The cure for traffic chaos? Remove the signs, lines, lights.
It's the London you've always imagined. Black taxis and red double-decker buses jostle in thick traffic. Luxury cars purr at the lights. Motorbikes dart through the gaps while coaches and minibuses scramble for scarce parking slots.
All in all, it's hostile terrain for the lowly pedestrian, who is encouraged to avoid the street-level chaos on Exhibition Road by using a dingy underground walkway instead.
But all this could change under plans to bring a Dutch-inspired traffic revolution to London's Museumland neighborhood.
Annoyed at how their upscale neighborhood has been ruined by incessant traffic, local authorities are planning to unveil a radical solution Monday: remove the conventional insignia of the road - traffic lights, white lines, guardrails, sidewalks - and create a single "shared space" for everyone, motorized or not.
At first glance, the idea seems a little reckless. After all, it is only the presence of the crossing signals on Exhibition Road that seems to keep the bewildered, stray tourists from a nasty accident. And governments the world over have long since concluded that the safest way to avoid catastrophe on the roads is to segregate vehicles from pedestrians.
But the experience from Europe would suggest otherwise. The Netherlands in particular, has pioneered a completely new approach to traffic and public space.
And it's a method that is slowly starting to catch on elsewhere, in Denmark, Scandinavia, and now in Britain, which has already experimented over the past two years with various ways to come to grips with traffic jams. London, for instance, began in 2003 to charge motorists to enter the city center. And last year a new toll road was opened near Manchester.
The idea of "shared space" is to denude a street of most of its conventional markings and features and create a different urban landscape in which motorists and pedestrians are put on an equal footing, so to speak. Drivers start to behave in a very different way amid the new uncertainty, moving slowly, making eye contact with pedestrians, and becoming aware of much more than whether the lights have gone red. Or so the theory goes.
Evidence from Dutch towns is impressive. Safety records have improved, local officials report, and accidents, when they do happen are far less serious, because of the slow speeds.
Yet overall cross-town speeds are no slower than before, because intersections are far more fluid and snarl-ups are rare.
"We have fewer accidents and the accident which do happen are less severe," says Koop Kerkstra, a senior official in the northern Dutch town of Drachten. "We see a better flowing of traffic than when everything was regulated. With the new infrastructure, they can flow through Drachten in much less time."
Drachten is one of a half dozen northern Dutch towns experimenting with the new deregulated traffic system. But Mr. Kerkstra says it's not just about safety.
"What we find important is that we want to design the public space more as a meeting place where social activity is important," he says.
Several British cities and towns, from Ipswich in the east to Bath and Bristol in the west and Manchester in the north, are catching on, setting up pilot projects of their own, from small-scale "homezones" to more holistic "shared space" redesigns that encompass several blocks of town centers.
"People want their space back," says Daniel Moylan, deputy leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, the local government authority. "It really is now questionable as to whether the traditional approach to traffic is promoting road safety or not. People are genuinely sick of [cluttered] streets full of guardrails."
Early evidence from homezones highlights mixed success, however.
Many made-over zones are little more than the old road with speed bumps and a sign indicating "Pedestrian priority." There are plenty of drivers who will ignore both, as this correspondent discovered (almost ruinously) during a recent foray into a particularly hazardous homezone.
"The trouble with most homezones is that they are halfheartedly reconfigured," says Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a specialist in urban design and movement who has been involved in a number of shared space projects in Britain and continental Europe. "Signs have very little influence on human behavior; we pick up signals about behavior from the environment in much more complex ways."
Thus, he says, a driver will happily ignore a sign telling him to drive at 20 miles per hour, but will rapidly assimilate signals from a changed environment. If he drives onto a campsite for example or into a parking garage, he will kill his speed, start looking out for pedestrians and behave in a totally different fashion. This is the essence of what "shared space" is all about.
"Any driver who drives on a campsite will know how to behave," says Hamilton-Baillie. "You'll find cars and all sorts of activities mixing perfectly easily. There is no legislative framework, no signs to tell drivers how to behave. It's perfectly obvious. If someone does misbehave, then people feel empowered to tell him how to behave."