environment hostile and dangerous. And it affects far more than that; towns and cities built around the convenience of motorists also determine the kinds of building and businesses nearby, and help to determine everything from air quality to the crime rate. With the newer, more anarchic model, it turns out that if you stop telling drivers what to do, they start paying more attention, and the road becomes a safer, more democratic and considerate place for all its users.