Shared space

While I was driving through the town this afternoon I noticed (once again) a peculiar but somehow familiar phenomenon: roads closed everwhere (for a sporting event), yet at intersections where traffic lights had been disabled, the cars were moving smoothly.

If you've ever watched The Streets of San Francisco you'll have seen car chases careening down steep hills through junction after junction and you wonder 'Where is the steady stream of traffic?' Most of the intersections in downtown S.F. are of a type known as four-way stops; everyone stops, looks, and then continues in the order they arrived. It's quick, polite, simple, cheap, and effective. In fact, it's the same way we walk around the town on foot: looking out for each other. It works.

The Dutch know this to be true because the town of Drachten hasn't had traffic lights in a year and '…in the days of traffic lights, progress across the junction was slow as cars stopped and started. Now tailbacks are almost unheard of — and almost nobody toots a horn'.

This may appear counter-intuitive but the results speak for themselves.

Traffic lights are the bane of any motorised vehicle driver's journey through this town. The Traffic Management Operation and Administration office in Limerick City Council is currently upgrading and expanding the computerised traffic light system this year, which probably means adding a set of lights to every single intersection on the grid (so only about five more to go). But why are they doing this? To reduce accidents? To increase traffic flow?

All available research shows that people drive more carefully when there is a 'perceived danger.' Studies show again and again that disabling lights reduces accident rates at junctions. Most of the time I waste in traffic is while waiting for the lights to change regardless of whether there is perpendicular traffic. And if we were all moving, albeit slowly, surely road rage would decrease also?

This problem of traffic congestion, and our short-sighted solution (adding more lights), is only one minor example which is symptomatic of a wider disease abroad in our society–stagnant thinking. Innovative solutions exist for a variety of our social ills yet we insist on tried and failed methods. These problems have been studied by numerous other countries, acres of research documents are at our fingertips if we bothered to check. Oh we can easily find studies in Ireland: The National Roads Office traffic study, Urban Design study, Town Centre Transportation study etc. But which of these bothered to ask whether we need traffic lights at all? None. It takes all of two minutes to search the web for several working alternatives to the current ailing system.

It's clear that those who determine public policy in our society suffer from both an unwillingness to accept outside ideas and/or a chronic aversion to change. Why do we need more lenghty studies, more discussion, more endless procrastination about problems that other people have already solved?

As an addendum, here's another random example: Pets in prisons have startlingly positive effects on the inmates. I remember this from an article I read over 20 years ago! Why isn't it implemented immediately? It sounds too kooky, that's why. Who cares if it actually works? Give them Playstations and they can play 'Grand Theft Auto' instead.