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Are towns really safer without traffic lights?

One German community removes lights and signs in a daring experiment and sees accident rates decline.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2008

No sidewalks? Bohmte, a village in northern Germany, has done away with sidewalks and signs as part of a 'shared space' traffic experiment.

Isabelle De Pommereau

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Bohmte, Germany

When Ulrike Rubcic heard that her town would take down all of its traffic lights, she rolled her eyes in disbelief.

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Tucked between cornfields and cow meadows, the main street in this bucolic northern German community was also a thoroughfare with thousands of cars and trucks zooming to or from nearby Osnabruck. "Are we waiting for the first accident?" she thought then.

But this summer the town reworked its downtown thoroughfare, not only scrapping the traffic lights but also tearing down the curbs and erasing marked crosswalks. The busiest part of the main street turned into a "naked" square shared equally by bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trucks. Now, there is only one rule: Always give way to the person on the right.

Two months into the experiment, "Instead of thinking, 'It's going to be red, I need to give gas, people have to slow down, to look to the right and the left, to be considerate" says Ms. Rubcic.

The bonus? Town people recognize they have become a bit closer to one another. "The whole village has become more human. We look at each other, we greet each other," she says.

In recent years, initiatives that aim at rescuing streets from the hegemony of cars, giving more space for pedestrians and cyclists and combating increased speed, traffic, and trouble have popped up in cities across Europe.

In a new experiment, "Paris respire," the banks of the Seine are closed to traffic on sunny days. Switzerland has set up "zones of encounter" where playgrounds or landscaped areas force cars to slow down and pedestrians have priority. Hundreds of Dutch neighborhoods have successfully done away with traffic signs.

But Bohmte broke new ground. In Germany, a country fond of rules, Bohmte did what politicians had hitherto not dared to do.

"What's revolutionary about Bohmte is that it took off its signs on a state highway with a lot of traffic," says Heiner Monheim, a traffic management expert at the University of Trier, speaking at a recent European conference on sign-free towns convened here. Beyond that, Monheim says, the model's real legacy is to have brought people closer to "rediscovering and appreciating cities not only as traffic places but also as human, social places."

Just like so many other German communities, Bohmte's location as a busy artery was both its blessing and its curse. Close to 13,000 cars and trucks would speed along its main street every day. "Drivers didn't care about kids," says Klaus Mueller, strolling about with his grandchild and noting that the flow of cars is more slow and steady now.

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