What happens when you remove all traffic signs? A German town finds out.

In a counterintuitive approach to reducing car accidents and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, a German town has nixed all traffic signs and traffic lights in the town center.

Isabelle de Pommereau
A ‘common street’ sign for all modes of transport in Nieder-Erlenbach, Germany, doing away with traffic signs and traffic lights. The town center is attempting to turn itself into a shared space where cars and pedestrians communicate by eye contact and hand signals.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

This unpretentious villagelike neighborhood in Frankfurt’s far-northern tip is known for the idyllic character of its old half-timber homes and its views of rolling hills.

Now it is a symbol of Germany’s effort to rescue its streets from the hegemony of cars and give more space to pedestrians and cyclists.

To prod drivers to better share the road, in February Nieder-Erlenbach got rid of all traffic signs and traffic lights in the town center. It also erased marked crosswalks, leaving only one sign that says “common street” and calling for a reduced speed of 30 km/h (18 m.p.h.). The only other rule: “Always give way to the person on the right.”

Thus Main Street turned into a “naked” square shared equally by bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trucks. With the change, Nieder-Erlenbach adopted a radical traffic-management philosophy gaining popularity in Europe. Pioneered by a Dutch engineer who thought towns were safer with fewer rules, “shared space” envisions open surfaces on which motorists and pedestrians can “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, the Dutch engineer who put in place more than 100 shared-space schemes in the Netherlands. Prodded by European Union funding for shared-space initiatives, seven European towns have launched shared-space initiatives, including Ostend in Belgium, Ipswich in England, and the small northern town of Bohme, Germany.

But in Nieder-Erlenbach, not everybody is enthused. With no indications as to where to park, drivers tend to park everywhere, stalling traffic. Ulrike Markus finds the lack of sidewalks unsettling. “Children don’t know where they feel secure anymore,” Ms. Markus says.

While it’s too early to assess the impact of the changes on traffic incidents, the no-traffic-sign rule is forcing everybody to behave more responsibly, most residents agree. Juarita Lascarro says that the changes have created a new atmosphere on the street. “We all have to be careful all the time.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.