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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

Because Bohmte's main street is a state highway, the town cannot forbid truck traffic. Mayor Klaus Goedejohann knew that the heavy traffic spoilt the town's atmosphere, but that it also provided the town's livelihood. "How do we manage to meet the interest of all the traffic participants without excluding anybody?" he recalls thinking.

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Then Mr. Goedejohann heard of a radical traffic-management philosophy called "shared space." Pioneered by a Dutch engineer who thought towns were safer with fewer rules, it envisioned open surfaces on which motorists and pedestrians could "negotiate" with one another by eye contact, other signals, and a greater consideration for one another.

Segregating cars and pedestrians was wrong, argued Hans Monderman, whose death this winter rekindled people's interest in his ideas. Portrayed as a dangerous maverick decades ago, Mr. Monderman put in place more than 100 shared-space schemes in the Netherlands. When the European Union launched a research project on shared space, Bohmte decided to try it, along with six other towns, including Ostend in Belgium and Ipswich in England.

Not everybody feels good about the town having spent close to $3.3 million on redesigning its downtown. On the day of a shared-space conference in Bohmte, Franz Josef Breiner walked hesitantly on the main street's flat surface with his cane, assessing the ground. He is sight-impaired and cannot make eye contact with drivers: shared space robs him of the safety nets that were curbs and sidewalks. "In theory shared space is more human, but we're left out," Mr. Breiner says.

Although shared space "offers a chance to win back space for nonmotorized participants," skepticism also runs high because many people worry that the children and elderly will not be able to communicate with drivers.

Still, a 2008 study in Holland reported that shared space has reduced the number of accidents in sign-free areas.

Goedejohann, Bohmte's mayor, is confident. His town averaged 50 accidents last year. Since the shared space concept was enacted, there haven't been any, he says.

And other city governments are reacting. In Hamburg a new coalition of green and conservative politicians have pledged to design shared space streets in every neighborhood.

"My theory," Monderman said last fall at a new urbanism summit in London, "was if you want to make people behave in a village, maybe you have to make it feel like a village."